When I was 16, I began to seek my own path and I wanted to carve my future. In my (hardly unique for a teenager) arrogant approach to this dilemma, I called my very, very busy dad who was typically immersed in his long work day. I asked him for a one-hour meeting with no telephones and no interruptions. He welcomed the prospect with enthusiasm and we set a date for the coming Saturday night.
Shabbat is a special time for us. The period from sundown on Friday to after dark on Saturday is when we put worldly concerns aside. Thus, Saturday night seemed like an opportune time to see my dad, after the Sabbath had ended, but before he was back to being a man of action, juggling his myriad activities or dreaming up new projects.
For those of you who do not know my dad, you may recall him as the face of the annual Chabad Telethon. He is the rabbi who never seems to run out of energy as he shouts aloud "tote" before the dancing rabbis break out in festive celebration as a fundraising total is announced. My father, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo E. Cunin, has passion, that special something we all yearn to discover in our own life. With his complete faith in G-d, he jumps over seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The Fifth Commandment tells us, "Honor your father and mother." I thank our Creator daily for my parents, may they live and be well. With our country's great tradition of Father's Day, I want to focus briefly on my dad, and what makes him special. For every child, young and beyond, even as an adult, his or her father is unique.
At home, growing up, we called my father "tatte," the affectionate Yiddish word for dad, and my sisters and brothers and I are still using and will always use that endearing word. As busy as he was, my father always found time to make each of his children feel his love.
My dad came with my mother to Los Angeles more than a generation ago. Then, in 1968, as a personal emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, my father had a mission to spread light. He would do this in the years, even decades, that would follow, with the help of G-d, and the inspiration of The Rebbe. He established the first drug rehab center of its kind, dozens of schools and more than 200 houses of prayer, peace and love throughout California and Nevada.
Even as a young boy who was looking for his own individuality, I had enormous respect for my dad. And so I thought about what I would say and how I would defend myself against his ever-probing questions. I assumed how he would respond to my seeming declaration of independence. Although raised in a very Orthodox Jewish home, and even with a closer relationship to my father than other boys might have, I still, as a teenage boy, considered, even convinced myself, that perhaps I knew it all.
My father's response to my grandiose dilemma of how I would reconcile the path chosen for me with the path I would choose for myself was a question, "So, Levi, what are your plans?" And how, after all the mutual anticipation, did I respond? I told him that I really did not know.
He gave me a bear hug and said simply, “I will be right behind you.”
This story of how he related to me continues to inspire me, and I seem to think about it all the time, and especially as each Father's Day approaches. I had raised his expectations, and my own, about this fateful meeting that would define who I was and where I was going. But when the time came, I was a mass of indecision and an unfocused kid reaching out. He was kind, accepting and truly empathetic. That is how he got through to me.
His inner sense of purpose, commitment and devotion to his mission in life, provided him, and still gives him, a resolve, a unique energy and confidence that he passes on to others. And that's what I remember from his simple, almost understated reaction that day, "I will be right behind you."
With just a few words, he said it all. He connected with me more profoundly than if he had lectured me. I hope all of you remember the connection to your dad, whether he lives or is gone. My dad is my teacher and what he has taught me, and continues to teach me, helps me be a better father.