My father and both of my grandfathers were businessmen. That is to say, they owned and operated small businesses.
My father’s business was office supplies and furniture. My mother’s father was an independent plumber. My dad’s dad, good with his hands, worked in a number of businesses and eventually manufactured shower curtain rods.
None of their children followed them into their businesses.
My sister joined my dad’s business for a short time, but it was not her preferred destination. One aunt tended to the administrative end of the plumbing business, but she had no interest in pipes and sewage once it closed.
Everyone else went in completely different directions.
I know people in my generation – men, mostly – who were expected to follow their parents – fathers, mostly – into the family business.
Sometimes it was a liquor store, a car dealership or light manufacturing. Sometimes the business was a profession – medicine or law, for example.
And any number of the people who graduated from seminary within a year or two of me were themselves following their fathers into the family business.
The notion that we can choose our careers in life is relatively new.
Sure, there was some manner of choice before the rise of universities and trade unions, but if your family ran a farm, so did you. If your family traded textiles or imported spices or herded livestock, then you did, too.
Could I have lived my life laying pipe or selling file cabinets? Maybe yes and maybe no.
The grandfather I knew (the plumber) not only loved the work he did, but also managed to find practical applications of it outside of faucets and drains.
I have written elsewhere about the sukkah (booth) he designed and built for our holiday observances from galvanized pipe, but he was also an invaluable adviser when I decided I wanted a waterbed in the second-floor bedroom of a house I rented.
He calculated the weight of the thing by the dimensions I gave him over the phone and then suggested I put it on the first floor (I didn’t).
When I asked my father whether he would ever give up the business he devoted 35 years to, he said he had no particular affection for the products, but he loved being in business, bringing all sorts of separate parts together to form a working whole.
I would have been stuck in either job. I might have been good enough, but I always would have dreamed of something else.
I suspect my three kids, none of whom wanted to be a rabbi, feel the same way. The closest any of them has come is my middle daughter who went to college four blocks from where I was ordained – in a completely unrelated field.
Yet, here is the instruction in the Torah, directly from the Author, that determines the roles of Aaron’s sons.
Aaron went into the God business and the boys (four at this point) are apprenticed to lay out the sections of the offerings – heads, bodies, fat, etc. according to the plan in the very beginning of the Book of Leviticus.
Were they enamored of this special role that their father played and tickled to be high-priests-in-training? Or did they bear the presumption that their lives would be structured for them with resignation and a touch of resentment?
We have no way of knowing. And, frankly, asking the question may even be a little presumptuous in and of itself.
My late friend Corky thought he would enter his father’s business and, after college, spent some years laying out the sections of the offerings, so to speak. In the end, for many complicated reasons, it did not work out.
I learned only recently, decades after his unexpected death, that it was a devastating blow to his sense of direction in life. He could no sooner imagine himself not in his father’s business than I could imagine myself in my father’s business.
Here is one thing we do better than our biblical ancestors: mostly, we do not determine our children’s future for them by insisting that they follow in our footsteps.
Corky’s father and mine both encouraged their children to find their own calling. My siblings serve the Jewish community as professionals, as my dad and mom did as volunteers.
Corky’s brother is a doctor, as are two of my first cousins. And we have attorneys, academics, artists, administrators, animal caregivers and one cousin who seems to have been gifted with the entire generation’s ability to fix anything.
But nobody who went into the family business.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.