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Stuck in the Middle With You: Lessons on Family, Care, and Hope©

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Rosh Hashanah 5784/2023

Rabbi David Baum


This summer, one of our children, Harrison, was diagnosed with a common, but very serious condition:

Middle Child Syndrome

Middle children often claim they are overlooked by parents because the oldest has the most responsibility or is the trailblazer while the youngest gets all the attention as the baby of the family.

Middle child syndrome benefits include self-reliance and independence, and the development of closer bonds with siblings.

Middle-child side effects include feeling like a forgotten child, developing an inferiority complex, and becoming fixated on everything being fair.

As of now, there is no cure for Middle Child Syndrome, but it can treated by giving the child more money and gifts than their siblings at least that’s what our middle son Harrison told us.

Now, my son was not really diagnosed with Middle Child Syndrome, but we did have a difficult summer. I want to begin by saying that I wish the story I’m about to tell wasn’t true, but it is.

My mother, Rachel, had been fighting a degenerative lung disease for years, and we reached a point when the only option was a lung transplant. For around six months, we took turns taking her to many tests just so she could get on the list. After six long months, she received word that she would get the transplant. I was at Camp Ramah at the time, serving as rabbi in residence, but I had a conference that I was supposed to go to on Sunday. I quickly changed my ticket to come home to be with her.

But, then our flights got canceled, then another, and then another. I made it home on Monday, Alissa and Layla on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday afternoon, we received a call from camp: your son has Covid, and he’s in the hospital because of low oxygen saturatio

“We need you to come up to get him.”

We had less than an hour to make a decision as there was only one flight left and only two open seats. We had just minutes to make a decision - would we both go or just one of us?

One’s immediate reaction would be to rush up to get our son, but what about my mother?

You might think, why would I even ask my mother this question? Isn’t the answer obvious?!? She would tell me to take care of my son!

But our tradition is not so clear. There are many laws on the subject of caring for our parents, but there really aren’t laws in our tradition that command the same for our children. And so here I was, caught between the two people: one my creator, the other my creation. To whom am I obligated to more?

I called her, and told her the situation: should I stay with you or go with him? Of course, my mother did not hesitate: go to your son.

The story I just told may sound unbelievable to many in this room, but, when you get to a certain point in your lives, when you have been created by someone, and then, if you’re blessed enough, you create someone else, and you become stuck in the middle.

The “sandwich generation” is a relatively new term that now represents a quarter of our country and more than half of people in their 40s. It speaks to the 35 - 55-year-olds who are ‘sandwiched’ between caring about the needs of their children, the generation that will follow them, while at the same time caring for their parents, the generation that preceded them.

But the irony of this new ‘generation’ is that it was created because of positive advances in both science and how we raise families. We are living longer than we used to. Today, parents, especially fathers, are much more active in their children’s lives. Fathers carpool, take kids to practices, coach games, help with homework, and, yes, even cook dinner. In today’s world, it is rare to find a single-income household.

Nevertheless, we are stuck in the middle; simultaneously pulled in many directions by the competing and compelling claims of child-rearing, satisfying spouses, managing careers, building homes, and not to mention, our own social lives. These factors can lead us to a life of guilt and frustration when caring for the needs of an aging parent enters the mix.

Eating a sandwich is great. Being the sandwich is not.

So what can we do about being constantly stuck in the middle?

I’d like to look at how our ancestors handled similar situations in their lives, especially, what we can learn from Abraham and his relationship with his sons, Isaac and Ishmael.

I have to admit, that in my earlier years as a rabbi, I listened to the advice of my mentors - if someone asks you to speak or teach, do it, never turn an opportunity down. And so I did - and I went to many conferences, I built a name for myself, but I missed moments in their lives. Of course, I said, I’ll have plenty of time to make it up later.

Here’s the problem, and this is a very simple idea: that moment will never exist again.

One of my favorite movies growing up was called Hook which answers the question, what happened if Peter Pan actually grew up? In the movie, Peter Pan leaves Never-Never Land to join the real world. He ages, then he marries and has two children. He achieves success in the business world, trading his tights for an expensive Italian suit. As a grown man, he forgets that he was once Peter Pan, the boy who went on adventures and flew through the sky unfettered, and who would never forget what it was like to be a kid. He devotes his entire life to work, and to providing for his family. He carries his cell phone in a holster on his belt and even has a competition with a co-worker on how fast he can pick up the phone when it rings no matter where he is or what he’s doing.

One day, Peter’s son was playing in a baseball game, and his son made the now middle-aged Peter Panning (I know, not a very clever alias) promise to go to his game. But on his way out of work, something came up; a big-time client needed him, and he wanted to be the one to save the day. So how can he be in both places at once?

He sent a young intern to the game with a camcorder. The young stranger sits next to Peter’s wife at the game, and asks her: “Which one is your son and what’s his name?” He then takes out a state of the camcorder, starts recording, and starts cheering him on.

Meanwhile, Peter is once again the hero at work, and all is well again. Finally, he can leave the office. He proudly puts his baseball cap on and heads to the field. He parks, he rushes to the baseball diamond which is just over a hill, and when he reaches the top of the summit he sees…nothing. The field is empty; the game was over hours ago. Sure, he can watch the video of it, but what the replay will not show is how his son looked for his father to show up. Watching his son’s game on a screen will not make up for that moment missed.

We live in a time when moving fast is the norm. With every new technology we invent, we actually make our lives busier because now we can do more with our time! The problem is, doing more with our time means being more busy, consuming more, rather than savoring our moments.

Here’s something fascinating about the post-Akeidah relationship between Abraham and his sons: they never speak again. The next time that Isaac and Ishmael see their father is at his burial.

I believe that one of the lessons of the Akeidah story is that in the attempt to sacrifice for our children with our hard work and time to provide for them physically, we cannot sacrifice our time with our children and deprive them of what they deserve emotionally.

Additionally, we also have to think about our habits of wanting everything right away from others in our work lives. When we make those demands on others, someone else usually pays, and those people are usually a family at home. I think back to that client who demanded that Peter Panning work on his issue now. He might have saved money, he might have made money, but Peter’s son paid for it, and so did Peter.

When I speak to families who lose patriarchs who lived until their mid to late 90’s, they almost always say the same thing about their fathers: he worked seven days a week to provide for us. We rarely went on vacations, and he didn’t spend a lot of time with us, but we cherished the small amount of time we had. He showed his love to us by providing for us. Of course, that is true, but I wonder what would choose if they had the opportunity: to have fewer things from their father, but more time with their father.

Now, if I am making you feel guilt-ridden and horrible for going on that business trip, or taking that call during your kid's school play, don’t. The lesson of savoring our moments is something we can always do, and it’s almost never too late.

We must savor the time, because those moments can never be lived again.

One of our congregants, Dara Salama, once said something interesting about savoring the time we have with our children. We both have two sons who share many similarities, but her boys are all grown up. We were at shul one day, and I had to change one son’s diaper, while the other was tugging on my shirt for a snack, and then both started fighting. It was a true Isaac and Ishmael moment and I was at my wit's end! I confessed to her: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I can’t wait until they get older and can do things for themselves. Dara, what’s the best phase that I should look forward to?!?”

She said something quite wise: “Rabbi, I’ve learned to appreciate every phase they are in. Every phase is the best phase.”

She taught me to savor every phase because it will never happen again.

At the beginning, I told you about our mini-vacation to Atlanta to care for Avi in the hospital. Let’s just say, jumping on a plane to Atlanta, waiting in a hospital, and spending days in a hotel with masks on was not on our 2023 Bingo board. But, in the end, we spent time together with our son, we had fun some fun outings, and we worked through some things together on the long car rides. I wish we didn’t have those experiences, but we don’t get to choose our moments, we can only make the best of them.

Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. Many of us think of Yom Kippur as the day of remembrance because of Yizkor. This day of remembrance is different though. On this day, the Zichron is to pay attention so you will have a memory. The shofar is a wake-up call - be present in this moment. We may hear another Tekiah, Shevarim or Terurah, but it won’t be exactly the same. Someone else may be sounding the shofar, or if it is the same person, they may be a year older. The sound of this shofar is truly unique - it will never sound like this ever again, even though we think it will.

Time is the only non-renewable resource we have. We cannot prevent time from passing, nor can we go back in time, but we can be present in time, we can savor. Savoring is a choice, it is a behavior, and it is a skill that we can learn.

So do yourselves a favor - close your eyes, listen, and pay attention to the life around you, especially the people around you. I will send you all tips on how to be more mindful, to truly savor time. Take this new year as an opportunity to return to yourself and your family.

Be present, as much as you can, because those sounds will never be heard again. Savor them.

The Heaviest Mitzvah

I have seen myself through Abraham’s eyes, and as a child, I saw myself through a young Isaac’s eyes, but now, the story unfolds in a different way for me. What does it feel like to be Isaac caring for aging parents?

Although our Sages cautioned us to put more weight on some mitzvoth than others, there is at least one mitzvah that most agreed was the most important one, and also the heaviest one: Kaved Et Avicha V’et Immecha, honor your father and mother, found in the Ten Commandments. The word for honor in Hebrew is Kaved, which also means something else: heavy. The heaviness suggests we must "give weight to" our parents, to "regard [them] as of high value or worth."

Sometimes, our parents can be heavy. In their most difficult moments, many adult children confess that their parent's health struggles are weighing them down.

I remember when my grandfather was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in the late 90’s. My parents spent time with him, having him live with us until his condition worsened, then setting him up in his own apartment with a full-time aide when we could no longer take care of him. My mother, a full-time worker and mother of three, avoided putting him in a nursing home at all costs. It was one thing to honor my grandfather, a survivor of Auschwitz, who eventually became a factory foreman in Poland, who was able to bring his family from Communist Poland to America, who worked hard his entire life, who had a smile and a personality that could light up a room. It was entirely another thing to honor him when he became a shell of the person he once was. When he forgot who his children were.

Now that’s heavy.

There is a moment when we realize that shift when we are no longer being carried by our parents, but carrying them. My mother was a fiercely independent woman who did almost everything for herself and for others. She worked long hours, commuted long distances, and also provided a loving home not just for our immediate family, but for our extended family. Every year, she would have around 50 people over for Pesach and she would cook almost everything.

The hardest thing for her to learn was that she could no longer carry the load she once held, that she cherished so deeply.

We learn in the Babylonian Talmud, (Berachot 8b) R. Yehoshua b. Levi said to his children: Be careful to respect an old person who has forgotten what he has learned through no fault of his own, but due to illness or the pressures of earning a livelihood, because it has been taught: Both the whole tablets and the broken pieces of the original tablets were placed in the Ark. That teaches us that the broken parts are just as important as the whole parts, even when it is hard for us to see the beauty in the broken parts.

I realized one moment when things shifted for us and our relationship. My mother let me drive her only once or twice for my entire life until the last year. The last time was when I was 16, and she thought I was a terrible driver.

But, in her last year, she gave me a gift. From January until May, she had to go down to a Miami hospital for rigorous testing to receive a lung transplant. The testing began early in the morning, so she would have to leave her house at 4:30 am. My father couldn’t take her alone. She had to be in a wheelchair and carry an oxygen tank with her.

So my siblings and I took turns taking her down. Thankfully, the leadership of CSK allowed me to have that time. I would pick her up when it was still dark. She would be in her wheelchair, and I would pack her up and put her in the passenger seat. As I sat in the driver’s seat and looked at her, I realized that the last time she let me do this I had a full head of hair and I couldn’t grow a beard.

On Rosh Hashanah, we invoke the idea of Malchuyot, kingship. When we think of kings and queens, we think of people bowing to them, but a true king or queen serves others. A true king and queen carries the burden for their people. As the saying goes, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

But that heaviness can be a gift because the greatest burden to carry is none at all. I am grateful that my mother allowed me to drive her down and hold her during those challenging moments. It was one of the greatest honors of my life.

This was the hardest and heaviest time in my life, and yet, I cherish these months. There is a saying, grief is the greatest teacher. I don’t know about that, but I think the difficult times in our lives can be teachers. We can learn who we truly are and what we stand for during these times.

Caring for aging parents can indeed be a heavy mitzvah, but it is also an opportunity to show love, compassion, and gratitude for all they have done for us. Let us honor our parents not only by respecting their wisdom but also by being there for them in their times of need.

Middle Child Syndrome may not be a real diagnosis, but it serves as a reminder that we all have unique roles and responsibilities within our families and communities.

We become the "sandwich generation," caring for both our aging parents and our children while juggling careers and personal lives. This balancing act can feel overwhelming, but in our fast-paced world, it's essential to savor every moment with our loved ones.

The story of the grown-up Peter Pan who forgot what it was like to be a kid reminds us not to let work and distractions steal these precious moments away with our children. Be present, for time is the only non-renewable resource we have.

It’s not always easy to honor our parents, but it's during the difficult moments that God calls on us to carry them with love and compassion. Just as the broken pieces of the tablets were placed in the Ark, the broken moments in our relationships with our parents are just as important as the whole ones.

As I reflect on these last fourteen years as a parent, and forty-three years as a son to my mother, through all the ‘oys and joys’, I can’t help but feel so grateful to be stuck in the middle. As difficult as it can be to be stuck in the middle, I am grateful that I am because it means that I have people to love and people who love and depend on me.

As we navigate the challenges of life's middle place, may we find strength, patience, and wisdom to nurture our children, honor our parents, and cherish every moment with our families, friends, and community. In doing so, we bring light to the world and create a legacy of love and care that will endure for generations to come.

Shana Tova, and may this new year be filled with blessings and opportunities to savor the moments that truly matter.

For Further Discussion...Click below for a source sheet based on the sermon

Stuck In the Middle With You Source Sheet
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