A Letter to Jonah – Rosh Hashanah Morning: 1 Tishrei 5777
On Rosh Hashanah Morning in the year 5732, a rabbi stood on the bimah of his synagogue and delivered a sermon describing his hopes and dreams for his 8- month old daughter. The sermon was called “A Letter To Rebecca.” Three years later, “A Letter to Elizabeth followed.” I always appreciated that these letters were part of our family’s history, and that one person’s particular milestone was brought to life on that bimah in a way that spoke to many… not only about parenthood, but also about the hope and renewal that all of our most joyful journeys bring. “You are a sign,” that rabbi said to his child on each of those mornings, “that God hasn’t given up on the world.”
And maybe, just maybe, God still hasn’t. On RH morning 5777, I step forward into this family tradition, and into a brand new year, with my hopes and dreams for my son.
Jonah, this letter is for you.
My sweet boy,The first thing I want to tell you is the thing I don’t have to tell you. It was a long road for the three of us to find each other and become a family. We waited for you and listened for you, even when it seemed that no one was hearing our call. Rosh Hashanah is unique in that it echoes the experience of all of us who have waited and listened, and who may be waiting still, to discern the call that will bring us someplace utterly new.
You have taught us so much already in your young life about what responding to that call means. Word that you were on your way first came to us in the form of a call in fact! A phone call on February 5, just before Shabbat. A baby due in San Antonio, Texas in early April. Would we? Was it really you? How could something that had taken so long suddenly be happening so fast?!
I promptly catapulted into the next phase of navigating a great change… the one affectionately known as dancing as fast as we can to avoid becoming more than we are! What had your dad and I been thinking?! We had no supplies in the house, and frankly didn’t even know what half of the things people swore we needed were! What about our marriage, which was and is such a source of comfort and support? All along we had shared great faith that raising a child, something we both dearly wanted, would only expand our joy. But what if it didn’t? What if the stress and the inevitable bickering I had heard about, and in some cases witnessed, among my friends and their partners during their years of raising young children got the better of us? Was this all a huge mistake? What if we never saw a first run movie again??!
These days I shake my head and marvel at my early dance of questions. But there was something real at the core of them. Think of the words we chanted earlier in our service, before the Amidah:
Am I awake?
Am I prepared?
Are you listening to my prayer?
Can you hear my voice?
Can you understand?
Am I awake?
Am I prepared?1
So maybe it wasn’t just about being ready to receive you with blankets and pacifiers, onesies and board books… wonderful and yes, necessary as those things have been. It was really about being awake in the deepest sense for our biggest transformation yet. It was about being strong yet tender enough to receive you. To paraphrase the words of writer Anne Patchett, saying yes would mean “beginning the second half of our lives, the one that would be lived with you.” 2
It sounds simplistic to say that our first look at your face quelled all those worries, but something like that did happen. New worries would come, but oh those first moments! The two of us taking you in together: expertly swaddled, eyes closed, with you guessed it… a full head of dark hair! And the most peaceful expression we had ever seen.
I held you for the first time… a tiny, vulnerable, yet tenacious new life. The hole in my heart, brought on by the seemingly endless cycle of cautious optimism followed by heartbreak and disappointment – all those years, I never knew that hole had come to be shaped exactly like you. Yet another wise Jewish writer for the ages, Shel Silverstein, gave us a story called The Missing Piece among other classics. Like that incomplete circle that travels far and wide in search of the piece that would make it complete, surprising discoveries would await us. Some would help us roll along happily, others would hurt. But for those moments, we three were whole.
We touched your cheeks and softly spoke the words that would be our beginning. “Hello, Jonah.”
Together, we would write a new chapter. We have learned from you that sometimes the story as we never imagined it is even better than the story as we always imagined it. The way we wanted it, the way we assumed would it would unfold for us. It took some time – a few hours at least (!) as we threw our luggage together and frenziedly called Judy to figure out a plan starting NOW (… you know Judy; she was one of the first people to hold you when you arrived home to B’nai Tikvah!) – to make peace with not being there for your birth. How I hoped – how strongly I held that image in my mind’s eye – that I would see you come into the world. And now? I do see you come into the world. Every day.
We are taught that as our people journeyed through the wilderness towards the land of Israel, in the ark that accompanied them were not only the tablets with God’s commandments inscribed, but also the broken tablets… the fragments left after Moses shattered them in anger when he beheld the Golden Calf and his people’s easy betrayal. Our rabbis liken this to how each of us carries broken shards from our past with us as we journey forward. Even today… a day we reach so mightily for hope and renewal. There are unrealized dreams and broken fragments on all our paths, and certainly on our path that led us to you. Your being here doesn’t change that, any more than our being there for you will shield you from what will be your own losses or unmet hopes. I can tell you though, that you make the broken pieces matter less somehow. You’re like a melody playing overthem, and the closer we listen the more our attention is brought to each note of clarity and redemption you bring us.
Together, we will listen for your song. Every time we sing you a lullaby that was sung to us… every time we read you a long cherished book from our own childhoods, we are making old words new. And that’s what we’re all doing here this Rosh Hashanah morning. That is the essence of teshuvah – of growth and return intertwined. We plumb these age old prayers and melodies for new understandings and personal significance. We rest in the sacredness of our community, knowing that we’ve all gotten it wrong in some way this past year. We stretch and we strive and emerge ready to sing a new song… to God, to each other, to ourselves. Each of these songs will have a broken piece in it somewhere… a line whose resolution is still to come.
So what does it mean, Jonah — to dream big and beautiful dreams for your child? For any of our children? For all of them. To borrow from the inimitable, dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman, “your every dream for the future beats in the heart of your child. It’s how we’re made… from generation to generation.” 3
I was leaning in the doorway with you in my arms and the Olympics on mute one summer night, and there over your head was Simone Biles – a name no one save a few had known before this summer, but we know it now! Watching her slice through the air – running, twirling, giving the phrase “poetry in motion” the meaning it’s supposed to have! Bringing a great dream to fruition. That doesn’t have to mean becoming a world class gymnast — though if it does, know that your dad and I will be the first ones to spot you, and will always be there to cheer you on! What I want more for you though is what one of my favorite writers said in an early novel: “to figure out what it is you hope for, and to have the courage to live inside that hope.”4
I wish authenticity for you – the courage to be exactly who you are in a culture that hasn’t made it any easier through the years. I wish you a soul filled with wonder, and a heart that stretches to take in the beauty of the world and the despair within it. And I wish you the ability to reshape your corner of this world, in your own way. Try not to doubt the dignity and significance of small gestures and acts of lovingkindness. Some of them only seem small. All of them matter.
I dream of encouraging you towards strength and self-awareness, because there will be disappointments, and some will leave scars. That’s so hard to believe now, as I witness your joy to be alive, your pleasure when being read to and held and lifted high in the air, your laser attention on the faces around you, and even on your hands the day that through careful study you realized you control them – they are yours! Your sheer enthusiasm for your own changes leaves me stunned and humbled. Most adults can’t do what you do. Each night when I put you to bed, I exult in all you have dreamed into being that day. Reaching and cooing, kicking and shouting and laughing. But a part of me aches too, knowing that you’ll never be exactly who you were the next morning, and the one after that and all the rest of your mornings to come. It’s no wonder that the gifted playwright Tony Kushner reflected that “the world only spins forward… (and) there’s a kind of painful progress… longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”6
You on the other hand, have no such ambivalence. Even when you roll in the wrong direction and end up too close for comfort to the bookshelf, though you howl in surprise, it never occurs to you to stop moving. That is faith. You’ll bump up against the hard parts of life, and it will hurt. May you always hold onto that faith in yourself, and move forward anyway. Keep dreaming ahead.
And what kind of a world do I dream you’ll move into?
One with more kindness, less divisiveness, fear. One that blesses you with the grounding of a community, which the three of us are so fortunate to have already within our remarkable B’nai Tikvah. There will always be tragedy, ignorance, apathy and worse. Just as surely as there will be jubilance, laughter and now that you’re here… better times. Because Jonah, there really are times that the forces of good and intelligence and justice win the day. May you feel yourself a part of that most of all.
On this Rosh Hashanah, I wish for you the world I wish for all our children, and for all of us: one that brims with renewal, one that lights the way for our own transformation.
Jonah, my baby… my dove. Do you know that even when I’m not holding you, I sway back and forth when I pray now, just as though you were in my arms? You really are a sign that God hasn’t given up on the world. Don’t you give up on it either.
Don’t any of you give up.
1 Noah Aronson
2 Anne Patchett, Truth & Beauty, p. 252.
3 Democratic National Convention, Thursday July 28, 2016.
4 Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, p. 299.
5 underlined words: Deepha Mehta, director of “Water.”
6 Tony Kushner, Angels in America, page # to come.