Dear Alexander Rubin Scolnic Dobin,
I’m reading you this letter on a special day, the day of your b’rit milah, your bris, your circumcision. Thank G-d, you won’t remember today, but I will. It’s the day when we gave you a name.
It’s the day when we brought you into the Covenant with G-d, the covenant our people have marked with every baby boy going back to the first baby boy, Isaac, son of Abraham. Since this is not an easy day for you, as I read you this letter, you may fall asleep. Don’t feel bad; people have been sleeping through my speaking for many years now. In your case, I’m only too happy to help your parents get you to sleep. So if they ever need a lullaby, they can read this to you, and I’m sure it will do the trick.
We are about to celebrate the High Holidays. In a few years, you’ll know that these days mark our new year, a time to think about the past and the future. For me, after seeing you, it is a very special new year. I don’t feel old; I feel younger than ever. Just as we all feel reborn and renewed on Rosh Hashanah, I feel reborn because of your birth and renewed through the sight of brand new life.
I’m not sure that I know what life is all about, but maybe, life is about itself. My father, your great-grandfather, is a wise rabbi, and he says that before anything else life is about the perpetuation of life. So maybe you are the answer to all of the questions.
So what is it that I want to say to you, first grandchild, first child of my first child? I want to say so many things. I want to tell you about the world you’ve just been born into, about your place in this world, about who you were, who you are, and who I hope you’ll become.
I’ll begin as you’ll begin, with faces. You already have some sense of your mother’s face and your father’s face. They are your world right now. They give you everything that you need. You know their voices. And in a way, faces and voices will be the story of the first part of your life. You will look at those faces and see love. And you will hear love in their voices.
But the whole world is not made up of loving, smiling faces and comforting, soft voices. So I’m going to give you the bad news and I’m going to tell you the truth and you’re not going to like it which is okay because I don’t like it either. There are bad people, evil people in this world. There are no monsters, no boogeymen, no wicked witches like the ones in your fairy tales, but there are people who act like monsters and are as scary as boogeymen and are as powerful as wicked witches. And your parents will protect you from them and you will be fine. And later, when you grow up, you will protect yourself from them.
Why are they this way? I don’t know. I cannot figure out why some people want to hurt other people. One guess is that they were hurt themselves and they’re taking it out on someone else. Maybe, but if someone hurt me the last thing in the world I would ever want to do would be to hurt someone else in the same way. So I don’t know why they want to hurt. But I do know that this world is full of problems because of these bad people and the fact that good people are forced to fight them. If we ever lose some battles against them, don’t be afraid, because we will win in the end.
How do I know that good people will win? Because G-d did not create this world so that it would destroy itself. G-d is on the side of truth and good. And you live in a country that fights for the good.
That brings me to two big subjects, G-d and your country.
When you’ll first think about G-d, you will see a face and maybe even hear a voice. And later you’ll ask why you can’t see G-d. Well, you can’t see love, right? You see expressions of your parents’ love, you see it in their faces and you hear it in their voices. But you can’t see love.
In the same way, you can’t see G-d, but you can see Him in His expressions, in the world, in the trees and the river and the sky and the sun. And you can hear His voice in the songs we sing and the prayers we say.
I’ll talk about your country next. You live in a great country at a great time in history. You were born at the right time in the right place. You have no idea how lucky you are to be born now and here. Doctors will give you shots and you will cry. You will hate to go the doctor. But those shots will stop you from getting the sicknesses that used to cause children terrible problems. If you had been born at a different time in another place, you might not have lived past your first week. We take so many things for granted, but I don’t want you to take anything for granted. I want you to know that you are a very lucky little boy to have been born into a family that can give you everything you need. Not all families can provide the care that we can, but we hope that in the not too distant future every baby born will have what you have and will be protected by good care as they grow up.
So you’re lucky in that way, but you’re also lucky to have been born in the twenty-first century in this country. You will hear people criticize this country’s leaders and argue over issues but the worst leader of our country is still a good person trying to do good things and the worst argument is between two sides trying to do what is right and best. Our country makes mistakes. But when you hear people say bad things about this nation, always know that America is a great country striving to be even greater. Not everyone has the same rights. Everyone, no matter whether they’re a boy or a girl, or have a different color skin, or have something that holds them back in some way from regular activity, everyone should have the same rights and opportunities. And this country is trying to make that so. We have a long way to go, but we’ve come a very long way. So love this country and show it: Respect the flag, pledge allegiance and sing the national anthem.
You have a special reason to appreciate this country. You are Jewish. Let me explain what that means. A long time ago, four thousand years ago, G-d saw that people were being cruel to each other. At an earlier point, G-d had flooded the world and destroyed all the bad people. He didn’t want to do that again, so His next plan was to take one person who would be a teacher to all of the other people and try to get them to be good. That man’s name was Abraham, and he was your great-great grandfather to the 160th great. G-d had a simple idea: People should be good to each other. They should not hurt each other. They should help each other.
G-d had another great revelation for Abraham. Before Abraham, people believed that there were many gods, and that those gods fought each other and that they couldn’t control the world anyway. The world, they thought, was controlled by the Fates, and it didn’t matter whether you were good or bad, the Fates decided what would happen to you and everything was decided by chance. Through Abraham, G-d revealed that there is one G-d and that He does care whether we are good or bad. If you believe in one G-d, you should be good, because that’s why He made you. So the two ideas, that people should be good to each other, and that G-d wants us to be good, go together. These ideas are the basis of our religion, Judaism. These ideas have changed the world. They changed the world somewhat, but not enough, not yet. People still aren’t good to each other.
Doesn’t seem so hard, does it? Everyone should have listened, right? But 4000 years later, Abraham’s great to the 160th generation grandchild, you live in a world that cannot grasp these simple rules. So we, the great-grandchildren of Abraham, still have a lot of work to do.
We Jewish people have a job, the job first done by Abraham. We were chosen to do a job and we choose to do that job, the way that your parents have jobs and the way you have a job, which right now is just to eat and sleep. We are not better than anyone else because we’re Jewish. But we’re certainly not worse than anyone else either. We have our jobs and they have theirs.
You’ll spend many years thinking about what job you’ll do, what you want to be when you grow up. You’ll play trucker and fireman and you’ll be many things in your imagination. Play all you want, but someday, when you decide for real, be somebody who does something for other people. Be a face that looks with goodness at other people and be a voice that says nice things to other people. That’s what being Jewish means.
And that’s why we’re Jewish, not just because we were born into a certain family but because it is who we are in our minds and hearts, not just Jewish by birth but by spirit. And that spirit inspires, us, breathes life into us, just as G-d, somehow, in the greatest miracle I’ve ever seen, whispered a soul into a new being inside my own baby’s stomach.
Judaism teaches us not to be satisfied with the world as it is, to constantly be pushing the program of Abraham.
Judaism teaches us to do what we’re supposed to do even when we don’t feel like it.
Judaism teaches us to tell the truth and to seek the truth. We’re open. We don’t say we know what we know and we are what we are and that’s it.
Judaism teaches us to keep trying to be better. Every day, we keep trying to be better and help others.
You’ll grow up with Judaism all around you. You’ll see the candles lit on Shabbat evening and you’ll love the light. Someday you’ll understand that our people have been lighting those candles and singing those blessings for thousands of years. Your parents are raising you the way they were raised by their parents who were raised the same way by their parents going back as far as anyone can see. When you stare wide-eyed at those candles, you are every Jewish baby who stared the same way, loving the light, feeling the love of your parents, blessing G-d, cherishing the special day we call the Sabbath.
Someday, maybe, when you’re much, much older and you read this letter, I won’t be around. I’m working very hard to be around for a long time, but you never know what’s going to be. So when that happens at some point, what you should know is that one of my greatest comforts was you, because you’re my way of knowing that I’m going on in this world. And I’ll be ok. Death is very scary because we don’t know that much about it and it separates people who love each other. You’ll have nights when you’ll lie there in bed being scared of what will happen. But what we call death, which sounds so terrible and final, is really another way of being: You know everything and you are with G-d. It’s fine, except the part that you can’t be with some of the people you love.
For many years, there was always a voice in the back of my head saying:
I know what I know
We come and we go
But now, that’s not the way it feels anymore. I knew my grandparents and now I know a grandchild. And I am part of a continuum, a flow, a river, and I’m standing here in the middle of the river and I’m not drowning, I can feel the water around me but I stand in my place and enjoy the flow.
You’ll get tired and bored of a certain game that people play, about how you have your mother’s this and your father’s that. We grown ups play that game because we desperately want to feel the connection to you, even if it’s just that you have your uncle’s lips.
But for all of those games, at some point you will look in a mirror and know that it’s your face, and that will be quite a moment. You will see yourself as a separate person. And if, as you grow up, you see your uncle’s lips or your father’s eyes or your mother’s hair staring back from the mirror, don’t think that makes you any the less your own person. Because no person is just him or herself; we are each a product of thousands of years of learning and teaching and trying to be sane in an insane world and trying to be good in a world that laughs at goodness.
And all of those people are in you. The past flows through you in a hundred channels. Not just the parts you can see in the mirror, and not just in these mysterious things we call genes.
You’re even more than all that.
You are all of their hopes.
All of those Jewish people, who were treated so badly but kept going, kept hoping, kept praying that the future would be better. And you are that future.
Day by day, you will learn about this world. I believe in an ancient idea that before you were born, an angel touched you right above the middle of your lip, making that little hollow, so that you would forget everything you knew and learn it for yourself as you grow.
I believe that learning is remembering, that as a human being and as a Jewish person you have thousands of years of memories. And that’s why we learn so well, because we are remembering.
And your identity, who you are at the core of your being, is shaped by your memories.
When you’ll hear the Shema, you will remember and when you’ll see the Shabbat candles or the Hanukkah candles or hear the Mah Nishtana or the Kol Nidre, something in your Jewish soul will remember and you will respond in emotional and spiritual ways.
But not yet. Right now, you should just lie there and eat and sleep and get ready for your life. You’ll need a lot of energy. You’ll be going through several stages very quickly. Before you know it, you’ll be cruising in the playpen. There are different stages in life. You’re in one stage and I’m in another. The trick is to enjoy each stage for what it is. I’m not jealous of your parents for getting to wake up every night and take care of you. Been there, done that. In fact, right now, I’m not jealous of anyone, because I got to see you. Enjoy each stage. Don’t rush.
I know that you agree: You just want to eat your pacifier. You just want someone to give you what you want when you want it.
And if you’re like some people, you’ll never get beyond this stage. You’ll smoke a cigarette instead of eating a rattle and you’ll demand that everyone give you what you want when you want it.
But I pray that you won’t be like that. I pray that you will be someone who cares about other people.
So enjoy yourself now, because I expect you to grow up into someone who gives to others. Eat that pacifier and scream your little heart out because it won’t be long before you’re going to have to give back.
So that’s my letter to you on the day when you become part of our covenant with G-d and right before your first High Holidays, little grandson. Love your parents, thank G-d, cherish your country, and know who you are.
You are the 160th generation great-grandchild of Abraham. He started a people and a religion that, for four thousand years, has, generation by generation, person by person, worked to make a better world.
Eat your pacifier now. Because very soon, boychick, it’s going to be your turn.