LETTER TO MY GRANDSON
Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5783
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. Happy Birthday, world! How old are you? 5783 years, give or take a few billion. That’s old, but I am told you are young, as planets go. You could live a few billion more years… if we don’t mess things up… and so we wish you many good millennia and eons, ahead.
But how about this? Today is also the birthday of my grandson. Happy Birthday, Adin. How old are you? Two! That’s not old, you are indeed very young, with your radiant smile and gleam in your eyes. And we wish you many good years, and decades, ahead.
So how am I to respond to the amazing coincidence that today is the birthday of the world and the birthday of my grandson? With a sermon of course. A Letter to My Grandson
. You might remember a few years back; eight to be exact, that I offered a series of sermons, Letter to my Children
. What a privilege and pleasure to now offer one to the son of my son.
I realize, Adin, that given your “developing” attention span I should be concluding my message just as I am getting started. And I realize you probably won’t read this… until your bar mitzvah. But here we go.
We love you, and being your grandparents is the best thing Savta (Debby) and Saba (me) can imagine right now.
But this is not a mushy kind of letter. It’s a serious one. Your Saba loves playing with you, and with your amazing assortment of toys. But your Saba is more serious than mushy, and after all, this is not a few words at your birthday party but a sermon on Rosh Hashanah!
One more personal word before the serious stuff, though. You were born two years ago today in the heart of the pandemic. Only immediate family could attend your brit here at Congregation Adas Emuno, and your parents rightfully insisted that we be tested and masked. It was before the vaccines and it was a dark and scary time. But you were such a burst of light. The celebration of new life. The celebration of being welcomed to our people. The celebration of hope⏤because the birth of every new child is a great act of hope, that you will add your light to the sum of light in the world. You remind us of those wonderful times when your father was a baby and toddler, before he was a teen, and the same for your aunt and uncle. You remind us of the wonder of growing up: first words and first steps, first smiles and first laughs, first cuddles and first hugs. You remind us of the enchantment of story time and the magic of the playground.
Hold on⏤I said I’m not going to be mushy… so here is the challenge: What message should I share with you today? What wisdom that will hold true when you read this⏤years from now? What insight that will help ground and guide you through the journey of life ahead?
As I thought about what brief teaching could encapsulate what I wanted to say, I realized it was very close to me. Actually… around my neck, on my tallit
. Inscribed on the atarah
, the collar of this tallit
, is my favorite saying from the Hebrew Bible. The timeless words of the prophet Micah, chapter 6, verse 8:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what God requires of you: Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Justice, kindness, humility. The big three. That is what I want to talk to you about today.
Adin, as you grow older, you will find that the world is often an unjust place. You will find that it is often an unkind place. Too often we are just resigned to what we see.
Yet our tradition, our Torah, teaches that every human being is unique and precious and holy; and that we are to, “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“For you were strangers.” We have been there. We know what it is like. We were oppressed. We were outcasts. We know the heart of the shunned and the exploited. We can more than sympathize; we can empathize because we, through our people, through our historical consciousness, lived through it.
I really loved having you at our seder this year, Adin, keeping it short and playing guitar, so you would be engaged, which you were. The whole point of the Passover seder, arguably Judaism’s most important ritual, is to reenact the experience of liberation from slavery. And what is the single most important line of the Haggdah?
B’cal dor hayav adam lirot et atmo k’ilu hu yatza m’mitzrayim.
In every generation each person must see himself as if he went out from Egypt.
. As if
. As you get older, Adin, use your imagination; your moral imagination. Put yourself in your ancestor’s shoes. Don’t forget your roots, your origins. They explain where you came from, where you are going, who you are, and what you can be.
“V’atem yadatem et nefesh hager
”, for you know the nefesh
, the soul
, the deepest feelings, of the stranger, “having been strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). Adin, may you always stand with the vulnerable. The voiceless. The forgotten and the defenseless.
Adin, you come from a family of readers. And since I know you will take after your Saba and Savta and love to read all kinds of books⏤read the Torah.
Because the best way to learn about kindness, besides following the example of kind people in your family, is to read wonderful stories of compassion. So read about the kindness of Abraham and Sarah opening their tent to strangers, and open your heart and home to others.
Read about the kindness of Rebecca giving water to the man by the well, and to his camels, and share of your bounty with all who hunger and thirst.
Read about the kindness of Joseph to his brothers, even after they were so unkind to him, and be a man of reconciliation and peace.
Read about the kindness of Ruth, who left her home and land, to care for her mother-in-law, and recognize that compassion is not weakness but strength.
While you’re reading those stories of kindness, consider the tales of justice as well.
Read about the justice of Abraham willing to question even God over the loss of innocent life, and be ready to challenge injustice anywhere you see it.
Read about the courage of the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, who defied Pharaoh’s decree, and be ready to stand up and stand out when few will do so.
Read about the justice of the prophet Nathan, who rebuked the great king David, and know that no one is above the law and we are all accountable.
Finally, read about the humility of Moses, the liberator and law-giver, yet called the humblest of men. The humble walk is the most challenging of journeys. Cultivate an “attitude of gratitude”. For if you stay thankful you will stay humble.
Adin, your Hebrew name Reuven, bears the name of your great grandfather Rudy, who rallied to celebrate at your father’s wedding, but did not live to see your birth. Do you want to know what it is to be a just and kind and humble man? Learn his story too.
There it is, Adin. Be just. Be kind. Be humble.
Let me say it in Hebrew, which I hope you will one day learn: asot mishpat, vahavat hesed, v’hatnea lechet im eloheicha
This tallit of mine, that was made for me by a weaver in my first congregation… I’ve worn it at every significant occasion for the last thirty-six years.
Someday it will be yours.
May you take its words to heart.
Happy birthday, and shanah tovah