Judaism has interesting traditions. Unlike most religions, we have many home-based rituals. So, many holidays are centered around family. Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders, meals in the Sukkah, Erev Yom Kippur dinner and Break-the-Fast. In today’s modern world, with family scattered all over the country, and sometimes around the world, even if we can’t physically be with family, we at least call, or Facetime, or Skype, to wish them a happy holiday.
On the other hand, Jewish holidays, especially the High Holy Days, can also magnify differences we have with other family members. We become more aware of how they have related to us during the past year, and how we related to them.
I would to share with you an e-mail written by a Jewish mother to her son, shortly after saying goodbye to him when she dropped him off at college. She was concerned that he had the tendency to be, shall we say “independent minded,”and hoped to give him something to hold on to, that would remind him of the importance of making good choices in his life.
An Ethical Will for the Jewish People
My Dearest Son,
It was hard for me to say goodbye to you this afternoon, knowing that I won’t be with you every day from now on. I know that starting college is a very exciting time in your life. It can open the doors to wonderful opportunities and I know you will take advantage of them. But it can also be a very scary time, going to a place that you do not know, without the guidance that you are used to. I am hoping, through this letter, to give you a foundation of how to live your life in a way that helps you to be productive, bring meaning to your life, and show you how you can personally make the world a better place. I am your only parent. It’s important that you listen to my advice.
The biggest challenge you may find is being around people who have different values than you do, who place having fun, especially at the expense of others, over doing what is right. I hope you can find the strength to follow your own heart, and not theirs. I know you are a good person in your heart. I know you can make the right choices.
Take time before you decide to spend time and hang out with just anyone. Not all friends are alike. The best friends are the ones who welcome you into their lives, who respect you and treat you as they would want to be treated, who go out of their way to help and be kind to others. Some, who claim to be your friends, may use you for their own purposes, dropping you as a friend when you not longer meet their needs. Please, do not follow those who are malicious, vengeful, and don’t care if they hurt anyone.
Work hard at school. Be diligent in your studies. But also find time to rest. Take time for yourself. You can be much more productive in the long run, if you set aside a certain time every week that you stop what you are doing, reflect on the week, and take pride in what you have accomplished, rather than complaining about everything. You always were good at kvetching. Look for the positive. Take time to be thankful.
Also find some time, away from your studies, to help others. Maybe you can volunteer your time at a homeless shelter. Or join an organization that fights for justice and human rights. Or you could tutor. Remember when you struggled so to learn math. You would be a great tutor because you remember what it was like when you had trouble in a subject at school.
Please listen to my advice! You haven’t always done so in the past, and you paid the consequences. I know, I know. I am a nudgy mother. But I can’t just leave you alone. I want you to be the best you can be. You do have a tendency to wander, to go astray, to follow others who don’t always give you the best advice, who don’t always get involved in the best activities. Who find value in physical possessions rather than personal ethics. I know that you call me a slave driver behind my back, to your friends. That now you feel like you have been set free. Don’t let it get to your head. Yes, I do demand a lot from you. But it is because I love you and want you to have a good and worthy life.
I know you will be very busy at college but I would love to hear from you three times a day. Just a quick text. I know that’s a lot, but that would be a good way to remind you of what is important. If that is too much, I am hoping that we can talk on the phone at least once a week.”
P.S. Oh, and don’t forget to go to Hillel for Yom Kippur. You do have a lot of sins to confess.
What do you think of this mom? Good? Caring? Looking out for the best interests of her son? Something we wished we would have said to our college bound children but didn’t have the guts to say? Or do you see her as meddling? Interfering? Demanding? Obnoxious? Should she just leave him alone and let him be?
We’ll talk more about this later, and put it in context, but for now, let’s continue with the story.
Her son graduated from college. He got a job, worked hard, and then met this woman, Connie, who had different ideas. She wanted to be out partying all night. She was into Satanism. She wanted him all to herself and distanced him from others who would try to influence him differently. Slowly the weekly phone calls to his mother changed to monthly, and then not at all. (He never did the texting three times a day.) After many months of not hearing from her son she did get one text message.“Heading to Las Vegas to marry Connie. ”She called him several times but he did not answer.
Eventually she heard his voice as he answered the call. He let out a huge sigh and said, “Hi mom,” in a frustrating voice. Before she had a chance to talk him out of it, to explain how he was headed down the wrong path, he said curtly, “Save your words, mom. I have made up my mind and you can’t change it. This is what I am going to do. Connie doesn’t demand so much from me, as you do. I need to get away from all your laws and rules. I am marrying her and I don’t care what you think. If you don’t like it, then don’t bother calling again. I don’t need you.”
His mother was heart broken. They didn’t talk for a very long time. The sadness turned to frustration and then to rage. The more she though about her son and all that she had done for him, the angrier she got. She became so furious that she decided it was time to confront him. She sat down and sent this e-mail.
My not so dearest Son,
That last phone call really hurt me. How can you treat me like that! I have given my all to take care of you and love you for the past 40 years. I provided for you, not only when you lived at home, but when you were away at school, and afterwards when you left your job because of that woman. I tried to teach you how to be a mensch. How to be the best person you could be. The rules were really not very hard to follow. They were not in Heaven that only angels could follow them. There were not rules that were too distant, and out of your reach. They were rules that you should have been able to take into your heart. But no! You didn’t listen to me. After all. I am just a mother. What should I know? Other people’s rules were less demanding. You just wanted to do your own thing without having to think. Instead of listening, you chased after friends who continually got you in trouble. I supported you and helped you when your so-called “friends” turned against you. You married someone who brought out the worst in you rather than the best. You are such a stiff-necked, stubborn, and defiant person. You knew what was right but chose not to follow your heart. You are a good, pure person but you are so easily influenced by the evil ones in the world.
I guess you acted like a dutiful son, at least for a while, calling me once a week. But that is not enough. Because each time you got off the phone, you continued with you horrible behavior. The point of the phone calls was to hopefully remind you of the person you could be. I tried to love you the best I could, but you rejected me. You don’t love me. I have given up. I will no longer be available to you. I will hide myself from you because you don’t appreciate what I have done for you. I decided that this house is no longer right for me and I am moving to a new place. I am not giving you my new address.
I still love you, and I will always be your mother, but I need to stop worrying about you because it does no good.
Again I ask you – What do you think of this mom? Good? Caring? Something we wished we would have said to our kids but didn’t have the guts to say? Meddling? Interfering? Demanding? Obnoxious?
Perhaps you can see it in a different light if I change the scenario a little. Did some of the phrases in the letter sound familiar? Did it remind you of other words you may have heard hear at Temple?
Substitute Moses for the Mother
The children of Israel for her son
Entering the land of Israel for college
The Torah for the first e-mail she wrote.
The three texts a day – the three sacrificial services
Connie for the Cannanites.
The second e-mail, words of the Prophets relaying how God felt after the Israelites continually disobeyed God and worshiped other gods.
So from this perspective, is God good, caring? Looking out for the best interests of the people? Or meddling, interfering, and demanding?
Is it different when it comes from God rather than from mom?
There is more to the story. Let’s continue.
They didn’t talk for another year. Then an e-mail appeared in the mother’s in-box from her son. She was about to go out of the house to head for Shul for Erev Rosh Hashanah Services. Should she open the e-mail? It would only bring her more aggravation. She left the house, e-mail unread. She couldn’t concentrate during services, so she left early, not until after the Rabbi’s sermon of course, and opened the e-mail.
I am no longer with Connie. She banished me from her house. I can’t believe how my life has turned out because of her. I am lonely and have no place to call home. My life is a wreck. Maybe we can talk again. I want to come back, to return to the person you have raised me to be. I am wandering aimlessly.
There is a stream near where I am now. I go by there and remember the days when we would walk along the stream that was in our backyard together. I sit by that stream now, and just weep and weep over what I have done with my life. I need your comforting arms. You accused me of not loving you. But I do love you with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my strength. I just lost track of that for a while. Please mom, hear my voice. I have sinned against you. Have compassion on me. I want this to be a good year for us. Be gracious and please answer me. I have little merit but I still need you and want your advice. I haven’t done all bad. I have listened to you sometimes. I do try to do good but haven’t always succeeded. Please forgive me. I know I have made promises and vows to you that I did not keep.
Before I was too cocky, too self-righteous to say I was doing anything wrong. Please help me to turn. Help me find forgiveness. I have wronged you, sometimes by choice, other times under the influence of others. Some times consciously. And some times unconsciously. Some you know about. Others were done behind your back, in secret. I have said hurtful words and thought hurtful things. I have disrespected you. I have slandered you. I have been dishonest with you. For all of these mom, forgive me, pardon me, let me make it up to you. Please do not be deaf to my pleas. I know now that I am not perfect. Here is my confession.
Can we fix this before it is too late, before the gates begin to close on our ability to repair all the damage that has been done? Don’t close the gates on me. Open them up so I can come home. Please!
Your loving son
So what did mom,… and God, reply?
My Dearest Son,
I will forgive you as you have asked. I will try to be slower to anger in the future. I am ready to forgive. Come home and I will comfort you. Let the new year be a good year for us.
No, this is not a true story, but a metaphor. But I would imagine it contains some truths, for some people. Last night, I spoke about a Jewish way of understanding life after death. This morning I talked about Jewish teachings for life before death. The V’ahavta prayer which we recite at every morning and evening service, tells us V’shinantam l’vanecha, to, “teach them diligently to your children.”“Them” – meaning the lessons from the Torah.
When Moses stood before the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses knew he could not go with them. So he gave them an Ethical Will, his last testament to what was important for them to hear from him. The e-mail that the mother wrote was like a Jewish Ethical Will. Writing such a will was a tradition that is no longer commonly practiced, but has great merit. It is a document you leave to your children, words rather than physical possessions. It is a way to pass on to your children what you have learned about life and what you believe is important. I wrote one for my children at different life cycle events in their lives.
The Torah was God’s Ethical Will to the Children of Israel. I encourage you to write one for your children and grandchildren. Hopefully you don’t have the relationship with your kids that this metaphorical mother had with her son, but if so, you can forgive, as God forgives, as she forgave.
Wishing you a happy, healthy, meaningful, and spiritual new year with a chance to forgive God, forgive others, and be forgiven yourself. L’shanah Tovah t’kateivu. May you be written in the book of Life. Amen.