Kol Nidre 5769, October 8, 2008
We will dedicate our prayers and learning this Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, in memory of my mother who died in November, and Owen Simon Gerson, Gay’s and my grandson, whose short but full life graced us for eight years.
We are commanded to put aside our mourning when a holiday comes. We are called to rejoin the community to celebrate. It is the living community as well as the eternal community that holds us in times of bitter loss. Every child gives us hope for the future, and Owen represented the essence of this season of beginnings and birth.
When I planned early this summer what we would be learning this High Holidays, I chose a midrash that looked at the four questions God will ask us at the end of our lives. It struck me as a rich imaginal exercise in evaluating our lives in this season where we are birthing a new being within ourselves.
Tonight ‘’ll address the last two questions. The third question asks, “Did you have children?” Although this is the first commandment in Genesis, to be fruitful and multiply, it is an odd question.
First of all, not everyone can have children. Surely the sages aren’t suggesting that each of us must have a child to achieve salvation. Furthermore, becoming parents doesn’t guarantee that we become better human beings.
Maybe the fourth question will help us to understand why the rabbis asked the third question. Question four asks, “Did you keep hope for the future?”
When we have children, we have a rooting interest in the future. We want to imagine a good world for our children, so we keep hope for the future. No one would have a child if they thought the world was doomed.
Keeping hope for the future is on everyone’s minds and hearts these days. For parents, their children are their reason to keep faith. Maybe that’s the reason having children is important: we live life differently when we care about the future.
When we revisit the two questions, we may understand more deeply their meaning. Keeping faith for the future only because we have a child is not good enough. We need a more generous view.
The last question guides us towards seeing that we are to look beyond our narrow boundaries of paternity and maternity to claim parenthood. The two questions put together suggest that children are not only their parents’ future, but the world’s future. Without healthy children, there is no hope for a better world.
The way we can all answer affirmatively as to whether we had children lies in how we understand what our relationship is to children with whom we share the world.
Once I was in a black church in the South Bronx where the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook was presiding. It was there that I saw how a congregation becomes a nurturing community of parents. There were about 200 hundred people in the big church where Rev. Cook took a little baby boy in her arms.
He was dressed in white with an orange batik sash across him. He was there to be named his African name. Sound familiar? The reverend walked into the middle of the congregation and held the baby out in front of her. “Whose baby is this?” she shouted. The congregation responded loudly and immediately, “Our baby!” “Who will care for this baby?” Rev. Cook asked. “We will!” they exclaimed.
While I love the theater of this ritual, we don’t need to look outside our practice to see a model of relationship between community and children.
Judaism sees every child as a potential messiah, the one who will make war memory, hunger forgotten, and a world where no one is afraid. When a Jewish child is born, it is more than the immediate family that rejoices. The entire community celebrates because children ensure the continuity of the people.
When a baby is named on the eighth day, we don’t wish for fame, riches, or worldly power. Instead we wish for her or him Torah, Chuppah, and Ma’asim Tovim. May this little one be guided by wisdom, enjoy the pleasure of romantic partnership, and enjoy doing good deeds.
Carl Sandburg wrote, “And a baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” At the naming, there is a chair set aside for Elijah, the messenger who will announce the messiah.
We celebrate on the eighth day with either a Brit Milah, a bris as we say in Yiddish, or a Simhat HaBat, a rejoicing of the daughter. The ritual tells us that something miraculous has occurred.
In Hebrew the word for miracle is nes, a sign. Something of transforming significance has happened, and the immediate family and community knows that life will never be the same. A new star has entered the constellation and may change the world.
Our presence at the baby’s entering the ancient promise of our people is our Hineni moment. The baby’s presence says, “I am here”, and we say to the newborn and its family, “I’m here, I’m part of your support team.”
When the baby is brought into the room where the community has assembled, we all stand up and bless the little one, “Baruch HaBa!.May your entering the community be blessed!”
We rise in joy and awe. Here is one who has recently come from a time and place beyond our memory, purely innocent, with no inherited sin, no blemish of transgression.
The baby, recently in another realm, most closely resembles the third Parent whom we all share. This person in Pampers contains the potentiality of the divine Image to help mend the world. The baby just may be the one for whom we’ve been waiting.
At this time of year, we read Torah portions that remind us of the pain of barrenness. Sarah and Abraham were in their nineties when they conceived. Hannah prays so fervently in the Temple that the High Priest thinks she is drunk. Their desperation for children is more than personal. Their offspring will be the promise that God’s word is true, that the Jewish people will live.
In the past, the community provided midwifery for the poor and financial help for a circumcision. Education was always free for all children. The community taught us of our responsibility to all children, and this sense of embracing more than our own flesh and blood connects us to spirit. Not my child alone will save us, but all our children.
The children of this generation will remember our relationship to them. How we behave towards them will guide them their connection to future generations. Being a parent requires selflessness, generosity, devotion, faith, patience, and empathy. If we behave this way with all children, we will be imitating God, the loving One who possesses thirteen attributes of kindness.
When a new parent looks at her newborn, she is overwhelmed by love and fear. She loves as she has never loved before. Suddenly she realizes how much she can lose. We put our dreams, hope and efforts into our children. They are our faith that life is good and that it should go on.
If God forbid, something happens to that child, we have not only suffered an unbearable loss. We lose our hope, our promise, and our future. We question our reason for being: a parent’s job is to keep a child safe.
Perhaps the best way back to life is to understand a new purpose for oneself. I know of a family that, after the death of their nine year-old son, adopted a seven year-old boy who had spent most of his life in foster care. One child does not replace another, yet rescuing a child has made the memory of their deceased son a blessing. They remind us that every child we care about preserves our hope.
We use metaphors to describe relationship with the mystery we call God. The great hiddush, innovation, of Judaism was to understand that not only did God create the world but that God cares like a parent for it and all that is in it. When we see ourselves as caretakers of all children, we are behaving in God.
It takes a village to raise a child, and we cannot keep hope for the future if we don’t help a new generation to have the wisdom and strength to face the challenges of the 21st Century.
We read at this time of year the 27th psalm that says, “Although my father and my mother may abandon me, You, O God, will take me in.” We as community are the promise that no child on earth will be abandoned. We cannot see God’s face but we can see one another. We are God’s face on earth.
A society is measured by how they treat their old and their young. As you can see by looking around the room, our community has only a few precious children. Our community has long wanted to help in the lives of children and their families here in Santa Fe. This year our social action chair, Consuelo Luz, has approached a couple of elementary schools about planting food gardens with the students.
For children who think that fruits and vegetables come from the supermarket, growing their own food will give them more intimacy with the earth and what it gives us. Our presence at the school will assure those that teach and learn that they are not alone.
HaMakom wants these children to succeed in their lives. We hope that planting a garden with them will teach them partnership, and we want to be their partners. If you’re interested in planting for the future, please see Consuelo after services to learn more about our program and to volunteer your talents.
There are many paths to heaven. The tradition gives us three wide highways: Torah, tefillah, and ma’asim tovim, study, prayer, and good deeds. Some of us melt at the ancient melodies of the prayers and scripture. We’re grateful for the elegance of language that speaks our hearts. Others squirm at all the words in a foreign language. A few of us can’t get enough wrestling the text to go deeper into its meaning. Some of us like the silence between the words best.
And for others, being a Jew means deed, not creed. Our prayers are followed by action: we say hamotzi and eat a piece of challah. Regardless of which path calls us most strongly, it is the practice of the three that will make us whole.
This year I invite you to examine your relationship to the young and to think about the last question you’ll be asked. Let it be a goad to lead you to find deeper meaning in your life by becoming a global parent. It’s a win win win. The children win, and world wins, and you win because you’ve kept faith for the future.
I chose the subjects I wanted to speak about during the High Holidays before tragedy struck our family. The loss of a child reveals how much he or she was our hope for the future, unconsciously part of our reason for getting up in the morning.
Since then, I see children differently, no longer as simply new beings on the planet. Now I see them with invisible threads flowing from them to each person who cares about them. I see the universe they have created by their lives.
I think of Owen and the threads that no longer hold on earth. To reconnect the thread that gave us faith for the future, he will always be my reminder that every child holds promise for the world.
May the New Year bring us hope for the future, and may we find it in our embrace of the children of this generation.