Shana Tova, My Little One

I delivered this sermon on Rosh Hashanah morning, 5778. View a video of me delivering the sermon.

Hayom harat olam, today is the birthday of the world and soon, by the grace of God, Jenny and I will welcome a new member of our family.

To my little one,

If I’m reading this on the bima, it means that you have not yet arrived in this world. You are still safe and sound and everything you need is provided for you. I cannot wait to meet you, to see your face, hear your cry and laughter, to feed you, and to change your diaper. I am also excited to introduce you to some people who helped me through my early years: your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, and even the Lorax. My cup is overflowing with joy, hope, anxiety and fear. People ask me if I’m ready. How could I possibly be ready for the most important job of my life? I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m as ready as any other father-to-be who is about to take on the responsibility of a living, breathing human being. I am going to try my best. Sometimes I’m going to fail, and you will probably remind me over and over and over. I can promise you one thing. I will spend the rest of my life worrying about your safety and happiness, supporting you and smothering you with love.

Currently I’m trying my best to show your mother how much I love her. I am filled with admiration for her and how hard she works already as your mom, taking care of you and interacting with you in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine. It is true that if men carried children there would be far fewer people in this world. I fell in love with your mom because she is smart, compassionate, and beautiful. I chose to marry her because I know that you will embody those same characteristics. During every service and sermon I always make sure that I can see her so that she can empower me with her reassuring smile.

This year I’m looking at her differently. While I am here physically, on this bima right now, I can’t help but be distracted by the thought that you could come at any minute.  I am waiting for your mom to give me the “it’s time to go” sign.

When we heard your heartbeat for first time in the doctor’s office I knew that my life would never be the same. Every time that I put my hand on your mom’s belly and feel you kick, I am filled with a sense of awe, love, and profound vulnerability. When your mom told that me she was pregnant I cried tears of joy. I know that not everyone is able to have children and as a friend and a rabbi I discuss with people too often the pain of miscarriage or infertility. You are nothing short of a miracle.

Three weeks ago, for the first time, a wave of fear cascaded over me when I thought about the “what if’s” of your health. What if something is wrong when you are born? What if unforeseen illnesses afflict you? I wish that I could be certain that you will always be OK. I have to resign myself to the fact that I can’t. Even so, In preparation for the day you’ll arrive into this world your mom and I done everything that we possibly could. We attended Jewish Baby University, we read parenting and pregnancy books, and we have created a perfect haven for you in our home filled with brightly colored birds and elephants. I have obsessively checked the labels on each and every cleaning product, and researched the best baby laundry detergents because even now I want to protect you from anything that will ever hurt you.

I have learned over the course of the past 9 months that parenthood is as much about worrying as it is about kvelling. Your mother and I are quite aware that no matter how hard we plan your path from child to teenager to superstar soccer player to supreme court justice of the United States, we, like every other parent, cannot determine what your future holds. We pray that you are healthy and grow up to be a kind and generous person, surrounded by a kind and generous community.

Your first community, your mom and I, along with your grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins teachers, and friends will work hard to prepare you to enter the world as an adult. I hope you come to understand that you were born into a world of privilege. You do not have to worry about your next meal, clean water, where you will sleep each night, and if the heat or electricity will be shut off. Your mom and I will engage ourselves in your education and encourage you to always succeed. From an early age you will assume that you are going to college. I hope that you feel gratitude for what you have, that you never take any of it for granted and that you will choose to want to help others who are less fortunate that yourself.

The sooner you learn that you are a part of this world and not the center of this world, (though you’ll always be the center of my world) the sooner you can grow into the person who you are supposed to be. I give you this message not to discourage you, but to teach you that you the way in which you approach and react to life’s successes and challenges will ultimately determine your happiness. You will experience many achievements, and you will also experience failures that will seem crushing. You will one day mourn the loss of people you love. I cannot express my sadness when I think that you will never get to know your great grandparents. No one is immune from the challenges of life even as we work to celebrate the highest moments. Judaism teaches us to be grateful for what we have at any given moment, to learn from our struggles and emerge filled with hope for the future. You can create hope in your world and our community through acts of loving kindness.

The first way that you will spread kindness is through your smile. I cannot wait for to see you smile or hear you laugh at one of my dad jokes. My heart already melts when I watch our preschoolers joyfully dancing to “it’s a brand new day” as I lead Shabbat sing. I can’t imagine what your laughter will do to me. I look forward to the day that you start preschool and can dance along during Shabbat sing. This will mark the beginning of your educational journey.

You’ll learn so many incredible facts and stories throughout your life. You’ll learn about Albert Einstein and Susan B. Anthony, the Red Cross and the Peace Corps. Our world has seen and will see some wonderful people and can be a truly amazing place. But you’ll also learn about Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler, the KKK and ISIS – you will learn that our world is not yet perfect. Once you learn a new truth, your perception of the world will be forever changed.

The moment that Adam and Eve opened their eyes by eating the fruit of knowledge, they could never un-learn what they now knew, both the good and the bad. They learned about love and they also learned about pain and suffering. They learned that outside the garden of Eden, the world is not perfect. When we open our eyes to someone’s pain, when we see injustice and cruelty, we can never again not know that it exists. This means that we must act and help them. I want you to eat the fruit of knowledge even when what you learn is painful. I want you to be curious and engaged in our world, and I want you to spread kindness to every corner of your community.

Community is one of Judaism’s core values. Within Judaism, community serves to unite us based upon our shared values and history, a concept we call people hood. I chose to become a rabbi because of people hood. Judaism is not just a religion, or group of people that eats gefilte fish from a jar (don’t worry, you’ll love it as much as I do); we are a people. People hood means that we take care of others; it means that when you go to college you’ll instantly have others with whom you can share a bowl of matzo-ball soup. And it means that as the sun set at a recent wedding reception, I gathered ten people to say kaddish with a guest who had lost her father in the past month. Jews are always there to support and celebrate each other. The Talmud teaches us that no matter what, kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh – All of Israel is responsible for one another.

I learned about people hood and responsibility growing up at Jewish summer camp. Shabbat is always the highlight of camp, and when I was a child every Friday night after an incredible Shabbat song session and Israeli dancing, the entire camp would gather around an enormous bonfire and Rabbi Ron Klotz would tell a story that always ended with a message of kindness. It was always the highlight of my Shabbat, and what kind of a rabbi and father would I be if I didn’t share a parable in my letter to you.

The Kotzker Rebbe, taught that “During winter when it is cold, there are two things one can do. One can build a fire, or one can wrap oneself in a fur coat. In both cases, the person is warm. But when one builds a fire, all who gather round will also be warmed. With the fur coat, the only one who is warmed is the one who wears the coat.” It was said that the Kotzker Rebbe would refer to people as ‘fur coat tzaddiks’, righteous people who observed Jewish Law, but did not go out of their way to help others. I want to see more fire tzaddiks, those who embrace the prophetic call to raise our heads, see other people, and bring them into community. I pray that you bring warmth and light to others through your attempts to build a compassionate community.

In a perfect world, what Jews call Olam Haba, or the world to come, everyone would have a safe and warm place to sleep at night, everyone would have access to healthcare and everyone would go to sleep full of food and full of love. As your parents, we will work every day to ensure your basic needs. But our world is not yet perfect and we know that there are people who do not share our values of caring for others, opening our hearts and hands, and creating peace. Just like we get a taste of perfection, Olam Haba, on Shabbat, you will get a taste of perfection in our home. But even in our safest places we cannot forget that our world is not yet perfect.

On the door to your mom’s and my bedroom, you will notice that our mezuzah is filled with shards of glass. We collected the shards from the glass that I broke at our wedding. Every time I see the sparkling blue pieces, I think both about the incredible love I felt at that moment right before I kissed your mom, and I am also reminded that we must continue to confront the brokenness in our world.

Sometimes our world feels full of cold and darkness instead of warmth and light. I ask myself how I can bring you into a world where people feel so emboldened to denigrate other people because of their skin color, country of origin or religion. A world where celebration of communal compassion has been eclipsed by our trumpeting of individual autonomy. During an eclipse, just as we experienced last month, the moon hides the sun, light fades and the world grows colder. We must remember that eclipses are temporary, and even though we might feel discouraged or even scared we know that the light of kindness and compassion will burst through.

For the past year we have felt that light here at Temple Emanuel as we hosted dozens of homeless families as part of Family Promise. Hundreds of congregants have volunteered to make Temple a taste of Olam Haba by creating a safe and warm space here at the synagogue. We have served meals, helped with laundry, provided transportation and offered tutoring to the children. As a community, we embody the commandment to love our neighbor and the stranger in our midst. We helped spread hope.

I have hope that we will learn to take care of one another and never leave anyone behind. I have hope because soon after you are born we will officially bring you into the covenant of the Jewish people and give you a Hebrew name. During this ceremony. we will place you on the chair of Elijah the prophet. We place every newborn on the chair of Elijah because Elijah will one day return and announce that the Messiah has arrived, ushering in the promise of a perfect world, Olam Haba, a world filled with love. Some believe that perfection will come from God, but I believe that perfection will come from humanity. When we all work together and fulfill the prophetic vision of creating a just society, we will usher in a perfect world. We will place you on the chair of Elijah because you, my little one, have the potential to perfect our world.

I know that you are going to bring perfection to my world and I hope that you will bring perfection to all the corners of this earth. I will always do my best to take care of you and protect you. I will share with you my love for Judaism and the Jewish people. I will work to prepare to you be the same source of shalom, of wholeness, in our world that you will create in my heart. I love you, now and forever. May this new year be as sweet for you and our congregation as it will be for me and your mom. Shana tova u’mitukah.