And the call went out from God to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, take him on a journey, out into the wilderness. It is time for some male bonding. Where you are going is now not important; the conversations you will have are crucial. V’ha’aleihu sham l’olah (Genesis 22:2). Bring him up there as a burnt offering.”
STOP! We need some clarification on just what God meant.
The Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey means to go up. Thus the word is usually read as olah meaning burnt offering, as in the smoke of the sacrifice goes up to God. But since there are no vowels in the Torah, you could translate that last word – Ayin-Lamed-Hey – not as olah meaning burnt offering, but as aliyah meaning spiritual uplift. Thus God might have meant, “Bring Isaac up for an aliyah, to the top of the mountain for spiritual inspiration. Teach your son about Me, the Holy One. Share with Isaac the unique responsibilities about being the patriarch of a large family. Guide him on how to balance the work and his marriage; how to make time for his children. Listen to his dreams; help alleviate his fears. Teach Isaac about love. Abraham,” God said, “Prepare your son Isaac to become a man.”
From all I have read and studied about this Torah portion, I believe with all my heart and mind that Abraham misunderstood God’s call. Abraham tried to sacrifice his son to pursue his own passions. Like so many parents, Abraham abdicated his responsibility to mentor his son into manhood. And as the Torah tells it, Isaac consequently became a weakened man, unable to manage his relationships, ill equipped to lead his people. And his father Abraham died without having Isaac by his side. Neither of them ever recovered from that missed opportunity.
We need not be like Abraham. We can and should take advantage of every opportunity to mentor young men on what it means to be a man, just as we need to mentor young women into adulthood. We seem to do a far better job mentoring young women these days.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops … but the kind of man the country turns out.” I believe we are at a crossroads in America, as so many boys grow up without a father, and so many fathers abdicate their responsibility to mentor their sons into manhood.
Twenty or thirty years ago, rabbis were giving sermons about expanding the opportunities for women in Jewish ritual and in synagogue leadership. We were speaking about breaking through the glass ceilings that kept women from full participation in Jewish life and the business world. Today, we find ourselves in a different place, needing to address men and their involvement in Jewish life and their children’s lives. In fact, our national Reform Jewish movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Greater Los Angeles Jewish Federation, share that concern, and are devoting substantial money and significant staff time to address the question: “What does it mean to be a Jewish man?” In fact, the Jewish Federation is sponsoring a Father-Son Retreat, It’s a Guy Thing, on December 2-4, 2011.
We all – those who have sons and those without – have a stake in the kind of men our communities raise up, because like women, they will grow up to teach in our universities, govern in our legislatures, and pull the triggers in our armies. Those of us who raise boys into men need to remember that there are things important and unique about the male mind and body that deserve to be cultivated. For those of us who mentor men – whether at work or at home, in the classroom, on ball teams or in art studios – we should consider wisely the kind of men we want to produce. Those who love men might remind those men and ourselves about the unique qualities that make a man “a good man.” Whether we are hiking with the boys or relaxing with a younger colleague, whether coaching on the ball field or helping with the homework, let us transform each encounter with a young man into a teachable moment. Or, if you are a rabbi, you might seek out a uniquely private moment for that deeply personal talk with your sons. Be like me and catch them when they least expect it, like during the middle of the sermon on Rosh Hashana morning.
Here’s my letter to my boys. Perhaps you will find meaning in it for your own mentoring conversations with your sons or grandsons, your nephews or sons-in-law, or with others for whom you feel a responsibility to help guide.
Dear Daniel and Noah,
I have been watching you closely, realizing how quickly you are growing up. I cannot believe how fast the time has flown by since you last were my little boys, kids who I could toss around the pool or wrestle with without worrying that someone (me) might get hurt. Then Daniel began to drive. Then Noah began to shave. Sooner than I will be ready, you will be on your own – living, learning, working, and loving.
I remember the day that Mom and I named each of you. You were so little, so cute, so vulnerable. We chose names which connected you to our family and our Jewish tradition. We picked names that reflected compassion, confidence, and strength. We aimed to teach each of you to be a mensch, a kindhearted, caring man. Yet ultimately we knew that you alone would determine the name by which you are known in the world.
Being a man is about character. Men, real men, know that manhood is not about size; it’s about quality. The quality of your character ultimately means more than the size of your portfolio. We Americans admire character – like the people who blow the whistle, and the FBI agent who pointed out deficiencies in the agency before 9/11. We admire people who risk life and liberty for a cause, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Oskar Schindler, and the 9/11 firefighters. But character is also born in a thousand bit parts that never get written up. What you choose to do when the clerk gives you the incorrect change. Whether you give up your seat on the bus for an older person. How calmly you react to someone who is being rude. The best index to a person’s character is (a) how you treat people who can’t do you any good, and (b) how you treat people who can’t fight back.
Judaism teaches that we all were born with a yetzer hatov, an inclination to do good. Insulate your soul for good by following that conscience. Because being a male may be a matter of birth, and being a man is a matter of age, but being a gentleman – a mensch, a good person – is a matter of choice. Strive always to be a gentleman.
Anthropologists suggest that because men cannot birth children, men strive instead to create things and conquer things – in business, in court, or with smart bombs and battleships. That drive in both men and woman is called the yetzer hara, the inclination toward chaos and egotism. The yetzer hara can easily overwhelm our yetzer hatov, the inclination to do good. Especially when we add testosterone into the mix.
How many times do we read about sport players who have temper tantrums on the court or who use steroids? Who can count the number of celebrities who break marriage vows with a string of affairs? In a culture that counsels us to be the best, the most powerful, wealthy, and hyper-sexed, we must empower our yetzer hatov, the inclination toward good, to set us straight. My sons, be honest, be thoughtful, and be monogamous. Treat women and other men as equals and never discriminate against people of a different background, religion, race, or orientation than your own.
Noah and Daniel, one day I hope you will bless Mom and me with many grandchildren. Kids are wonderful and frustrating, inspiring and exhausting. From the moment they are conceived, children become your blessing. Both parents, whether married or not, have the lifelong responsibility of helping to raise them. So be an involved dad or granddad. There will be no deadbeat dads in our family. And if you don’t have children, be involved in the mentoring of others. We all have responsibility for the next generation.
Your children will carry on your influence long after you are gone. Fathers can model for their kids how to be mensches. So be a positive Jewish role model for your children. Let them see you at your best – with your friends, with your family, in the Jewish community and within your career. Help them with homework, play with them in the park, and listen non-judgmentally to their problems. As a parent, you will – necessarily – develop new skills. I got to learn how to hit 250 baseballs in a row and how to throw a Frisbee forehand, because these activities make you happy, and give us time together. Do the same for your own kids.
Being a man is also about working. Many men get a lot of their self-esteem from their work. So seek out a career that you find meaningful. Jewish tradition takes seriously our behavior in our work. According to one tradition, when we die and arrive at the gates of heaven, the very first question we will be asked is Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly in your business? This question is not just about buying and selling. It’s about integrity. Did you act with honesty in your business relationships? Did you treat your co-workers and subordinates with respect? The question presupposes that we all harbor within the ability to cheat, lie and steal and that our business ethics will be tested every day. So resist the temptation to take advantage of people. Be someone in whom others can put their trust. Own up to your mistakes.
Remember that time in Palm Springs when we drove around for an hour looking for a restaurant? While men tend not to want to ask for directions, nevertheless seek help when you are confused, lost or in pain. And delve deeply beneath your anger to find the sadness hidden beneath. That will help you heal more quickly.
Remember that money is just a tool, not an end in itself. Money opens up opportunities but working around the clock will not quell the longings of your heart. Don’t fall into a lifestyle that makes you a slave to your work. Do spend time with your loved ones – including your siblings and especially your parents. Devote ample time to raise up your community and set aside plenty of money to give as tzedakah.
You two known that my friendships have nourished me throughout my life. A fifteenth century Talmudic scholar, Menorat ha-Maor, counseled: “…Invite [your friend] to your joyous occasions; … never give away his secrets; help him when he is in trouble; … overlook his shortcomings and forgive him promptly; criticize him when he has done wrong; do not deceive him; … and attend to his [family] if he dies.” On the TV show Scrubs, JD and Turk had a name for such cherished friendships. They call it guy love. What’s guy love? Do you remember that time five years ago when the water pipe burst, flooding our entire house? My friend Ron took the initiative to drive over to help us deal with the flood. My college roommate Jerome in New York City sent a check to ease the repair expenses. I never cashed Jerome’s check, but both of their acts of compassion remind me that “guy love” involves stepping up and helping out.
Being a man involves a relationship with your Jewish community. Next time you are in services, notice all the men and women who sit down, close their lips, and patiently wait for the service to end. Perhaps they don’t know the prayers, or don’t see their value, or don’t understand how to reconcile religion with science. If this is you, don’t just sit back. Speak up. Ask your rabbi to help you discover its meaning. Spirituality and religiosity are a lifelong journey that can nourish your soul when your heart is burdened, broken, or uplifted. And being a Jew means taking the risk that significant meaning may be hidden within our ancient rituals and modern teaching.
Now, about sex. Although television and movies suggest otherwise, in reality, sex is about so much more than the mechanics of where you put what. (We already had that talk.) Sex can be great, but it should be within a mature, loving relationship. Sex is also about intimacy and love, commitment and responsibility. Trust me, making love is so much better. (I think I just scarred my kids for life…) Regarding sex, try being counter-cultural and focus first on finding love.
I may not know everything about love, but I do know this: that the love I share with your mother is the most fulfilling, complex, nuanced and wonderful thing I have ever experienced in my life. Love is not always easy, but it has always been worth it. I hope you are so blessed. Because mature love will bring you strength, contentment, and wholeness. Yes, there will be heartbreak – we all experience it along the way. Know that time will help heal most wounds; and that therapy, exercise and prayer can assist the process.
What’s mature love? In our youth, we often fall for people who live up to a certain definition of outward beauty. But over time, as we try to get over the inevitable hurdles of life, we see that over the long term the partnerships that remain strong are characterized by trust, a mutuality of values, and the recognition that marriage takes much effort and time. So enter into love relationships with your eyes wide open. First get to know and love yourself. Then consider seriously the person’s character and values, concern for others, family, friends, education, and short and long-term goals. Don’t let your craving for acceptance lead you to simply choose the first option available.
Know that whomever you bring home – female or male, Jew or not – we will open our hearts to your choice of partner. In today’s world, the odds are just barely in your favor that any marriage you have will work out. (Of course, if it doesn’t, know that some of the most blessed relationships are second marriages.) I sincerely hope your marriage works out, and if so, that will be in part because you put as much effort into your marriage as you do to your work or your sports. How? Date your beloved well after you are married. Get dressed up; go out. Romance each other. That will be a lifetime gift you give to your partner and yourself, and, because it will help your relationship remain healthy, it will be a gift to your children also.
Daniel and Noah, I am your #1 fan. I am here to guide you, to support you, to nurture you, and to celebrate you. I am grateful for you each and everyday! I love and cherish you both dearly.
Friends, these are words I have shared with my boys as they move through their teens: ideas about values and responsibility, relationships and Jewish involvement. Abraham missed his chance to counsel his son on top of that mountain. Don’t make the same mistake. So today, reflect upon what it means to be a man and a woman. Then share your wisdom with your own kids or with the young men and women you mentor, and with the women and men you love or with whom you interact.
Why? Because our children need it.
Why? Because our world needs it.
Why? And because it is the High Holy Days, and we have the opportunity to change the directions of our lives and our world. L’shana Tova Tikatayvu.