There is so much I want to tell you and to remind you about, including things I have said before. About what it means to be a man. Some of this is relevant today; some you should can file away for the future.
Watching You Grow Up
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 you began to drive. Then you 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.
Be a Gentleman
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.
About Being a Father
My son, 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.
Be Honest in Your Work
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 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 (charitable donations).
Its Guy-Love: Friendships to Sustain You
You 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 sent a check to ease the repair expenses. I never cashed that check, but both of their acts of compassion remind me that “guy love” involves stepping up and helping out.
Being Involved in Your Jewish Community
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.
Sex and Love
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 hope I didn’t just scar you 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.
My son, 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 dearly.