To My “Legal” Adult Child As You Graduate | Melanie Levav
Hey kid. I’m so proud of you. In anticipation of your high school graduation tomorrow, I have reflected on the past few years and want to share some of my thoughts with you. What shitty years it’s been, living through a pandemic during your teenage years, confined to connecting to your classmates and teachers via a screen for too many months, your mind almost crushed by loneliness and the isolation of being stuck indoors in the early months of the pandemic. Not playing baseball, your last summer at camp canceled, your beloved Broadway closed…all for fear of the unknown, as we worked to avoid the risk of death from illness in the days before a vaccine. I deeply appreciate your attempt to protect yourself and your high-risk family members from a virus that has now killed over a million people in this country.
I’m grateful that you were able to start venturing outside when you felt safer, tolerating the increase in family game nights around the dinner table instead of going to the movies, to balancing the risk of exposure with the rewards of a walk in the park with a friend, to test your comfort and ours once masks were no longer required. And oh how grateful I am that you finally found yourself in the local teen theater program, playing outdoors, in masks, with hand warmers in your gloves and toe warmers in your shoes, under a tent in the parking lot, for the taste of music on your lips and the freedom to dance in your hips.
This past year of catching up on lost time, trying new things, places, people, and ways of being in the world has made me feel like I’m witnessing your adolescence in fast-track. After this week, when you no longer have the security of caring high school teachers to make up for your falls, as you still find your way, figuring out what balance might look like, know that mommy and I will always be here. for you. Friend too, who admires you as only a younger brother does.
At your bar mitzvah, we blessed you with words from the Talmud adapted from Berachot 17a. Traditionally, the parents of a child reaching the age of mitzvot offer words of blessing to thank God for releasing us from the responsibilities we bear for the actions of our children. At the age of 13, according to Jewish law, you became responsible for your own actions. And we’ve continued that tradition in creative ways, like allowing you to make your own decisions about kashrut outside of our home during your teenage years.
Under US law, when you turned 18, we became exonerated from making health care decisions for you. And while you are still covered by my health insurance, I no longer have access to your online health records, only you have access. And when the doctor wants to talk about the side effects of a potential drug you might need, that conversation is with you now, not me. At some point, perhaps sooner than expected, you may need to make more serious decisions about your health care, the way you want to live, knowing that tomorrow is never guaranteed. So I bring this up on the eve of your graduation to help you recognize the responsibility you now have in this area of decision-making as an adult. We are, of course, available for consultation and, in fact, we are happy to help you make informed choices about your body and your quality of life.
And while we sometimes joke about the work I do as a rabbi to lighten the seriousness of the role I have chosen to help people tap into the wealth of Jewish wisdom to live well in the face of mortality, now that you’re 18, it’s time we talked about life and death in a new way that reflects your legal status as an adult. Having this conversation now is meant to help you face the realities of your own mortality, supported by the Jewish wisdom that guides our family. Before you leave for college this fall, we will have you sign a Health Care Power of Attorney, allowing me to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself. And in doing so, we need you to reflect and share with us your thoughts on what is most important to you. We’ll talk about things like power probes and fans, DNRs and DNIs. How do you rate the number of days you can have compared to the quality of life? Is it possible to imagine a balance between the two?
It’s not the type of graduation speech most families have, and yet the pandemic has shown us that sometimes we have to do things differently in order to recognize the gifts life can offer. It is these liminal moments, these in-between times, that are when we are most drawn to reflect on the questions of who we are and how we want to live. As you head into college, we want to make sure we equip you with the tools you need to succeed. Of course, money on your meal card, extra chargers for your phone, and the skills to do your own laundry are on the list. But what about making health care decisions? We must also give you these tools.
In high school, you developed an appreciation for the Talmud. In the tractate Shabbat, page 153a, Rabbi Eliezer teaches: “repent a day before your death”. His pupils wonder, of course, how is this possible, since we do not know the day of our death? From this we learn that we must live in such a way as to constantly engage in teshuva, understood as repentance, but as you know, more literally, as return. Returning to our core values, to the things that give meaning to our lives, to the relationships that uplift us, is perhaps what we can understand from the instruction of Rabbi Eliezer. As you step out of our house, I pray that you will live a life in which you constantly seek to return to what is most important to you, even though this may change depending on you grow and change.
You learned in Jewish school that the first words we speak when we wake up are words of gratitude – modeh ani, and the last words we say at night are a last declaration of faith before sleeping. And while the traditional Jewish liturgy may not always be the first and last word in your mind on a daily basis, you have created your own ritual to end each day. Just as you make a point of saying goodnight to us silently but audibly through our door before retiring to your bedroom long after we have gone to bed, creating a point of connection and offering an expression of hope, Likewise, Jewish wisdom offers us a way to connect and hope before we close our eyes, not knowing if and when we will open them next. During your final performances at Arts Night at school last week, beyond your impression of a resurrected Kurt Cobain in the rock band’s club performance, you so happily sang Shema with your minyan music, demonstrating how much joy you find in bringing your musical talents and your spiritual side together, in community. It is the words of the Shema that we sang on your bed with you when you were little that are the last thing Jewish wisdom prescribes before you go to sleep each night, offering a final statement of faith for the day, just in case. where tomorrow would never come. Knowing that you won’t be within earshot of us audibly saying goodbye once you’re away at college next year, even if you choose not to call or even text us all the days, perhaps thinking of Shema in your mind or chanting it to yourself will help mark the end of each day that you are privileged to see in this lifetime. And if it’s not meant to be, know that the work of making every day count, of doing what you can in service of your values, is what this life is all about.
With all my love and more,
Rabbi Melanie Levav is the founding executive director of the Shomer Collective, powered by Natan. Melanie is a Certified Chaplain, Licensed Social Worker and Rabbi with over two decades of leadership experience in American Jewry.