When my daughter Katie was little, she and I had a very important conversation. She told me that when she was grown up, she would always live at home. Her plan was to move, with her husband and her children, into our basement. I told her I thought it was a fine idea. And if you think I said that if plans worked out otherwise, that’d be okay too, you’d be wrong.
I thought she’d make good on her promise. But two weeks ago, she packed up her car and moved to Columbus. Columbus! That’s in Ohio! Who lives in Ohio?!
Well, I did, until I was eighteen … but that’s beside the point.
Well, she did. And as reports have it, she’s pretty happy there.No, that is the point! After all I told her about growing up there – about how dangerous it is to have stores close before midnight, to not have security systems locking down homes, and to have fast food restaurants only every other block to nourish your family – how could she so flagrantly disregard my advice?!
But methinks there’s more going on than just an 11-hour drive and a new apartment. You see, I’ve known Katie Dreskin for a while now, and I see something in this young woman that encourages me to think the State of Ohio has just received an awfully nice gift. I’ll come back to that in a moment; I want to tell you about a second young person also embarking upon a life’s journey — his name was Joshua.
In this week’s Torah reading, Pinkhas, Moses is about to retire to the World-to-Come. God brings him up to the top of Avarim where he can view his greatest achievements: the Children of Israel, and the Land of Israel. Moses turns to God and says, “Nu? Who’s going to run things when I’m gone? You maybe remember the migraines I’ve gotten these forty years. You’d think maybe the desert air would have been good for them, but for some reason, I’m not complaining, maybe stress from my job, I kept getting them. I think You need to appoint a new shepherd for Your flock.”
That was my paraphrasing. No actual words of Torah were harmed in the quoting of that passage.
God chooses Joshua to be Moses’ successor. Impeccable resume. Came from a nice family. Looked good holding a staff.
As I watched Katie drive away, I found myself thinking about young Joshua. I thought I noticed a number of similarities between them. They’re both extremely well-liked and respected in their community. They’re both humble, not arrogant. And they’re both exceptionally good at what they do.
My teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, once wrote (“Choosing Leaders,” The Jewish Week, July 1999) “According to [Torah commentator] Tzvi Yisrael […] ‘Godliness is incubated in the hearts of others not by the fire of zealotry, but by kindly words based in reason and goodness.’ Leaders need to be principled, yet understanding, soft-spoken, kind and wise.”
Well, this certainly sets up a contrast with Pinkhas, who was also being considered for Moses’ spot. Pinkhas was a right-wing, xenophobic, militant demagogue. He would rather drive a spear through those who think differently than talk things through. While there’s no doubt about Pinkhas’ passion, God seems to looking for a leader who is not only firm in the Divine rightness of his convictions, but whose Godliness comes from reason and goodness.
Katie is an art educator. She just finished her training and is out there in Ohio looking for a job. She had her first on-site interview yesterday and here’s what I think.
All teachers have training. All teachers have experience. But not all teachers can do the job. And not all teachers can convey that they can do the job. I think that position is going to be offered to Katie. Why? Because, like Joshua, Katie is isha asher ruakh bah … “an inspired woman.” There is a spirit inside of her. She sees her students as works in progress, with her task being to help shape not merely their talents, but their souls, to help shape the ways that they build their future, using brushes and canvas and scissors and colored paper as her tools.
Like Joshua, Katie will have a community to lead, and I believe she’ll do it beautifully. I love that girl. I always have. These days, there’s something new to go along with the love. I’ve also come to admire her and respect her tremendously.
There is no one among us who isn’t responsible for setting young people on a path to satisfying living and community contribution. A young person may be our own flesh and blood. They may not be related to us but benefit from their time spent with us. Or they may be someone who only sees us from afar but for whom their mere observation of us brings learning and encouragement in how they live their life. We’ve got to live our lives knowing we’re being watched … that we’re teaching lessons all the time, and it’d be much better if we choose good ones to convey.
I don’t know how good a dad I’ve been. But if looking at my daughter, and the kind of adult she’s become, is any indication, I feel great.
Torah emphasizes that Joshua had a dad. His name was Nun. I’m sorry the Torah doesn’t give much credit to women, so how about we consider “Nun” to be both a mom and a dad. They raised quite a boy. Pinkhas, of course, had parents too. He was slightly better connected. He was Moses’ grand-nephew. That could be why God made the selection and not Moses.
Every kid has a parent or two, or two hundred. It may or may not take a village to raise them, but the village is definitely there, exerting influence all the time, and affecting how each child grows into adulthood. You and I are part of that village. I’m trying my best not to be the village idiot. It’s probably something we should all be doing.
Two weeks ago, I wrote the third installment of my Ethical Will for Katie. This is a project we start in the 10th grade where each parent writes a letter to their child, articulating the values they hope to bequeath to the next generation. I wrote Katie a second Ethical Will when she graduated from high school, and now a third one upon her leaving home. Among the passages I wrote for her is this one:
“Your move to Ohio, setting off to start your adult life in earnest (well, in Columbus), is filled with emotion for me. I’m just so excited and filled with hope and optimism for you. I don’t think your life will be perfect; no life is. But I do believe it will be great. I think your career is going to a fabulous one. A generation of young spirits will benefit from your guidance, and encouragement, and love. Their lives will be better because of the time spent in your classroom. I hope you will always feel that way, and that you will find the very best you have to share with them.”
It’s a little sad to be sending your child off to points unknown and, unlike summer camp, they’re not coming back except maybe for a visit. But it’s a terrific feeling that the person you’re sending is one you are proud to share with the world. It’s something one wants to see with all our children, the ones we’ve reared in our homes, and the ones we’ve helped to raise out in the village.
Like Joshua ben Nun and Katie bat Billy and Ellen, may they all become ish oh isha asher ruakh bo u’vah … may each one of them be forever inspired to make our world a home of prosperity and peace for all.