One of the gifts of the Jewish calendar is that it keeps us in touch with the cycles of the moon. This Thursday and Friday, August 20 and 21, as the moon wanes away to nothing and then a tiny sliver of moon reappears and begins to grow again, we usher in the new month called Elul (Eh-lool). Among other things, this monthly cycle reminds us that as we go through difficult periods we should seek solace from knowing that just as the moon wanes and waxes so do our lives; better times will return.
The month of Elul begins a forty-day period that culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is the time of year set aside for introspection, evaluation of the previous year’s triumphs and failures, and an opportunity for repairing damage and committing to doing better in the coming year. Those words are quick to write, but the concept is difficult to act on. It takes humility and honesty to confront our failures.
Not believing in coincidence, I was blown away when I just “happened” to download a “random” book from my library, written by Mitch Albom, whose Tuesdays with Morrie was a best-seller a number of years back. This book, Finding Chika, chronicles the author and his wife’s experiences running an orphanage in Haiti after an earthquake devastated that area. The book focuses on one little girl, Chika, who came to live with them in the United States when she was diagnosed with a difficult and terminal illness. As they supported her through this traumatic period of her short life, they became her parents in every way other than legal adoption. As she became sicker and died, their hearts broke. Their misery was no less than it would have been had she been their natural child.
Mr. Albom writes the book through “discussions” with Chika after she died at the young age of seven. The whole book is a moving and inspiring refutation to those who think that goodness is extinct. However, the part that made me think of Elul and astounded me with its honesty and self-scrutiny had less to do with Chika and was, instead, a shockingly revealing self-evaluation by Mr. Albom.
In one of their after-death conversations, Chika asks her stand-in father why he and his wife did not have children of their own. His answer is brutal and includes sentences such as, “I have always warned you about being selfish, Chika, but that does not mean I was not selfish myself.” He explains that despite appreciating and loving the woman in his life, he delayed marriage to her. Then, despite not marrying until their late thirties, he resisted having children. There were so many more important things like enjoying time together and advancing careers. After waiting too long and finding that science cannot create life on demand, Mr. Albom grieves at sometimes finding his wife crying over their childlessness. Having a too-short window into the blessing of a child as the terminally ill Chika brings a unique love into their orbit, he writes, “To this day it pains me. There are many kinds of selfishness in this world, but the most selfish is hoarding time, because none of us know how much we have, and it is an affront to God to assume there will be more.”
I was almost embarrassed reading this section of the book as if I had voyeuristically peered into someone’s life. Writing those words acknowledging the loss caused by his selfishness is brave and even heroic. God does not always grant children to those who desperately want them, but, increasingly, our society promotes having and raising children as among the least important and fulfilling of activities. I wonder if the twenty or twenty-five-year-old Mitch would have been strong enough to overcome his own leanings and ignore the anti-marriage and anti-family cultural messages surrounding him if somehow he could have read the words he later penned.
There are many pieces of wisdom that we only understand long after we need to implement them. Few five-year-olds brush their teeth because they intellectually comprehend the value of dental hygiene. They do so because their parents inculcate a habit and supervise until they can be trusted to follow through on their own. It is the rare teenage driver who thanks his parents for a curfew, for not allowing him to drive his friends home late at night or for insisting that he pay for his own insurance. Years later, he might appreciate his parents’ foresight. And when religion and culture encourage you to marry and have children when you are young even if that precludes (pre-COVID) exciting trips abroad, acquiring expensive toys and devoting oneself single-mindedly to career advancement, you might not recognize the gift until years later.
I thank Mr. Albom for his searing honesty and for acknowledging the pain of not always being able to undo every mistake once we later recognize its impact. I hope that his words hit home for some young readers so that they do not find themselves following in his remorseful footsteps. And I appreciate his modeling for me the humility and proper frame of mind in which to usher in the period introduced by the arrival of Elul.
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