By the time you read this, my tears will have dried and the vise grip on my heart will have loosened just a tad. But for all my martial arts training, I’m notoriously soft in the center, so I know I will cry again and that squeeze will intermittently return, especially when I come home tonight after work and see my wife doing her best to keep her shit together.
This morning, I dropped off our son Noah, our first born, at Miami International Airport, where he’s by now flown off to Israel on a gap year program. This will be the longest time and farthest distance we’ve ever been apart.
Although we’ve been preparing for this for months – filling out applications, emailing for transcripts, driving here and there to be sure to have all the right documents, making lists, checking those lists over and over again, shopping, and raising as much funding as we could without souring relationships – these last days, spent together during the holidays, have been counting down like a giant kitchen timer has been incessantly ticking in the clouds above us measuring the last moments of our age of innocence with spaces of anxiety. The sense of each day passing, this day getting closer, has been overwhelming. The inevitability, of course, has been excruciatingly inescapable.
And absolutely necessary.
So it was on this Shabbos Bereshiet that I thought, after all the ushpizin have come and gone, I could invite one more guest to join us in giving Noah a legit Kiddush lunch, a Torah-laden discussion he can grasp a hold of and take with him. A literary feast of the mind, if you will. And so I invited good old Robert Frost, he of the heretofore unknown sefira emanation – after many levels of treacherous tzimtzum – of American Verse, to our table.
I opened our thick tome of Frost’s collected verse and prose to a well known piece published in 1923, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The poem is a favorite of mine to teach to 9th graders, but today I’m not teaching high schoolers (despite the fact that Chana is in 10th grade), but sharing with my family, who are listening to humor me, allowing me to expound on ideas poetical, theological, and spiritual because they love me and know I’m geeking out just for them, and mostly for Noah.
Before I get into this, I say, please pardon me and allow me to bring in a verse from a different Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.” I ask my wife and children if they remember this one. Not in any detailed way? Well, let me read you this part, then.
I flip some pages and come to another one I favor in the classroom. I summarize the poem a bit and then read:
“And both [roads] that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
I finish reading and look up.
Goodness, I still have them. They’re into it! It must be the danklicious beer I’m drinking (Bushka Stout out of Hollywood Brewing Co.), holding them under a spell of its delightful, deep, fig tree aroma.
I want to say, I say, that we’re at an auspicious moment. The core four are on the edge of great change. Noah is about to go off on a great adventure and take a path perhaps well traveled by others, but none here. And though this is a well worn path and you may trample upon it in muddy shoes, the path you forge will be your own. And, as Frost says, “way leads on to way.” There’s no turning back. We’ve no idea where this will lead. Only that the possibilities are boundless and that even when you do come back, you won’t be the same person. Because when way leads on to way, the experiences along the many possible ways will build a different you.
So there’s so much to love about this parsha, I say. But a couple of things stand out for me, especially the way we get into it. How on Simchas Torah yesterday we finished the last parsha and started the first one. There’s a sense that the end is tied into the beginning and the beginning is tied to the end. But each person will come to this from their own station along their own path and what they take from it will be their own revelation, their own chidush. From my perspective, and each of you can come to your own conclusions, I am looking at Noah sitting here for his last Shabbos at home for almost a year. The end of a stage. And how is this tied into the beginning of the next one? When we read about Moshe’s “great deeds” at the end of Devarim, Rashi points out that this refers to the breaking of the first tablets.
Noah, the first 18 years of your life are like those first tablets. Made to be broken. Now you set out to make the second tablets. The tablets of the baal teshuva, the indestructible tablets.
I look around the table. Eyebrows like question marks. Maybe the 9.4% alcohol in this pint is getting to me.
It’s like this, Noah. One stage of your life is ending, the next beginning by you breaking away from unfortunate expectations leveled on you for too long, breaking your old self to forge your own path with a new sense of purpose to take the path less taken – at least in this family – that leads to way leading on to way. You have to break to get stronger.
“Like bones,” Chana says. “They heal stronger after they break.”
“Like your heart,” my wife says. “Like that quote you like –“
“Yes,” I say, “from the Kotzker Rebbe!”
This is the most Torah we’ve discussed at our table without tension in ages. I gulp down some more beer. The thick stout enhances the warmth I’m feeling in my heart. I’m not sure I’ve made too much sense, but my wife’s smile urges me to continue.
Okay, so let’s move on to “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” I won’t bore you with how many ways one could expound upon this one. Let’s just focus on the last three verses: “So Eden sank to grief,/so dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay.”
Frost knew his Bible, I think. The whole poem is about the inevitability of change, of the seasons changing, of the end of youth, of growth, of blooming, of death. And he uses Eden here because he senses that Gd taught us from the beginning that this is supposed to be the way of life. Adam and Chava were never meant to stay in Gan Eden. They were supposed to fall. Dawn goes down as the sun rises and day after day happens because that is what’s natural, for time to move forward no matter our mutual ministrations or complaints. What was natural was for them to leave the garden and forge the path of man: to work to reach even higher realms, to make the whole world a gan. Nothing gold can stay because it’s not meant to. Youth doesn’t last. Life is not forever. It is in this way that we know life is purposeful, each stage has its purpose. And we determine that purpose for ourselves! Torah guides us, of course, but each of us can only be our own selves to fulfill our own unique purpose.
I realize my eyes are closed. I had shut them in the ecstasy of my own bloviations. But when I open them, everyone is smiling.
And now Noah is leaving behind one stage of life to another as dawn goes down to day. Like he’s supposed to.
“That’s pretty awesome, Dad,” Noah says. “I don’t know how accurate from a Torah perspective, but awesome nonetheless.”
“Really? Cool. Just thought I’d share some poetry and Torah together. Take us higher by pushing the envelope a little.”
“I liked it.”
“Great job, babe,” my wife says, and genuinely!
We bench and then each of us spends the rest of the afternoon reading and napping until Noah and I go to mincha.
Motzei Shabbos we have a packing party with ice cream and vacuum packed shirts. I slip away and see that someone has posted a poem I’ve never read by a poet I’ve never heard of, “Briefweg, In Warbende” by Yves Bonnefoy (translated by Hoyt Rogers):
What I’ve picked up is a letter—tossed
Yesterday into the grass, beside the path.
It has rained: the pages are stained with mud;
Ink overflows from the words, illegible.
And yet the iridescence of these signs,
Decomposed, now is almost light.
The downpour has drenched a promise;
The ink has become a puddle of sky.
Like this, let us love the words of the cloud:
They too were a letter, and our lure;
But light redeems them by passing through.
Shall I try to decipher these phrases? No:
They are more to me, by coming undone.
I dream that night is the breaking of day.
And I am crushed. Because this second to last verse, “They are more to me, by coming undone” is everything I’m feeling.
My dearest son, Noah. My peanut all growed up:
I want you to learn from everything, the books they give you, the teachings they share with you. From your new friends. From the halls you traipse, from the streets you gallivant. From the music of the accents, the bright sights, the multi-layered and bountiful scents.
I want you to breathe in the dust of the ancients, taste the electric pulse of the future, feel the push and pull of both in the now.
And still, I don’t want you to leave. I want to be grading papers and listening to you strum warm melodies through the wall between your room and my office. I want to cook dishes for you steeped in spices and herbs and love and joy. I want to say a l’chaim with you next week and the week after and on and on for every Shabbos into the future, trying new craft beers, eating guacamole, and sloughing the work week off our shoulders, out of our thoughts.
I’m happy I no longer have to drive you to school or pick you up—what a pain in the ass that was—but I’d do it again tomorrow, Christopher Paul Stelling’s Labor Against Waste on repeat for the hour long drive.
When I imagine you in Jerusalem my mind’s eye is blinded with the supernova sensation of not knowing what: What will you feel? What will bury itself deep in your heart and inspire you? What will you hold on to? What will you let go of?
And who: Who will guide you? Who will push you? Who will challenge you? Who will acquiesce? Who will submit? Who will champion you? Who will you lead? Who will you follow? Who will try to break you? Who will hurt you?
Will the sun stroke your forearm with goosebumps as it settles toward the horizon in a bloom of heretofore unseen colorscapes graphing the sky with a new map of your heart?
Will a bonfire on the beach of Netanya be the only light when a life-changing moment happens and we’ll never know about it?
Will you dig your toes into the sands of the Negev and realize your roots flow in every muscle and sinew of your body? And what of that realization? What will it determine?
Will the Clash play in your head the longer you’re there: Should you stay, should you go?
I’ve always wanted you to have adventure. Just as long as you came back in one piece. Or at least a couple of pieces that can be put back together in some semblance of healthy function and an achievable future of fulfilling your potential.
But then you grew up. And grew into a person with secrets. A private life. Friends I’ve never met. Divergent musical and literary tastes.
And a pulling away from the strictures of observance. Healthy doubt mixed with righteous anger produced a sense … Gah, enough of my bullshit. You’re just normal. You want to experience a different set of rules. A different definition of freedom.
You want to cut through the tall sawgrass and forge your own path.
While your mom does everything to help you prepare, I get stuck in nostalgia and regret for missed opportunities. While your mom is helping you pack right now, I procrastinate on social media instead of getting the work done I’d said I’d needed to get done.
I’m practicing the avoidance of dealing.
When you hug me now, it’s like a gumbo limbo tree giving it’s weight to my shoulder, squeezing my midsection like Treebeard squeezed the Hobbits.
I have every confidence in the world that you will mess up. Thank Gd.
Because I also have every confidence in the world that you will learn from that and grow stronger.
My son, Noah, you are more to me when you come undone. Because I know when you put yourself together, you will be ever stronger.
Go to Israel. Come undone. Put yourself together again. And then do it again. Don’t come back the same person we know now even though we love you as you are. Because we love you as you will be, too.
Come back when being undone is your everlasting state of being. Come back when knowing you don’t know is all that you know. Come back when the Holy Land has given herself to you without regret and you respect her every gesture and scar and mole and stretch mark with the deepest love you can fathom.
Go and live as way leads on to way. Because nothing gold can stay. Because that’s not how this thing works.