While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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When Fields Lie Fallow

This past Friday night, my congregation celebrated the Graduation of our 12th graders. Religious school Graduation is always a wonderfully inspiring Shabbat evening, and this year was no different. Except that last year, Jonah was there. Which means that this year at Mee Khamokha, I felt him playing Redemption Song. When the Torah came out, I felt him reading his verses. And when I blessed the class, I felt him standing right beside me.

Interestingly (though not surprisingly, because Jonah always loved to take the unexpected path), Jonah would not consent to read his Graduation Statement (summing up his Jewish journey thus far) or to even have it printed in the service. I have the only copy. Here’s a bit of what he had to say but wouldn’t:

Jonah and "the Dreskin kid's Dad" Bar Mitzvah, Confirmand and Graduate 2003, 2006 and 2008

Jonah and “the Dreskin kid’s Dad”
Bar Mitzvah, Confirmand and Graduate (2003, 2006 and 2008)

A lot of people these days don’t really understand what it’s like to grow up in a Jewish home. Lets just say, the Jew-to-other-people ratio in my house is very unbalanced. The long-term damage done to my sick little mind was helped along by middle school. I came to the conclusion that being Jewish was bad. And where I would normally spend my Friday nights at temple and learn diligently in religious school, I began to order and ingest ham sandwiches during lunch as my way of “sticking it to the man.” My Jewish identity returned to a positive state in my high school years when I met a guy named Scott. He was big, he was smiley, and he taught at Academy. One of the first things we did in his class was watch an Israeli movie. It was in Hebrew, and there were boobs. This guy knew how to win over a class of 9th grade boys. Judaism was improving. That summer, I attended the URJ Kutz Camp NFTY Leadership Academy. I think that was when I found the path I had long-since abandoned. It’s hard to find cool Jews these days, but I did it there. I also met my first Canadian. Two summers later, it was time to return to the URJ Kutz Camp NFTY Leadership Academy. Unfortunately, someone had torn down all the red buildings, replaced them with beige buildings, and changed the name to NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens. So I went there instead. I believe it was at that point that my Jewish identity came together: I am Jonah, and I am Jewish. That’s my identity. What else do I need? I’m no longer known as “the Rabbi’s son.” Rather, the Rabbi is now known as “that crazy Dreskin kid’s Dad.”

As with all three of my children, Jonah had to figure out for himself what part of being Jewish was foisted upon him by his rabbi-and-cantor-parents, and what he’d come to value and to love as his own. Kutz Camp, WoodSY, and NFTY-NAR meant the world to him. As did lighting Shabbat candles at our dinner table, begrudgingly accepting his parents’ Shabbat blessing and kiss, and even his work with the little ones in religious school. Flipping the definition he’d felt others had thrust upon him as “the Rabbi’s son” served as the most significant confirmation that he’d made Judaism his own. In the months since Jonah’s death, I’ve heard so many young people describe him as the person responsible for their comfort and successful integration into NFTY/Eisner/Kutz/WoodSY. I couldn’t be prouder to assume my new title, “that crazy Dreskin kid’s Dad.”

Addressing the graduates this past Friday, I told them about my words to last year’s class, in which I reflected on God’s promise of blessing (in parshat Behar) if we live by the mitzvot. I had asked Jonah’s class, “Blessing can’t possibly be granted all the time, even to the deserving, right?” My answer then was, “Yes and no. Life can hit us hard, and it will. But pain, even suffering, doesn’t necessarily end the blessing. It’s going to depend on how we look at it.”

Those of us who knew and loved Jonah wonder at the irony of last year’s message. This year, we’re asking, “When someone we love dies so young, where’s the blessing in that?” Perhaps it’s in the verses we’ve read from Behar for this Graduation – the commandment to leave land fallow every seventh year. This mitzvah comes with another promise from God – that if we take the year and we don’t farm our land, we won’t starve to death.

Sometimes life hits us hard … really hard. And the pain is so great, we may think we’ll never feel joy again. Our land lies fallow and we fear we may starve.

Jonah’s death reminds us that eventually, we all get hit. By disappointment, by failure … by loss. Some of the hits will be terrible. But they can’t be helped. We’re human. We’re vulnerable. We don’t get to suspend the laws of physics.

But we mustn’t let that stop us. Despite the worst life throws our way, the land will return to full bounty again someday. And during the times it lies fallow – those times we feel our deepest sadnesses – even then, there will be enough to eat. We won’t starve. Love and companionship, and life’s continuing beauty … will eventually get us through.

My son’s life has ended. My sadness is vast and penetrating. But as I watched this group of young, bright, eager and idealistic 18-year olds, I understood that the future is still a bright one. Blessings abound. And for those of us traveling in the valley of the shadow, the promise of blessing in our own lives has not disappeared. Even if it feels that way.

Life’s blessings will be tempered by loss, to be sure. But like Jonah’s eternally radiant (if not incorrigible) spirit, they will endure.

Billy

3 Responses to “When Fields Lie Fallow”

  • If thy children will keep my covenant and my testimony that I shall teach them, their children shall also sit upon thy throne for evermore. Psalm 132:12

    from a member of the FIRST Woodlands Community Temple twelfth grade graduating class!

    Andrew

  • I recently discovered your blog and have found it very moving. Jonah sounds like a wonderful son and person. I’m so sorry that he is gone.
    I wanted to let you know that I linked this post on the website that I have been curating in memory of my 23 year old son who was killed 3 years ago.
    http://www.scoop.it/t/grief-and-loss

    • Thank you for your kind note. I’m sorry to learn of your own son’s death. I wish you continued love and healing, as well as inspiration and lifted spirit from the precious memories you carry of Graham’s life.

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