One morning Bob arrives at the airport in Minneapolis to fly to New York. While he is sitting, waiting for his flight, he noticed a lady sitting nearby and she was weeping. Being a compassionate person, he goes over and begins to talk with her, asking her if anything was wrong.
She says, “My son, John, moved to New York City some time ago and I haven’t heard anything from him since he left. He has never called or written or anything. I come here to sit from time to time because he left from this gate and this was the last place that I saw him. When I come here, I feel closer to him than anywhere else.”
Bob tried to comfort her the best that he could.
As they talked, the lady said, “By the way. Would you by any chance be going to New York City?”
Bob said, “Well, as a matter of fact I am.”
She said, “Oh. Would you please find my son and ask him to call me?”
Bob said, “I don’t know that I could find him.”
She said, “Oh, please do that for me. It would mean so much to me. I miss him so very much.”
After pleading with him, he finally agreed to do his best.
She said, “Oh thank you. That means so much to me. His name is John Dunn.”
All the way to New York City, Bob wondered, “How in the world am I going to find her son in such a big place?” When the plane landed, he took a cab to his hotel. As the cab was driving down the street, Bob saw on the side of one of the sky scrappers DUNN AND BRADSTREET. He said to himself, “This is going to be easier than I thought.”
He asked the cab to stop and he ran into the building. There is a lady sitting at a desk when he walks in and he asks her, “Do you have a John here?”
She said, “Yes. Go down this hall to the right and it is the third door on the left.”
He thanks her and goes looking for the door she pointed out. He finds it and goes in. Just as he walks into the room, there is a man there, drying his hands. Bob says to him, “Are you Dunn?”
The man replied, “Yes.”
Bob says, “Call your mother.”
I was thinking about this joke recently. Not because I was calling my mother, but because I was calling my father.
This particular call was one that I have been waiting at least all year to make, and perhaps even a lot longer than that. 5 years, 10 years, maybe 20. A long time. This was a call to have a serious conversation with my dad about our relationship. We have a relationship that is probably pretty typical of fathers and sons. He is probably the biggest influence in my life as a person, as a Jew, and as a rabbi. He is also the person who can push my buttons the most and with whom I often have the least patience for. These are things that he and I never really talked about. But I was finally ready to start that conversation.
I was afraid and nervous, but I knew that I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had a sense that it was now or never.
Why the urgency about this particular call? You see, my father has ALS.
Lou Gherig’s disease, or ALS — Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a disease of the nervous system in which neurons in the body progressively shut down causing total loss of voluntary control over one’s muscles. Though there is no typical pattern for how the disease appears in patients, the results are all the same — loss of bodily control, loss of speech, the ability to swallow and eventually breathing. There is no known cure. While the progression with my dad is slow, thank God, we all know how this ends.
I remember when he and my mom called us just before Thanksgiving this past year. Sari and I, my brother Noah and sister-in-law Rena, and my sister Sarah were all on the call. Shock doesn’t begin to describe what I felt. There was sadness, profound and deep sadness as though I had already experienced losing him. Many emotions followed — anger, confusion, a sense of instability, and lots more sadness.
We knew from that moment moving forward, everything was going to be different. We didn’t exactly know how the differences would manifest or affect our lives, but we knew that we needed to prepare for them — physically, materially, financially and perhaps biggest of all, emotionally. We also knew that in order to get through this, we would need each other in new ways.
To be honest, I did not want to talk about ALS at all, least of all with my dad. I was much too upset about it. A number of months ago, on a day off, we met for lunch just to check in, but even that was too hard for me. I struggled to even look him in the eye or speak. We ate in a deafening silence that day.
Today, we gather to reflect on the year 5777, on our deeds and misdeeds, our triumphs and our failures. 77 in gematria is the word oz, strength or power. All year while my father’s strength slowly dwindled, I have been engaging with the idea of finding my own strength and my own power. This work has led me to a matrix of questions:
Where does our power come from? How can we recognize our unique talents and gifts and share them with the world? From where might we summon the capacity to look honestly at our lives, and ourselves, and do the hard work of changing what is needed to really thrive and flourish? Why is change so hard anyway?
The challenge with change is that by definition it is accompanied by loss. For example, when we change the way we eat towards a healthier lifestyle, we experience the loss of our junk food days. When we quit smoking, or drinking or texting and driving — all manner of harmful things we might do — we sense how much space those things took up in our life, now that they are gone. They were bad for us but we miss them.
I wonder if it is that fear of loss that ultimately stops us from making changes that we know will benefit us. It is certainly what stood in my way of changing my relationship with my father. It wasn’t a bad relationship. But certainly complex, and I wanted it to be different. Tragically, this was my chance.
Today is Rosh HaShannah — the start of the Jewish New Year. The words themselves, as we probably know mean ‘Head of the Year.’ But there is also another meaning that I think hints at the work needed to really repair our relationships and make the turn, the spiritual return, to do the teshuva that we are focused on during this time. Rosh is the Hebrew word for ‘head’. Shannah, while its typical meaning is the word year, is constructed out of root letters that carry the connotation of change.
So Rosh Hashanah can be rendered creatively as the change of the head. The day on which we might change our minds and make the turn towards the people we really want to be.
What a gift, this teshuva thing is! How amazing that we get to seize the opportunity to do things differently! Of course, we might experience regret for some of our past behavior, and guilt over how we have treated others. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. We can change!
This work does not operate exclusively during the season of the High Holy Days. It is available to us at any time that we decide to harness our power, our oz, to march forward into an uncertain future, with its change and loss and fear of the unknown — and be undeterred.
The first step towards teshuva is wanting something to change. To change our head — leshanot et harosh.
So, I called my dad. And amidst many tears, I told him that I wanted our relationship to be different. He put on a brave face and thanked me, but even over the Facetime video I could see his eyes well up. He wanted this too. We don’t know how exactly we will move forward but we will be doing it together and with the knowledge that this is something that we both want.
And so today we add one to our past year of 5777. We add an aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the first letter of the Ten Commandments, the first letter of the word ani – I, and the letter that reminds us of the divine within us all – on this day when we add one to the past year of oz, of strength and power, I offer us all the potent blessing and opportunity to change.
Who do you need to call this year? What relationships exist in your life that could benefit from a shift in behavior or thinking? What fears do you need to stare down and encounter, knowing that the way to overcome them is to move forward in spite of them? How will this Rosh HaShannah spur you to change your head? And finally, what are the moments that you will be that plus one, that aleph, to take your power and strength to the next level?
Shannah Tovah Umetukah — May your change be good and sweet.