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Melanie Levav
Founding executive director, Shomer Collective

To My “Legal” Adult Child, As You Graduate

shutterstock/rawf8
shutterstock/rawf8

Hey kid. I am so proud of you. In anticipation of your graduation from high school tomorrow, I’ve been reflecting on the last few years, and want to share some of my thoughts with you. What a shitty few years it’s been, living through a pandemic in your teen years, confined to connecting to your classmates and teachers through a screen for too many months, your spirit nearly crushed by the loneliness and isolation of being stuck inside in the early months of the pandemic. Missing out on playing baseball, your last summer at camp canceled, your beloved Broadway shut down… all for fear of the unknown, as we worked to avoid the risk of death by disease in the days before a vaccination was available. I deeply appreciate your attempt to protect yourself and your higher risk family members from a virus that has now killed more than a million people in this country. 

I am grateful that you managed to begin to venture out when it felt safer, to tolerate the increase in family game nights around the table instead of outings to the movies, to balance the risks of exposure with the rewards of a walk in the park with a friend, to test your comfort and ours once masks were no longer required. And oh how grateful I am that you finally found yourself in the local teen theater program, performing outdoors, in masks, with handwarmers in your gloves and toewarmers in your shoes, under a tent in the parking lot, for the taste of music on your lips and the freedom of dance in your hips. 

This last year of making up for lost time, of trying out new things, and places, and people, and ways of being in the world, have felt like witnessing your adolescence on fast forward. After this week, while you no longer have the safety of caring high school teachers to catch your falls, as you’re still finding your way, figuring out what balance could feel like, know that Mommy and I will always have your back. Ami, too, looking up to you in the ways only a younger brother does. 

At your bar mitzvah, we blessed you with words from the Talmud adapted from Berakhot 17a. Traditionally, parents of a child reaching the age of mitzvot offer words of blessing to thank God for exempting us from the responsibilities we hold for the actions of our children. At the age of 13, according to Jewish law, you became responsible for your own actions. And we upheld this tradition in creative ways, like allowing you to make your own decisions about kashrut outside of our home in your teen years. 

According to US law, when you turned 18, we became exempt from the responsibility of making healthcare decisions for you. And while you’re still on my health insurance, I no longer have access to your healthcare records online – only you do. And when the doctor wants to talk about side effects of a potential medication you may need, that conversation is had with you now, not with me. At some point, perhaps sooner than we expect, you may need to make more serious decisions about your healthcare, about how you want to live, knowing that tomorrow is never guaranteed. So I bring this up on the eve of your graduation to help you recognize the responsibility you now have in this area of decision making as an adult. We are, of course, available for consultation, and in fact, welcome the opportunity to help you make informed choices about your body and quality of life.

And while we sometimes joke about the work I do as a rabbi as a way to lighten the seriousness of my chosen role in helping people to mine the wealth of Jewish wisdom to live well in the face of mortality, now that you’re 18, it’s time that we talk about life and death in new ways, that reflect on your legal status as an adult. Having this conversation now is meant to help you confront the realities of your own mortality, supported by the Jewish wisdom that guides our family. Before you head off to college this fall, we will have you sign a healthcare proxy, allowing me to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so for yourself. And in so doing, we need you to think about and share with us your ideas about what’s most important to you. We will talk about things like feeding tubes and ventilators, about DNRs and DNIs. How do you weigh the number of days you may have against quality of life? Is it possible to imagine balance between the two? 

This is not the type of graduation talk most families have, and yet, the pandemic has shown us that sometimes we must do things differently in order to recognize the gifts life can offer. It’s these liminal moments, these in between times, that are the ones in which we are most drawn to considering the questions of who we are and how we want to live. As you head off to college, we want to make sure we’re equipping you with the tools you need to succeed. Sure, money on your mealcard, extra chargers for your phone, and the skills needed to do your own laundry are on the list. But what about making healthcare decisions? We need to give you those tools, too. 

In high school, you developed an appreciation for Talmud. In tractate Shabbat, page 153a, Rabbi Eliezer teaches, “repent one day before your death.” His students wonder, of course, how is this possible, as we do not know the day of our death? From this we learn that we should live in ways in which we are constantly engaged in teshuva, understood as repentance, but as you know, more literally, as return. Returning to our core values, to the things that give our lives meaning, to the relationships that lift us up, perhaps this is what can be understood from Rabbi Eliezer’s instruction. As you go out from our home, I pray that you live a life in which you are constantly seeking to return to what is most important to you, even as that may change as you grow and change. 

You learned in Jewish day school that the first words we utter upon waking are words of gratitude – modeh ani, and the last words we say at night are a final declaration of faith before sleep. And while traditional Jewish liturgy may not always be the first and last words on your mind daily, you’ve created your own ritual to end each day. Just as you make it a point to quietly but audibly say good night to us through our door before you retire to your room long after we’ve gone to bed, creating a point of connection, and offering an expression of hope, so too, does Jewish wisdom offer us a way to connect and hope before we close our eyes, not knowing if and when we will next open them. At your final showings at Arts Night in school last week, beyond your impression of a resurrected Kurt Cobain in the rock band club performance, you so joyfully sang Shema with your music minyan, demonstrating how you find joy in bringing your musical talents and spiritual side together, in community. It’s the words of the Shema that we sang on your bed with you when you were little that are the last thing Jewish wisdom prescribes before we go to sleep each night, offering a final declaration of faith for the day, just in case tomorrow never arrives. Knowing you won’t be within earshot to say goodbye to us audibly once you’re away at college next year, even if you choose not to call or even text us every day, perhaps thinking of Shema in your mind or singing it to yourself will help you mark the end of each day you’re privileged to see in this life. And if that’s not meant to be, know that the work of making each day count, of doing what you can in the service of your values, is what this life is about. 

With all my love and then some, 

Ema

About the Author
Rabbi Melanie Levav is the founding Executive Director of the Shomer Collective, powered by Natan. Melanie is a board-certified chaplain, a licensed social worker, and a rabbi with more than two decades of leadership experience in the American Jewish community.
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