Rabbi Dan Ornstein: My Masterpiece
She walks up to me after morning services, her face uplifted and bright. “I wanted to let you know about some great news I got from my son,” she grins. Those few moments after morning worship before I go back to my office are usually when members of my synagogue tell me their worst news about sadness, illness, death. Her promise to tell me about something happy intrigues and relieves me. “He has been writing since he was sixteen,” she begins. “After more than twenty years of writing professionally, he sold a screenplay for a new movie. My husband and I will be visiting him on the set next week. This is true naches.”
Yes, I think, this is true naches, the Yiddish word for the beaming pride we feel at our children’s accomplishments, as if they were our own. I am genuinely excited for her and her family. Yet as I tell her this, Old Man Killjoy rolls out a familiar drum beat inside my head: “No reason why this couldn’t have been you, if only you had chosen writing over being a rabbi. Still working on getting your masterpiece published?” In one self-referential second, my happiness for her transforms into a tired whine about the writing career I cannot fully make time for, and the famous writer I know I will never be. After a long, rough debate, God and I have decided that making writing a part of my work as a rabbi is where I need to be in my life.
Later in my office, I brood over how at times it doesn’t feel like this is enough. I am word hungry, and I am also hungry for my own words to see the light of day. At that moment I recall a story that my wife proudly told me the day before. The previous weekend, as she drove with our older daughter along a city street in Philadelphia, a disheveled, homeless man approached our van carrying a worn cardboard sign that told his story of joblessness and his hungry children. “Mom, aren’t we going to stop to give him something?” she queried my wife urgently.
“No, honey, I don’t think we will,” my city-weary wife answered. “Why not, mom? You have to,” she demanded. “Well, honey, there is no way to know if he is telling the truth and there are so many people on the streets asking for money. Our family helps the poor in many other ways,” my wife reasoned with her. My daughter was unimpressed by her logic. She made her stop the van, she rolled down the window, she handed the man the one dollar she had, and she gently wished him good luck.
As he walked off, she explained to my wife that one of the most important things I had taught her was that we should give people asking for money the benefit of the doubt. If the man was telling the truth, then we fulfilled the Jewish religious obligation of tzedakah, acting justly toward the poor. If he was lying, the sin is his, not ours. Further, my wife and I never had to stand on a street corner to feed her and her siblings. She was painfully conscious of our privilege and of the ways in which the poor and their often decrepit appearances frighten people, who marginalize them as the Other. She wanted to help the man by giving him money, but more importantly, she wanted to show him dignity and kindness.
I sit thinking of my naches, that this is the wonderful, open book of compassion and justice my daughter is becoming. She is writing her own story, yet I realize that she is also this growing masterpiece of which I am one author; a great work of art begun by me that will outlast me, and into which my signature is tightly woven.