“I don’t like to think about the future. It freaks me out,” my nine-year-old daughter Rachel announces from the back of the car. She stopped using a booster seat a month ago, her height finally sufficient to require a simple seat belt.
Her announcement is in response to a Scholastic News article. Her third-grade class had read that morning about water found on the moon and the possibility of people making their homes there one day.
I ask Rachel if she would like that and receive her vehement reply. I am driving us home after her after-school program and my trying day at work. The day has also brought the news my mother’s blood pressure had shot up, and multiple phone calls with the insurance company about a biopsy I needed a month ago. Thankfully it turned out benign but left me with a claim mix-up I could use Columbo to unravel.
I brake for a red light. “Are you concerned about growing up or the future of the world?”
“The future of the world.”
Relieved that we need to address just one of the two, at least for now, I think to myself “I know what you mean.” But I feel I should offer something more, and no breezy answer comes to mind, no maternal instincts kick in. I do what I do when I’m at a loss for some shred of guidance I can extend to my daughter. I pause.
“Would you like ravioli for dinner?” I ask.
Dinner is decided. I wonder when a nugget of insight would follow.
The next day riding home from work on the subway, I mull over Rachel’s remark and worry that I have added to her fear.
The week before, while Rachel glanced at Yahoo News as she waited for her Internet game to load on the computer, she asked about global warming.
“Is it only in Haiti?”
Somehow she associated Haiti’s recent earthquake with climate change.
“No, it’s happening to the whole world.”
“Even in New York?”
“Yes, even here.”
Her game had loaded. She began to play, her fingers flurrying across the cursor keys.
I dropped the discussion, but maybe I should have added that scientists and people in many countries were trying to reduce global warming. Had I stopped talking because Rachel’s attention had turned elsewhere, or because of my own despair that humanity may be too late to reverse our current precarious course?
The subway car fills with more people and my mind fills with possible reassurances. Science would prevail. Governments would intercede. Businesses would make greener products. Each thought I discard as cold comfort, not the right temperature to sustain my daughter.
What could I tell Rachel that is something she could believe in, or, rather, a truth I believe in enough to give to her?
Shabbat morning arrives, and I walk into the sanctuary carrying The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Visions, and Dreams by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Arston and my Conservative synagogue’s Bokser siddur. During the reading of the Torah, while my husband follows along in the Hebrew in the Etz Hayim chumash, I study the parashah in The Bedside Torah. I had attended religious school back in the day when it was called Hebrew school and students learned to read Hebrew words without learning their meaning. As a result, text study eludes me but I welcome interpretation. In October, after Simchat Torah when we began reading from B’reishit again, I had intended to keep pace with each week’s parashah, but I fell behind and started to search the book at random and let the evocative subtitles call to me as I flipped the pages.
This Shabbat, the title “Immune to Despair” about Parashat Va-Yehi/He Lived, catches my attention. The parashah tells of Jacob on his deathbed giving his blessing to his sons and in the middle of doing so exclaims, “I hope for your deliverance, O Lord.” Rabbi Artson writes how facing death, the end of all he knows, Jacob insists on hope. Two paragraphs later Artson interprets this text to mean, “To be Jewish is to hope.”
But what do you do if you’re filled with dread? How do you turn fear to hope, or at least let them live with each other? How could I take this Jewish teaching and make it alive for Rachel? How could I help her find a better balance?
I look to my own life and a universal time of crisis: 9/11.
On that September day and the days that immediately followed, we had gathered at a neighbor’s home while she waited for news of her husband who worked on the 70th floor of the North tower. We brought food and water for the rescue workers. We came together at synagogue, the need for community great. We did what we could.
An inkling of what to say to Rachel begins to form.
The next day, Sunday morning, a treasured time of unstructured activity, while Rachel practices her newly learned cursive writing skills, making looping l’s across her notebook paper, I ask, “Can I tell you something?” It is our code question we use with each other when we want to signal that the words to come deserve special notice.
Rachel looks up from her writing, “Okay.”
“You know how you said you were scared about the future of the world?”
“I can understand how you feel that way. But no matter what happens, you won’t be alone. If something happens it will touch everyone and people will try to help each other to make things better. You might be someone who could help make things better.”
Rachel picks up her pencil and begins shaping lower case n’s across the page. She says nothing but radiates the silence of someone who has listened.
I know I used a euphemism. But I didn’t need to spell out the possibilities of what could happen. My daughter already identifies a deserted part of our neighborhood as what the world would look like after everything falls apart. She doesn’t need me to add to her apocalyptic vision. She accepted my vague words, I think, because to be specific would make the possibilities too immediate.
I was going to say more. About tikkun olam, about Jewish community. Another time. I know she has received the message. What Rachel will do with it, her life will tell. She will, I trust, find the responses that speak most deeply to her, day after day, filtering into the years to come.
-Bonnie Beth Chernin
Bonnie Beth Chernin is a staff writer for a non-profit organization and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. Her writing has also appeared in Mom Writers Literary Magazine now known as Mamazina.