A message to my newborn son
by Jeff Jacoby
My beloved Caleb,
You are only 16 days old, and virtually everything about you is still a mystery. Are you smart? Are you strong? Are you lucky? Already my love for you is more intense than I thought possible -- and yet I know almost as little about you as you know about me.
I have no idea what color your eyes will be, or when you will speak your first word, or which of your parents you will more closely resemble. I don't even know when you'll next need to be nursed.
But I do know what I want you to be when you grow up.
I want you to be good.
Oh, my beautiful little son, I have such hopes for you. I hope you will love words and be quick with numbers and have a knack for science. I hope you will make good grades in school and make good money when you work. I hope you'll be handy with tools like your mother and better at playing piano than your father. I hope you will visit foreign lands, memorize great poems, form fast friendships, read many books. I hope you develop talents others will admire, acquire authority others will respect, and have a winning personality others will love.
But what I care about most is not your success or wealth or popularity. What I care about most is your goodness. Whatever else people may think of you, I want them to know you first and foremost as a decent and ethical person.
For what this world badly needs is more decent and ethical people.
You have made your appearance at the tail end of a century that has broken every record for evil and cruelty. Our era, with its world wars and gulags and killing fields, with its rape camps and drug gangs and child pornographers, has collapsed forever the illusion that there is a limit to the atrocities of which human beings are capable. And for human atrociousness there is no cure -- except the cultivation of human goodness.
You have spent your first 16 days in a cocoon of love and safety. But don't be fooled. Outside your cocoon, the world can be a dangerous and hateful place.
Last week, as you were circumcised at your bris, your father's father cradled you -- his 12th grandchild -- in his arms. On one of those arms is tattooed a blue number: A-10502. That number came from a place called Auschwitz. In time you will learn for yourself just what transpired at Auschwitz. But this much I can tell you now: Auschwitz is what happens when parents don't train their children in goodness.
And make no mistake: Goodness takes training. Nobody is born naturally good -- not even you, innocent as you are. Nobody is born naturally evil, either -- not even the people who tattooed your grandfather. Human beings start out with little more than drives and appetites, some inclining them to good, others tugging them toward evil. Your mother and I will have to work at cultivating your good tendencies -- and work even harder at suppressing your bad ones. If we raise you well, you will grow to be kind, honest, and moral. You will have integrity and character. You will not treat others as you would wish them not to treat you. You will know the meaning of right and wrong and be able to choose between them.
But your parents can only do so much. We would walk through fire for you, Caleb , but ultimately you must do the work of shaping your character. Do you know where the term "character" comes from? It derives from the Greek "charassein," meaning to sharpen or engrave. Morality and integrity have to be honed and practiced, etched into your nature, one good deed at a time. And just wait until you find out how stubborn and unyielding your nature can be! As you will discover, nothing in this life requires more strength than self-discipline. As the Jewish sage Ben Zoma famously said: "Who is mighty? He who can conquer his inclinations."
For thousands of years, Caleb, our people have been taught that nothing matters more than being good. Not riches, not fame, not education, not success. "What does God require of thee," the prophet Micah pleaded long ago, "but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
When you are a little older, I will teach you about Rabbi Akiva, a towering figure of the 2nd century. He lived an exemplary and amazing life before dying a courageous martyr's death. Rabbi Akiva said that of all the rules and commandments in the Bible, none is more important than Leviticus 19:18: "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
It isn't an easy rule to live by. The temptation to do the wrong thing to your neighbor, or to look the other way when the wrong thing is being done, can be powerful. Many times I fall short myself. But just as I hope you will surpass me in wealth and attainment and learning, I hope you will surpass me in good works and upright character.
You are so tiny, little one. You have so much growing to do. As I cradle you in my arms or watch you sleep in your crib, I pray that life brings you vigor and health, delight and fortune. Like every parent, I want you to do well. But more than anything else, I want you to do good.
Sixteen days ago, you entered this world. One day -- far in the future, I hope -- you will leave it. If I could wish for only one thing, it would be this: that you leave it better than you found it.
All my love,
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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