To Jews, 18 is the number representing chai or life. It’s the numerical equivalent of wishing someone long life and happiness, and old customs die hard.
I once heard a friend say that it was nonsense to keep writing checks for $18 or $36 or $72 for that matter for a mitzvah gift, but I kind of like it. I know it seems silly, but to me it means we all speak the same language, the language of tradition.
I’m reading a novel, The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, by Naomi Ragen, whose main characters chase down manuscript pages written by an ancestor during the 15th century in Spain. Their grandmother wants them to find out how she survived the Inquisition, how their family line continued.
At first, the girls think it’s a wild goose chase and could care less. But after reading the few pages they already have, and walking the soil where their ancestors lived, they start to hear voices. Ghosts whispering messages that resonate deep in their bones.
They start discovering why it matters to continue tradition, why family isn’t something to throw away but rather to delight in, frequently.
They begin to come alive, all their anxieties and insecurities finally put to rest as they rediscover their souls and realize they are connected to a long line of something important. Something meaningful. The stories of their past.
When we are young, we can’t really understand the depths from which we come.
And so often, we just want to throw off the mantle of responsibility that comes with being connected to others, to expectations. We complain about our parents and their rigidity, we complain about family gatherings and obligations. When our parents specify who we should or shouldn’t date, how we should live our lives, we scoff and kick and turn our backs.
And to an extent, that’s ok. I can’t imagine choosing my children’s life partners or careers. They’re the ones who have to live with such choices, not me.
But at the same time, I have the benefit of time on my side, shining bright light on my perspective so that I know the eventual impact of those choices better than they. As parents we want to protect our children from the inevitable hurts that are destined to fall on their paths like autumn leaves spiraling to the ground.
When I was in love with a Catholic guy in college, my aunt told me that I wouldn’t understand until I held my newborn baby in my arms how much I would want to do for my child everything that was done for me.
Light candles on Friday night. Bless the crown of their heads. Usher in the new year with sweetness and wisdom. Recount the story of my people fleeing slavery every spring. Over and over again, we recite the stories of our collective past until it becomes our own.
I didn’t see that then, but I know it now. So when my son receives a check for $18, I smile with that comfortable knowing of someone who is part of a tribe, a community that extends so far behind me and so far ahead of me that it is a comfort like a blanket on a winter night.
This morning, I sat on my couch with the wool throw I purchased in India wrapped around my chilly feet. I burrowed in, knowing I was held by the bosom of time, in my safe warm home, the quiet of perfection all around me.
It was just a Wednesday morning. But it was as if the only day I’d ever lived.
The present is a gift in the way it is a small stitch in the fabric of time. Yesterday, tomorrow, all here in the pregnant sigh of this one moment. We cannot escape. We are inextricably woven into the knit of a lifetime that is so much more than we can imagine.