To let go and to pray

Lech Lecha begins with God telling Abraham, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.”

But why does God say it in this particular order?

If you’ve left your country of origin, haven’t you already left your hometown, let alone your father’s house? You leave your house first, and then arrive at the edge of town and finally the country’s border.

So why is the order reversed?

Nachmanides believes that it is in ascending order of difficulty. It is hard to leave your country — the language, the culture, the currency. Harder still the place you were born — your friends and familiar places. Hardest of all is to leave one’s parents. Why? Nachmanides does not say. Might it be because parents won’t let go?

My eldest son flew by himself for the first time this summer. He dreamed for weeks about his trip from Los Angeles to Florida to spend a month visiting his grandparents.

Still 8 years old, he was proud of this approaching independence. He filled his MP3 player with music, and he uploaded pictures of his ema and abba and brothers to look at when he missed us. When the day arrived, he packed his carry-on bag with his favorite book, “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” and looked forward to being able to order Sprite after Sprite, for free.

He left while I was at work. I called to wish him a good trip as he sat at the departure gate with my wife, Jen. Over the noise of the airport terminal and the commotion of camp, I asked him to listen to me read tefillat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, over the phone.

“May it be Your will Adonai our God and God of our ancestors that You lead us in peace, guide our steps to peace, and guide us in peace….”

And as I read, “May You rescue us from adversaries and ambush and robbers and animals along the way,” I thought to myself, “Am I crazy?” I finished the prayer but my mind wandered to thoughts of abusers lurking on planes and robbers who would steal from a defenseless child. I prayed God would shine His sheltering presence upon him, would appoint the flight attendants as His angels to watch over him.

“Give him all the Sprites he wants!” I pleaded. “See in him the image of God that I see in him. See the precious, holy, special, beloved child who I love so much it aches to think of him alone out there in the world, without me.”

I do not know if he heard my voice crack or if he could tell that tears were streaming down my face. I felt him slipping through my grasp as he proudly set forth into the world without me for the first time.

Why must parents let go?

Nachmanides explains, “It is difficult for a person to leave the country where he has friends and companions. This is true all the more so of his native land, and all the more so if his whole family is there. Hence it became necessary to say to Abraham that he leave all for the sake of his love of the Holy Blessing One.”

Family is important, but God tells Abraham to leave his parents’ home because he needed to become himself, not only his parents’ child. Abraham needed to leave his idolatrous father to become the “father of many peoples” (Genesis 17:5), the father of monotheism and the Jewish people. The legacy of the Righteous Gentiles teaches that a good person must be willing to reject the world around him or her. But one need not always reject the teachings of one’s country or community or family, just take responsibility for them.

For our children to find God, they must take responsibility for themselves, their own beliefs and, ultimately, their own relationship with God. We love our children so much it hurts, but we risk making of ourselves an idol if we fail to teach them to love God and encourage them to find their own path to the Holy One.

The modern Greek philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis said, “True teachers use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.” I did not collapse joyfully when I hung up the phone and thought of my son as he boarded the plane. But I am grateful for the glimpse I was given of the task that awaits me: not to make of myself an idol. To point him along the way, to let go and let him grow, and let him find God for himself. And to pray God will protect him along the way.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the Jewish summer camp for the Conservative movement serving the Western United States, and the Max and Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.

Who’s on Second?

For the first time since 1971, the City Council’s 2nd District will elect a new representative. The winner of the Dec. 11 election will fill the seat of Joel Wachs, who left the position in October to head an arts foundation in New York.

Wachs, a longtime member of Temple B’nai Hayim, grew up in a religious Jewish household and was involved in the Jewish community. When he was first elected to the City Council, the 2nd District included more of the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of Studio City and North Hollywood. The last redistricting shifted the 2nd District to include neighborhoods as far north and east as Sunland and Tujunga.

Wendy Greuel, a corporate affairs executive at Dreamworks SKG, and State Assemblymember Tony Cardenas are the two main candidates running to replace Wachs. While neither is Jewish, they have significant ties to the community and tout their endorsement by Jewish politicians.

Cardenas’ campaign mails out copies of a letter of support from U.S. Rep. Howard Berman and lists a number of endorsements by Jewish colleagues in the Assembly. “I’m proud to have served side by side for five years with Howard Berman,” he says. “And another gentleman who’s been very involved with the Jewish community, [Assembly Speaker] Bob Hertzberg, named me budget chairman in the Assembly.”

One of Greuel’s most notable Jewish endorsements comes from the man she hopes to replace. From his office in Manhattan, Wachs says of Greuel, “I think she’s a very, very capable person and would serve the city and the district really well, and I think she has the values that I would like to see in an elected official. She’s really honest, and hard-working, intelligent and compassionate. I think she’ll make an excellent councilwoman.”

Similarly, both candidates emphasize their connections and experience with the Jewish community.

“Over the years, I’ve met with various rabbis and asked about their issues. I’ve always been very supportive. Many of the organizations that serve the Valley are Jewish organizations,” Cardenas says.

Greuel, who plans to marry a Jewish literary agent she met during this campaign, says, “Jewish interests are the same as everyone elses. Jews are an important part of this district.” She adds, “Obviously, working at Dreamworks, my bosses were very involved philanthropically in the Jewish community.”

Both Greuel and Cardenas are Valley natives.

Greuel, 40, a Van Nuys resident, began her political career as an intern in Wachs’ office, and went on to work for 10 years as an assistant to then- Mayor Tom Bradley. Greuel also served in the Clinton administration as the Southern California representative for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where she helped oversee recovery efforts after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Cardenas, 38, was elected to the California Assembly in 1996. He worked as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard, then started a residential real estate company before entering politics. Among other responsibilities in the Assembly, he chaired the powerful Budget Committee. His 39th Assembly District overlaps much of the City Council’s 2nd District.

Van Nuys businessman James Cordaro is also running, but lacks the extensive resources and political connections of his opponents.

Filling the shoes of a 30-year councilmember will be difficult, but not unusual — the election will be the eighth of the City Council’s 15 districts to install a new representative in 2001.

Cardenas compares his Budget Committee chairmanship in the Assembly to Wachs’ council tenure, saying, “The one thing Wachs was known for was being a voice of reason when it comes to giving corporations subsidies.” Cardenas says he hopes to improve on Wachs’ record of reaching out to the many spread-out communities of the district. “In some parts of the district, many people are frustrated that they haven’t seen the presence of the councilman’s office.”

Greuel compares herself to Wachs, in part, by looking back to her days as an intern in his office. “The thing I remember was the excitement. He was a Republican, but he was also very independent.”

Both candidates identify public safety and policing as the single most important issues facing the district and the city. On the political differences between them, Cardenas says, “The main difference is, I have a track record of being a public elected official for five years. Being a staffer is one thing. It’s wonderful to learn that way, but nothing like learning as an elected official. I’ll hit the ground running.”

Greuel also notes their different levels of experience: “I’m really running as an independent voice in this Valley. People don’t trust City Hall,” she says. Wachs was a 31-year-old tax attorney in 1971 when he first ran for the office. Greuel says, “People in my district don’t want career politicians. My special-interest group are the people who live in my district.”

Michael Hirschfeld of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), says that while the JCRC does not endorse candidates, they both seem qualified. “Both candidates will probably be strong representatives of the district. Both are informed and conversant with issues of importance to the Jewish community.”