By the Grace of God

By the Grace of God


Dear Jonah,

One of my very favorite memories of you was fashioned on Monday evening, January 5, 2009. This was during your winter break from college. Four days later, you would return to Buffalo to begin your 2nd semester of freshman year. I would not see you alive again.

But that was still to come. On Monday evening, January 5, I was treated to one of the most incredible moments of my parenting years: you guest-taught my 10th grade Confirmation class.

It began as a conversation a few weeks earlier. You informed me that you thought you’d declare philosophy as your major. You also imagined yourself becoming a much sought after college professor, complete (if my memory serves correctly) with tweed jacket and pipe. Oh, sir. I’d love to have seen that!

Jonah's high school graduation (Jun 2008) ... about as professorial as he ever got

Jonah’s high school graduation (Jun 2008) … about as professorial as he ever got

I suggested to you that if you really wanted to become one of your generation’s greatest academics, you might want to get a little experience – would you like to come teach my Confirmation class? To my surprise and delight, you said yes. And we spent a number of hours charting out a plan for what you’d bring to my students and how you’d facilitate the experience. You, of course, had thought, in typical Jonah fashion, that you’d just wing it. I, being the supreme ruler of Confirmation Land, and wanting this adventure to succeed, told you, “No way. If you want in, you need to do the prep.” And you did!

Your topic was God. Or God and science, to be specific. You handed out an excerpt from Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World (by Rabbi David Nelson) from which you quoted physicist Paul Davies as saying, “It is not possible to attribute the Big Bang to anything that happened before it. If one insists on a reason for the Big Bang, this reason must lie beyond physics.” Rabbi Nelson then posited that God was not only responsible for the Big Bang, God was the Big Bang. “God,” he writes, “is all the raw ingredients that go into the fabric of reality.”

Well, that was pretty much all it took for you to then conduct a 90-minute conversation with my class, some loving the idea, others refuting it – all of them engaged and enchanted by your time with them. Years later, kids who were present for that session are still quick to tell me how cool you were (this college kid who spent an evening with young high schoolers) and that it was one of their favorite classes ever.

I get to keep that memory forever, something every parent hopes for.

Except for the part where you die. Nobody hopes for that. But I wasn’t given a choice. Three months later, you were gone. You (not just that wonderful evening in January) had become a memory. All of my memories about you have become the many parts of an elusive, shadowy whole. And one of the great challenges in my life has become figuring out how to hold onto you, to your memory, and to all of those parts.

I don’t really know where your head was on the God question. Well, I sort of do. You wrote a number of papers about God for your philosophy class. I’m afraid you weren’t very supportive of the ideas you were writing about. On the other hand, that’s kind of how you always were – you loved ridiculing other positions and trying to prove them wrong. I don’t know if you really believed your arguments or you were just enjoying yourself.

So I want to share with you an idea about God that I recently stumbled upon. It has to do with God’s role in my pain since your death. When you left us on March 5, 2009, I never for a second thought that God was responsible. Your death was between you and the laws of physics. Whatever choices you made that evening laid out the path that would end your life. There was no pinning this one on the great Almighty.

Those of us who go on living after someone we love is gone have a choice to make. Blame God for our suffering even though we’re still alive and you’re the one who’s gone. Or don’t. I get it, though. It’s really hard to let go of someone you love, really hard for me to let go of you. And finding some One to blame might help ease the pain.

Rabbi Morris Joseph was a rabbi in London and Liverpool during the late-1800s and early-1900s. Contemplating the impact of loss and grief in life, he wrote the following:

It is not God’s part to spare us suffering … but to help us bear it. If the visitation we dread finds us … then we do right to ask for the strength that will uphold us under the load, for the insight that reveals the wisdom in it, for the dynamic power that will transform it into blessing.

Something precious is taken from us and we think of it as something we have lost, instead of something we have had. We remember how empty our lives are now, and tend to forget how full and rich they were before; we forget the many days and years of happiness we lived when the one we love was still with us. We thank God for our treasures when we have them, but cease giving thanks when they are fled.

But God never gives; God only lends.

So instead of murmuring because our precious things have been taken from us, let us be grateful to God for having lent them to us. Let us count the past happy days not as loss, but as gain. We have had them; and now that they are ended, let us turn the loss to glorious gain – the gain that comes with new courage, with nobler tasks, with a wider outlook on life and duty.

I don’t know much of anything about God, Jonah. I choose to believe but I’m the first to admit ignorance. I do, however, like thinking of God as the Source of the Big Bang. I also like thinking that God only lends, and nothing is permanent. Eventually, all things die. You just happened to have died far sooner than expected. And while “just happened” in no way dismisses the volume of my grief for you, I love Rabbi Joseph’s words and I’m going to try to live by them.

Jonah & George (Feb 1992)

Jonah (2 years old) & George (0 years old?) … worth missing

I miss you, Jonah. Forever. Also forever is my gratitude for the nineteen years you were physically with us. And I dedicate the rest of my life to giving thanks for the great bounty that was yours. You, your sister, and your brother have all brought me such incredible joy, meaning and purpose. These do not end with death. The Jonah Maccabee Foundation is not merely to remember you, but for our family to actively respond to how wonderful it was to have you among us.

I hope you’re a star traveler now, fella … and that you never run out of Cheez-Its, Charleston Chews, or fried pastrami.

Love you forever,

BillyBy the Grace of God


Join the conversation
  • Kendra Natoli - July 31, 2016 reply

    Thank you for sharing this, Rabbi Dreskin; your thoughts, feelings, memories about your son, Jonah, and, Rabbi Joseph’s prayer…his words are worth remembering. Our lives really are temporal, and we strive to make the most of them while we can, primarily through helping and loving others (hopefully!). A memory, a song, a tribute, a foundation inspired by the love of one lost to us is how we survive this life until our own time to be taken back to our Creator. Your decision to live celebrating Jonah helps us all!
    Blessings to your family.

  • Barbara Ostfeld - July 28, 2016 reply

    The combination of the teaching memory and your fine writing are uplifting, even as we ache for you.

  • Ej - July 28, 2016 reply

    Your words are heartwarming and heart wrenching. I cannot imagine the depth of your loss but I am constantly amazed and in awe of how you have continued to share and educate me. I wish I had known Jonah as he sounds like someone I’d have giggled with and learned from. Thank you for letting me get to know him through your writings and memories.

  • Jacqueline Rawiszer Menaker - July 28, 2016 reply

    My stepson Matt’s life ended on June 8, 2014. It was his choice. Although I have a plethora resources at my disposal, your piece is the first that has truly resonated and provided comfort. Thank you.

  • Techiya Levine - July 27, 2016 reply

    Woah. Incredible.
    He was blessed to have you as his Dad, I am blessed to have had you as a Rabbi and mentor- and will continue to be inspired by you, your commitment to klal Yisrael and education, and the choice you make to aspire to this response in the face of loss.

  • Dassi Citron - July 27, 2016 reply

    Heart full, eyes wet, so full of meaning for us all. Thank you Billy and Jonah for leading and lending.

  • Rona Oberman - July 27, 2016 reply

    Billy – I cannot tell you how deeply your words moved me. You really are an inspiration. I wish Deb and I got to see you guys more often.

  • Ruthie Pincus - July 27, 2016 reply

    Thanks for this gift – Billy – beautiful written and a great resource xoxo – Ruthie Pincus

  • Leona Paul - July 27, 2016 reply

    Ellen and Billy I did not feel your pain the way you did at the time of his death but as a parent I now do because I lost a child
    No one can ever know that pain until you lose a child
    The pain is unbearable and never goes away but you push on every day for the rest of your family never letting them see you cry
    I fully understand and will forever be a part of your pain I love both of you and my Susan was your biggest booster
    Take care and know I think of you often
    Love always Leona Paul

  • Liza Robbins Theuma - July 27, 2016 reply

    this is the most compelling piece I have read on Gds relationship with death. I am dealing with the loss of an amazing friend and looking at it as lending that person to me is a HUGE and SIGNIFANT help to me in dealing with the memories

  • Marta Kauffman - July 27, 2016 reply

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

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