When my youngest daughter was three years old, she discovered the helium balloons in the flower section of our local supermarket, handed out free to every child who asks. I tied the string around her wrist so the precious balloon wouldn't escape up to the rafters. She bounced it on its string as I pulled it this way and that to avoid bumping other shoppers. She hugged it as we climbed into the car for the ride home.
As I pulled into the driveway, my daughter flew out of the car, her balloon bobbing along behind her, raced in through the front door and out again to our back yard, slipped the string off her wrist and gazed upward as the balloon rose into the sky and slowly drifted away.
"Why did you let go of your balloon?" I asked, slightly miffed that she had so casually cast away the new toy she had been fussing over for the last half hour.
My daughter just shrugged, giggled, and watched the balloon disappear from sight.
"Why did you let go of your balloon?" My daughter looked me in the eye and replied, "It's a present for God."
After our next trip to the market she did it again. Then again, over and over for months. Every time I asked the same question. "Why did you let go of your balloon?"
Finally I got an answer. My daughter looked me in the eye and replied, "It's a present for God."
She doesn't do it anymore. And part of me mourns for the pure, innocent faith that prompted a little girl to give up her toy as an offering to the Almighty.
For all our experience and the sophistication, for all our indulgent smiles at the simplicity of our children's beliefs, is it not likely that our children know something we don't, something they themselves soon won't know or even remember they once knew? And perhaps it is precisely their power of belief that sets them apart from the adults they will become.
Children believe in God, believe in their parents, believe in their country and their school and their friends and that good will always win out over evil. Their trust and faith haven't yet been sullied by the lies of politicians, the corruption of law and justice, the avarice of sports heroes, the superficiality of Hollywood or, most importantly, the cynicism of their parents, who may try for a time to put on an act to spare their children from their own disillusionment.
But what if it worked the other way, that we could learn an old lesson from our children instead of imposing yet another new lesson upon them? What if we could turn the clock back and recapture even a whiff of the innocence of youth? Would we reach out to grasp it, or have we grown too jaded even to try?
This Rosh Hashana, Jews around the world will fill synagogues to inaugurate the first day of the Jewish new year. But Rosh Hashana celebrates much more than the beginning of another calendrical cycle. It celebrates birth and rebirth; it celebrates beginning and renewal, for it commemorates nothing less than the Creation of the world and Mankind.
The difference between childhood and maturity is not whether we give presents to our Creator, but what kind of presents we choose to give.
As we approach the New Year, let us ask ourselves how we can turn back the clock, exchanging bad habits for new challenges, routine for renewal, and cynicism for enthusiasm. Instead of smiling with adult condescension at the innocence of children, let us consider instead that the difference between childhood and maturity is not whether we give presents to our Creator, but what kind of presents we choose to give. A child serves God by sending a balloon up into the sky. An adult serves God by releasing his spirit to soar to the heights of Godliness.
Have we given charity in proportion with our means? Have we visited the sick and comforted the distressed? Have we consistently spoken with kindness to our neighbors, with respect to our superiors, and with patience to our children? Have we honored the Sabbath and studied the ancient wisdom of our people?
It's not enough to make resolutions; we need to inspire ourselves to see them through. We need to awaken in ourselves an awe of the Almighty by reflecting upon the vastness of creation, the unfathomability of the stars in their courses, the mysteries of life, and the limitless potential of the soul -- to behold for a lingering moment the immeasurable beauty and majesty of our universe.
And if we can follow through, if we can make the moment last without slipping back into our well-traveled rut of discounting every noble and beautiful thought and deed, then perhaps we can retain our faith in those things truly worthy of faith throughout the coming year.