Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Last night, I gave my nine-year-old son, Jeremy a practice spelling test to prepare him for his spelling exam. “Me too,” said my six-year-old daughter Hannah, insisting that I give her a practice spelling test too. She says this refrain many times each day. Wherever Jeremy goes, Hannah wants to go. Whatever Jeremy has, Hannah wants. Perhaps, we should just call her, “Me Too.”
In light of Hannah’s habit, a passage from this week’s Torah portion resonated with me this year as never before. The portion is called Toledot, which means generations, and it recounts the transmission of blessing from one generation to the next. Elderly and blind Isaac decides that the time has come to bless his first-born son, Esau, and asks him to prepare a meal for him to eat before giving the blessing. Instead, Jacob comes with the meal disguised as Esau and receives the blessing. When both Esau and Isaac discover what has happened, Esau burst into “wild and bitter sobbing” and desperately asked his father, “Me too?!”
Esau said to his father, “Don’t you have a blessing reserved for me?” Isaac answered helplessly that he had already made Jacob master over him and given him grain and wine, “What can I do, my son?” Again, Esau heart-wrenchingly responds, “Have you only one blessing, father, me too, my father,” and he wept aloud. After this request, Jacob did give him a blessing, which wasn’t much of a blessing, and Esau was furious with his father.
In reading this story as a parent, I felt tremendous sympathy for Esau and disappointment with Isaac. Why couldn’t Isaac have honored his son’s, “Me too”? Why couldn’t he have composed a blessing for Esau which suited his own unique traits and capabilities? Why didn’t he feel that there was enough blessing to go around?
In her book, We Plan, God Laughs, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch writes that often: “we act like there is a limited supply of beauty, love, friendship, success, and meaning in the world.” She explains that “a mentality of scarcity” can lead to jealousy or feeling the need to belittle others’ success. However Hirsch argues that “when we are on our divine path, it no longer feels like there are a limited number of pieces in the pie.” In shifting to a mentality of abundance, we can celebrate rather than feeling threatened by other’s achievements. Isaac apparently suffered from a mindset of dearth which he transmitted to his sons.
As parents, we need to honor the “me too”s of our children. I understand Hannah’s longing not as a desire to copy her brother but rather as a commitment not to miss out on any joy. The Talmud states that in the world to come, a person will be called to account for having deprived oneself of the good things which the world offered. Like many younger siblings, Hannah instinctively understands this teaching. She refuses to be a wallflower but wants to grab onto all the wonders of life.
Inspired by Hannah, I also have to accept my own “me too”s – the moments where I need a little treat for me – whether that’s dinner out or an hour to unwind after a long day. Lately, I’ve been dancing in the backyard in the morning which has proven to be both good exercise and a way to begin my day in good spirits.
When life presents blessings, like Esau and Hannah, I say “Me too.”
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May 20, 2013 | 10:22 am
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Who is coming for dinner this week?” My nine-year-old son Jeremy asked.
"Dror and his family and Rachel and her family are coming because they’re becoming rabbis next week, so we’re going to celebrate.”
“Okay,” Jeremy said and walked away.
I was struck by how unremarkable what I had said seemed to my son. He knows that Dror is married to David, and it would never occur to him that this fact could possibly hinder his becoming a rabbi. By contrast, I remember nervously waiting one spring, six years ago to hear whether the Conservative movement’s committee of Jewish Law and Standards would decide to admit homosexual students into the rabbinical school, so that I could write Dror’s letter of recommendation. Dror had given me the form for the letter just in case, and I put it in my desk drawer for months as we waited for the ruling to come. I remember the moment of joy when I got to take the form out of the drawer and write that letter; it felt like a miracle.
To Jeremy, though, the idea of a man married to a man as a rabbi is as natural as the fact that his mother is a rabbi – which was a possible for me but unthinkable for my mother’s generation. Likewise, my kids didn’t understand what a big deal it was when Barak Obama was elected President. They enjoyed the excitement of watching the states being called for each candidate and then hearing the announcement that Obama had won a second term. Yet, they couldn’t comprehend the historical significance of the moment because it never occurred to them that skin color could possibly be an impediment to becoming president.
I remember as a child, my brother once teasing me that he was better than me because he could be President and I couldn’t. I retorted that he couldn’t be President either because he’s Jewish. He agreed, and the conversation moved on. Both of us understood as a given that one had to be male and Christian to be President. Fast forward twenty five years, and I remember crying as I held my infant daughter in my arms and voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary because I never imagined that I would be able to vote for a woman for President. I hope to live to see a woman President and then for my daughter, it will be a given that a woman can lead this nation.
The hard-fought victories of one generation feel natural and normal to the next. With each new child, the world gets a fresh chance at redemption.
This interchange with my son shed light on one of the Torah’s greatest enigmas. In the Torah portion of Hukkat (rules), when the people complained about lacking water, God told Moses to take the rod, assemble the community, and speak to the rock to produce water from the rock. Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation, and Moses said, ‘Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He hit the rock twice, and water flowed from it. God then told Moses and Aaron that since they didn’t trust God enough, they won’t lead the people into the Promised Land.
Commentators for centuries have been puzzled by this story. What precisely was their mistake? Was the problem the words that they used or in striking the rock? Why were Moses and Aaron punished so severely for a seemingly small error?
Some modern commentators note that God had previously asked Moses to hit a rock to elicit water, which had worked well in the past. Perhaps then, Moses’ mistake was in using a prior approach rather than listening to precisely what God wanted from him in the moment. According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, God’s response shouldn’t be viewed as a punishment, but rather “a recognition that their time of leadership was over,” and it was time for a new generation to take the helm.
No matter how great the leadership of Moses and Aaron, the role of being head of the community or High Priest (like President or rabbi) is a temporary job. Only a generation born into freedom would be ready to take on the next set of battles of settling the Promised Land. Liberation is a relay race.
In the end, I wonder if Moses and Aaron saw the conclusion of their service as a punishment or rather if they were filled with pride to watch Joshua who they had mentored grow into leadership. I imagine they felt more joy than regret.
Although I can’t know for sure how they felt, I know that’s how I feel. This year I had the extraordinary opportunity to mentor Dror’s chevruta (study-partner) Rachel, a senior rabbinical student, wife, daughter, and mother, as she prepares for the rabbinate. I shared with her lessons I learned both from my successes and struggles as a rabbi and a mom. I hope that I can help her go further in the rabbinate than me by giving her a head start and awareness of a few pitfalls to avoid along the way.
I realized that the evening on which she and Dror will be ordained is the Hebrew date of my fortieth birthday. Forty is an important number in the Torah. Noah’s family and the animals were in the ark for forty days; the people journeyed in the desert for forty years. Forty represents the completion of a significant journey. Personally, I cannot imagine a better way to celebrate my birthday than to watch Dror and Rachel be ordained and to listen to Dror give the commencement address.
As I appreciate the historical significance of the moment, I’m glad for now that my children, Rachel’s child, and Dror and David’s child don’t. I hope they won’t know the heartache of fearing one’s gender or sexual orientation may be an impediment to their dreams. Then they can take us on the next leg of the journey and truly enter the Promised Land.
January 10, 2013 | 1:26 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This winter break, one of the greatest joys has been watching my kids learn to ice skate. My husband grew up in Israel where there were no winter sports. He tried to learn to skate once or twice as an adult without success. In contrast, I grew up skating each winter in Washington DC. As a result, I knew that if I wanted my kids to ice skate, it was up to me to teach them.
Earlier this winter, I took my five-year-old daughter Hannah to an ice skating birthday. She went from holding both of my hands during skating to only one. Over winter break, I took her skating again. As a few weeks had elapsed, Hannah felt uneasy at first but soon remembered how to skate while holding only one of my hands. Towards the end of the session, she succeeded in skating around on her own.
By happenstance, my folks invited us to ice skating the very next day. Hannah then really got the hang of it. Since it had only been one day later, Hannah didn’t have time to forget what she had learned the day before. Skating came smoothly and easily to her, and she skated on her own the whole time. Hannah was so proud of herself, and I was thrilled to watch her skate with confidence. Even the rink staff member noticed, and said, “Look at you go!”
This week’s Torah portion recounts the beginning of a major change for the Jewish people, as they begin to move from slavery to freedom. Moses conveys God’s request that Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they may worship Me.” Following God’s instructions, Moses explains to Pharaoh that they need to travel for three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to God.
God’s plan here is curious. Why three days? God wants the people to leave slavery permanently – not just for a weekend! Like a good negotiator, did God encourage Moses to ask for three days because that is the most time Pharaoh might accept?
Or perhaps, like a good educator, God understood that the people need to enjoy three consecutive days of freedom to get the hang of it. Once they had a sustained experience of freedom, then they would never be able to go back to slavery. Perhaps, God knew that three consecutive times is the charm.
I recently read an article in The Los Angeles Times by a woman named Corinna Nicolaou, who called herself a “none.” She used this descriptor because, “that’s what pollsters call Americans who respond on national surveys to the question, ‘What is your religious affiliation?’ with a single word: “None.” Corrinna was raised without religious affiliation, but this year, she wants to make a change. She looked in the “Worship Directory” of her local paper, and for her New Year’s resolution, she decided to visit each congregation.
When I read the article, I was impressed by Corinna’s openness to try new experiences and embark on a spiritual search. How brave of her to seek as an adult something she missed as a child! Yet, I wondered whether her approach would work. In the column, she didn’t specify whether she would visit each congregation once, or more often. As with ice skating and freedom, one day is not enough to learn the sport of worship. Following God’s advice in this week’s parasha, she may want to consider attending each congregation for three consecutive visits to get past the initial awkwardness of a new setting and become familiar with the melodies and the people.
I saw this phenomenon at work in my congregation. One day a young woman (named Jalzalla) came to visit the synagogue. At first, she sat alone, not knowing anyone. She seemed a little out of place, as she was about sixty years younger than most of the congregants who regularly attended. She came again the following week, and a lady came to sit next to her and showed her how to follow along in the prayer book. As she came to services week after week, Jalzalla became closer to the ladies. When Jalzalla eventually decided to convert to Judaism, the ladies bought her a necklace with the Hebrew name she chose and cheered her on as she was called to the Torah for the first time. By coming week after week, she got into the groove of the community.
The experience of ice skating reminded me that while we can learn new tricks at any age, some skills are more easily acquired as children. I wondered: what activities do I want to be in my children’s repertoire before they leave home? (Maybe next year, we should try skiing!) When it comes to winter sports, sacred community, or freedom, I’m grateful that we won’t be “none”s.
December 20, 2012 | 4:52 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This morning, I turned on CNN for a few minutes to catch up on the day’s events. The program showed pictures of the teachers and students murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary school whose funerals were being held today. The reporter then offered the latest update on the investigation at the gunman’s home. Finally, the newscaster said that after commercials they will have a segment on bullet proof backpacks that kids can wear to protect themselves when in school.
‘Good God!’ I thought. ‘What has this world come to?’ I’m supposed to be writing a speech for a baby naming that I’m conducting next week. But how do you welcome an innocent, new life into such a world – where kids need to wear bulletproof backpacks to school?
This coming week’s Torah portion is called Vayechi which means “And he lived.” The Torah portion which concludes the book of Genesis, describes the deaths of Jacob, and later Joseph. Yet the portion refuses to be named or defined by death; rather it emphasizes life. Similarly, the Torah portion which describes Sarah’s death is called, Chaye Sarah: “The Life of Sarah.” In both accounts, the quality of the person’s life is emphasized, rather than their death. These titles echo God’s words in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendents may live."
An ancient Jewish group at Qumran understood life as a battle between the forces of death and darkness and those of life and light. That’s what life feels like nowadays. As wreaths and teddy bears pour into Sandy Hook, people are trying to bring any kind of light and love after the death and destruction that was brought to that community and to the whole country.
One small ray of light that came out of the massacre is that there now seems to be an awakening happening. In addiction work, people often talk about hitting “rock bottom” – the lowest point within a person’s life where they decide they have to change. It feels like we’ve hit rock bottom as a country, and have realized that our laws, which fail to prevent murder, and our culture, which glorifies violence, must change. My inbox fills with petitions from every conceivable group calling for common sense gun laws. From Obama on down, every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, and teacher, has been weeping, hugging the kids in their lives a little tighter and feeling a call to action.
Issues that seemed unfixable – causes that seemed politically unfeasible – suddenly seem like they must and will change, if we come together. We hear the call of the angel of God, who when Isaac was bound on the altar with a knife to his throat screamed to Abraham, “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do any harm to him.” We’ve finally decided to heed God’s call and choose life.
In one loud voice, the souls of the entire country are crying out the prayer with which Jacob blessed his son Joseph before his death, a prayer that is recited at bedtime by Jews all over the world: Hamalach ha-goel oti mi-kol ra, yivarech at hanearim: May the angel who redeems me from all evil, bless the children.”
November 26, 2012 | 1:39 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
“Why does Abbah (Dad) want to listen to Israeli radio so much?” My eight year old son Jeremy asked me as I was tucking my five year old daughter Hannah into bed.
Oh no, I thought. I had hoped to avoid this conversation. I had hoped to spare my children from worrying about our family in Israel and my daughter’s best friend who is in Jerusalem for the semester. But the kids could tell something was up.
“There are some problems in Israel now.” I began gently.
“What kind of problems?” Jeremy asked.
“Some fighting,” I said. Jeremy kept asking questions, so I explained that there are some rockets being fired into Israel and Israel is trying to shoot down the rockets before they hit the ground. (I tried to offer as G-rated an explanation of the recent events as possible).
Then, Hannah asked, “Are rockets going to fall here?”
“No,” I reassured her. I thought of my cousins and friends in Israel who aren’t able to offer their children such an unequivocal guarantee of their safety.
This week’s Torah portion echoes the fear that those parents felt. The portion begins with Jacob poised to meet his brother Esau from whom he had fled twenty years earlier fearing that Esau would murder him after Jacob tricked him out of his father’s blessing. Jacob learned that Esau is coming along with four hundred men, and “Jacob was very afraid and was distressed.” Bereshit Rabbah explains that two verbs used for his fear indicate that he had dual fears. He was afraid that Esau would kill him and distressed that he might be forced to kill his brother in self-defense.
Jacob prepared for the impending confrontation in three ways. He geared up for battle by dividing his family and entourage into two separate camps – (so that even if one group were attacked, then the other group would survive). He also sent Esau a large group of animals as a gift – hoping that diplomacy would avert a military clash. Finally, he prayed and wrestled with a mysterious stranger (or angel) through the night.
Fortunately, the anxiety-provoking encounter between Jacob and Esau did not lead to violence, but rather to an embrace. Jacob told his brother, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Reading this story in light of recent events in Israel and Gaza, I felt a number of parallels. After the kids were in bed that night, my husband and I watched Israeli television which had several powerful segments. The first was by a military commander who explained and showed the recent technological advances in weaponry that Israel was using in response to the rockets coming into Israel to target Hamas’s operations while trying to avoid civilian casualties. He showed how the person aiming the missile at a Hamas target can redirect the missile if any civilians enter its range. He quoted the Mishnah’s famous saying that anyone who kills a person, it is as if they “destroyed an entire world.” He explained that this appreciation for the sanctity of each human life is such a central part of Israeli culture that many strikes are cancelled or averted at the last moment to spare civilians. He explained that errors will occur but when they happen, they will be assessed to learn what can be done better to spare civilians.
Jacob’s two-fold fear – both of being killed and killing others – was readily apparent in the commander’s words. The general conveyed the ability of recognizing the other as also created in God’s image – which Jacob expressed to Esau when they reconciled.
The news also had two other interviews – one with an older man in Ashkelon who kept his bakery open despite the rocket-fire. He explained that his son was called up into the army, but he continued working to provide for his family. He said he hoped for “quiet.”
The other segment was an interview with an attorney also in Ashkelon who was staying home with his family and had only gone to the grocery store to get some food. He explained that although his kids were afraid, he was trying to look on the bright side and use the week as an unusual opportunity to spend lots of time with his family. He mentioned that because both he and his wife are lawyers and normally very busy, now that they were home with their kids (since the schools and offices were closed), they had an opportunity to play cards, talk and reconnect.
I was struck by the resilience and perseverance of these families. Like Jacob they prepared for the worst but prayed for the best. Even in the crisis, their actions reflected their deepest values.
I am not so naive to believe the current confrontation between Israel and Hamas will end in mutual embrace, the way that Jacob and Esau’s encounter did. Nonetheless, I hope for “quiet” – so that the bakery shop owner can sell his food in peace, and that the lawyer couple can find other ways of having quality time with their kids. Most of all, I pray for a world in which no child has to ask: “Are rockets going to fall here, Mom?”
May 25, 2012 | 3:03 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Who goes first?
This question is central in my household nowadays, as my eight year old son and five year old daughter frequently argue over who gets the first turn at everything. They debate who gets to tell me first at dinnertime how their day was at school. To resolve this issue, I made a chart listing the days of the week with their names alternating as to who gets to recount their day first. Then they argue over a flaw in the chart. They noticed that since there are seven days of the week and two children, one child invariably gets the first turn two days in a row.
The kids also debate who gets snuggles first at bedtime. This time, thinking I was smarter, I made a chart of two weeks (since fourteen days is equally divisible by two), but then they objected that this system too was unfair, because the bedtime chart didn’t correspond to the dinner chart. The same child could end up talking first at dinner and receiving the first snuggles in the same day! As a solution, I suggested moving my daughter’s bedtime fifteen minutes earlier than my son’s so that each of them could have my snuggles “first” at their respective times. Both agreed to the plan, and familial harmony has been temporarily restored.
At bedtime, I tried to explain to my daughter that she doesn’t have to compete with her brother because I love both of them the same amount – infinity, which is bigger than any number. “No, mom,” she corrected me, “The biggest number is a hundred finity hundred finity.”
I now appreciate anew God’s genius in this week’s Torah portion. This week’s parasha begins the book of Bamidbar which recounts the Israelite’s trek through the wilderness. Like children, the Israelites were a quarrelsome bunch, and one of the questions which would have arisen was: who goes first to the Promised Land? But God had a better plan.
In this opening portion, God charts how the people should march through the desert. God arranged the people by family and tribe. But rather than any tribe walking in front of the other , God arranged them in a configuration around the ark which was placed in the center. In this way, no tribe was ahead or behind, each was equidistant from the ark and the tabernacle.
This plan was not merely a wise way to avoid arguments. The arrangement offered an orientation on life. It reminded the people not to measure themselves against one another, relative to their destination. Rather, they should see themselves as dots on a circle in which God is the center – all equally essential, connected to each other by sharing the same focal point.
How fitting then that this portion called “in the desert” is read on the week of the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. In the Mekhilta (a third century collection of interpretations on Exodus), the question is asked: why did God give the Torah in the desert?
One answer is so that there would be no disputes between the tribes, since none of them would be able to say that the Torah was received in their territory. “Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, in a public place that belonged to no one.” The passage further explains that the Torah was given in the desert because just as it is free to all who come into the world, so too the words of Torah are free to all who come into the world.” The Mekhilta underscores the Torah portion’s message that God acts with care to make sure all God’s children feel treasured.
As I try to make my children feel equally cherished, I hope that I can convey to them the wisdom of this week’s portion – that God loves all of us equally “a hundred finity hundred finity.”
May 13, 2012 | 6:45 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
As dance class was about to begin, I struck up a conversation with my friend Dana, who was trying the class for the first time. “You’re going to love this class,” I told her, and explained how I’ve been enjoying these classes for the past couple months. I haven’t danced frequently since college, but now I’m getting back into it.
In January, I attended a dance class by accident. Sara, the mother of a child in my daughter’s preschool, invited us to a Chanukah dance jam which I thought was for children. As it turned out, the session was for adults, and I enjoyed it so much that I ended up going to Sara’s classes regularly. On days when I take the dance class, I feel more energetic and upbeat for the rest of the day and focused when I’m with the kids. I feel a bit funny about spending time and money on myself, but dancing is so uplifting that it’s worth it.
Dana explained that she had studied piano when she was younger. She has wanted to buy a piano for years but other expenses always take precedence. She’s been thinking that since playing piano for fifteen minutes each day will relax her and make her a better mom then it might be an important priority after all. Dana explained that she noticed that around age forty a lot of women are finding or rediscovering their passions, and it’s exciting to see. Some friends are going back to school; others are changing careers or pursuing new hobbies.
Last week’s portion contains a reiteration of the famous commandment to honor our parents. A central chapter of the Torah called the Holiness Code begins with a broad proclamation of principle: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am holy.” The very next line offers the first specific instruction on how to achieve that goal: “Each person shall respect their mother and father…”
Perhaps in addition to honoring our parents, we also need to respect what makes us better parents. This spring I’m taking that commandment more seriously.
With both my step-mother and mother-in-law living locally, Mother’s Day is normally a very busy day for our family. On Mother’s Day, I typically have lunch with my step-mother and dinner with my mother-in-law – making sure to call my grandmother in Connecticut and step-grandmother in New York between meals. Fittingly, the anniversary of my mother’s death falls on the day before mother’s day this year, so l said kaddish (the memorial prayer) for her at synagogue yesterday.
This Mother’s day, I’m made one change in the usual plan. Before heading off to pay tribute to my “mothers,” I started the day off with a dance class.
Each one of us has things that can help us be more patient with our kids and more passionate in our activities. This mother’s day, in addition to honoring our parents, let’s also honor what we need to be great parents and vivacious people.
I hope that Dana decides to get her piano soon. In the meantime, I’ll definitely be dancing.
February 24, 2012 | 1:05 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
My son recently celebrated his eighth birthday, and I spent the few days prior to his party baking the birthday cake. On Friday, I bought ingredients and on Saturday night I baked a rectangular cake as well as a circular one. On Sunday, I decorated the cake. First, I made white, red and black frosting. I then shaped the rectangular cake into a bowling pin and frosted it accordingly — even adding a red liquorish for the stripes of the pin and black liquorish for the bottom. I frosted and decorated the circular cake as a bowling ball to accompany the pin.
I don’t cook much in general, and I’m not an artsy kind of person. But for some reason, for my kids’ birthdays, I become obsessed and feel compelled to make elaborate cakes. Every year, my husband asks: Why can’t we just buy a cake from the store? Wouldn’t that be easier? He’s right; it would be far simpler to buy a cake (which would take about 10 minutes rather than three days). However, my mom always baked our cakes with us as children, and even though baking the cake takes longer, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people also embark on a consuming art project. In the parasha, God gives extensive instructions on how to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary which housed the ark and the tablets during the forty-year desert trek. These detailed architectural plans fill nearly the entire last third of the book of Exodus. Thirteen chapters of the Torah are devoted to this topic. By contrast, the creation of the world takes only two chapters!
The instructions for making the tabernacle are incredibly specific and frankly tedious to read. Why then does the Torah devote so much attention to this topic?
The reason God gives in Exodus is: “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (a 19th century Hasidic master) noted that God did not say, ‘that I may dwell in it’ meaning in the sanctuary, but rather “that I may dwell among them,” – among the people. Kotsk explained that each person should build a sanctuary in their heart for God to dwell there.
The reason the Torah devotes so much attention to the mishkan construction is the same as why I feel compelled to bake the birthday cake each year. When cooking with my children, we create a kind of magic. The joy of the birthday begins not on the day of the party but in the anticipation of baking together. It’s my way to thank God for another year of life.
Likewise, after fleeing Egypt and entering the covenant at Mount Sinai, the people needed to do an art project for God. They longed to thank God for the covenant—not through words but by making something beautiful. They yearned to express their gratitude for their precious freedom and newfound relationship with the divine.
When we were finally done with the three day cake ordeal, my son turned to me and said, “Wow, Mom, it looks like a real bowling pin and ball!” At that moment, I smiled and knew that all the effort was worth it. I imagine that my mom and God were smiling, too, from above.