Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This week, on our winter vacation, my husband, Tal, made a list of supplies before we went out to the market. My five-year-old son Jeremy wanted to get something from the store, but he didn’t know what he wanted. So he asked Tal to put “mystery” on the list, so he would remember to get Jeremy whatever struck his fancy in the store.
As we were shopping, we bought what we needed, and Tal recited the list to check whether we had gotten everything: “Milk, boots, detergent, mystery.” We’d found everything on the list – including a bag of pretzels which was Jeremy’s choice for “mystery.” I smiled: If only it were so easy to attain mystery in one’s life.
I had spent the day reading a gripping novel called Drawing in the Dust by Rabbi Zoe Klein. The book is a romantic, archaeological mystery set in Israel, and the story was absolutely riveting. From the moment I started the book, I couldn’t put it down. I kept wondering: What would they uncover next? Would the heroine and her love interest get together in the end?
By contrast, my life seemed rather benign and unexciting. If only I could pick up some mystery at the market!
This week’s Torah portion also tells the story of someone eager to uncover life’s secrets. In the parsha, called Vayehi (which means “and he lived”), Jacob was near death, so he gathered all his sons and grandsons and said, “Come together and I will tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” That opening must have gotten their attention!
Although Jacob promised to reveal the future, instead he told each son about their past actions and character. These “blessings” feel disappointing after such an enticing introduction. Why can’t Jacob reveal the future? Why can’t any of us see what lies ahead?
Lately, I’ve often wished that I could predict the future. I have to make a series of decisions, but the answers depend in part on events that haven’t happened yet. If I knew the outcome, I could make perfect choices. But now, my decisions are inevitably flawed because of my limited purview. And I know I’m not alone in wanting to know the future. A friend of mine recently began a new relationship and is eager to know whether it will work out. She feels that if she knew the future, then she could enjoy their courtship more – without needing to worry whether he’ll break her heart.
Why couldn’t Jacob tell the future? Why can’t we?
Perhaps, the answer lies in the shopping list. Though I’m sure the Jacob sons would be eager to hear their future, if Jacob had actually told them, their lives would have been far less exciting. It would be as though they had skipped ahead and read the last page of a novel – and then found the rest of the book far less interesting. If we knew the future, we could make better choices and fewer mistakes. But our lives wouldn’t feel like a gripping drama – where we’re glued to our seats, wondering how things will unfold. Knowing the future would surely make life easier, but then we’d be missing one crucial ingredient.
New Years is a time which is popular for making resolutions. We typically reflect on the year that has passed and write a mental list of what we want for the coming year. On the list for 2010, don’t forget to include romance, passion, and especially: mystery.
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December 23, 2009 | 7:52 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
I spoke with my friend Lisa last week, who is due to have her third child in January. Before having children, Lisa was a first grade teacher. After she had her first child five years ago, she left teaching to be a full-time mom. I asked her, “Do you think you’ll go back to teaching when your kids are older?”
“I don’t know,” she responded. “Before having kids, I felt a strong drive to teach children, but now that I have my own kids, I don’t feel the same need. Maybe I would do something else.” Since she’s about to have a baby, she’s years away from confronting that question in a serious way.
This exchange made me think: How does having children affect our life’s goals? How do our lives as parents differ from our previous visions of how our life would be?
This week’s parsha tells the story of Joseph, and how his dreams changed over time. As a teenager, Joseph dreamed that his brothers and his parents would all bow down to him – and he told them so! Joseph’s youthful arrogance led his brothers to throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. Years later, Joseph rose to power in Egypt by developing a plan to help the Egyptians through years of famine.
The parsha, called Vayigash (and he approached), recounts how Joseph reveals himself to his brothers who have come down to Egypt. In a moving speech, Joseph tells the brothers not to feel bad for what they did to him because “God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph explained how his efforts saved the Egyptians from starvation, and will enable him to save their lives as well. He repeats: “So now it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
What a different vision Joseph has now than as a teenager! Although he previously dreamed of dominating his family, Joseph now recognized that God had a different dream for him – that he would save others and his family. What changed Joseph’s perspective?
Joseph surely endured many trials and tribulations since his teenage boasts. He became successful in Potiphar’s house only to wind up spending two years in prison before meeting Pharaoh and rising to power in Egypt. However, it’s striking to note that the last event mentioned before the brother’s travel to Egypt is that Joseph became a parent. He and his wife Asenath had two sons.
Perhaps becoming a parent helped Joseph to see his life’s purpose differently. Indeed the names that he gives his children indicate a change happening within Joseph. Each name is a play on words. The Torah recounts that Joseph named his first son Menashe “because God, said he, has made me forget (nashani) all my toil, and all my father’s house.” He named his second son Ephraim “because God has made me fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my affliction.”
The names show that becoming a parent helped Joseph come to terms with his past and find new gratitude for his blessings. In caring for his children, perhaps Joseph became more acutely aware of the need to provide for all God’s children.
For each of us, becoming a parent has the same power. After having kids some of our previous dreams seem to go by the wayside – and new goals take their place. We may discover that God’s dreams for us are different than the ones we had. Sometimes God knows us better than we know ourselves.
What dreams have you lost since becoming a parent?
What new dreams have you gained?
December 18, 2009 | 1:59 am
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Last weekend, my two-year old daughter Hannah lost one of her shoes. These shoes were her favorite, and she refused to wear any other pair. My husband and I searched every nook and cranny of our house. We scoured our cars. We checked her stroller. We looked in the garage – in case they had fallen out of the stroller. We searched everywhere until finally, we stopped and played outside with the kids.
An hour later, I opened one of Hannah’s drawers to grab a sweater, and there was the shoe – right on top of the clothes.
This incident reminded me of a story by Rabbi Levi Isaac ben Meir of Berdichev of Eighteenth-century Spain. The story is retold in Noah Ben Shea’s The Word (Villard, 1995).
A man was running down the street looking only straight ahead.
The rabbi in the community saw the man and asked him: “Why are you in such a rush?”
“I’m trying to make a living,” said the man, hesitant to even slow down to answer the question.
“Do you think,” asked the rabbi, “that it is possible that the living you are trying to make is not ahead of you but behind you and all that is required
of you is to stand still?”
The Talmud echoes the sentiment of this story. The rabbis teach that “From one who runs after greatness, greatness flees. But one who runs away from greatness, greatness follows. One who forces time is forced back by time. One who yields to time finds time standing by his side.”
The holiday of Hannukah commemorates the miracle of oil in the ancient Temple that was only enough for one day but lasted for eight. The miracle was not that more oil appeared, but rather that the existing oil lasted longer than people thought it would. In essence, the holiday celebrates how things can turn out better than expected.
We often worry about worse-case scenarios but forget that things can also work out even better than we imagined. In economic crisis, our natural response is to rush with greater urgency to make a living – like the man in the story – never pausing for even a moment to reflect. In our frantic search, we can easily lose hope and perspective.
In these uncertain times, the holiday of Hannukah reminds us to take heart and yield to time. Because you never know: miracles can happen when you least expect. You may actually find what you’ve lost, just as soon as you stop looking for it.
December 10, 2009 | 9:28 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
“What do you want for Hanukkah?” Bubby asked my five-old-son Jeremy.
“The Horton Hears a Who Book,” he answered. “That’s my favorite.”
“But you already have that book.” she replied gently, “You don’t want two copies of the same book. What else do you want for Hannukah?”
“I want to draw. I love drawing.” Jeremy replied, and so Bubby decided to buy him an art set.
Overhearing this conversation, I was struck by the fact that both of Jeremy’s wishes referred to things he already had – his favorite book and the ability to draw. Rather than longing for what he didn’t own, Jeremy wished for what he already possessed.
This week’s Torah portion also speaks of a boy’s wish. In the beginning of the portion (Vayeshev), Joseph is blessed with a carefree childhood, as his father’s favorite son. However, Joseph wanted more. As a teenager, Joseph envisioned grandeur; he dreamt that his brothers and parents would bow down to him – and he told them so!
By the end of the Torah portion, the absolute opposite of Joseph’s wish occurs. He is alone and forgotten in prison. As he languishes in prison, Joseph then longs for what he previously had – freedom, companionship, and family.
Joseph’s story reminds me of a tale I heard Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard tell.
Once there was a king who had a court painter from whom he regularly commissioned royal portraits. After many years, the king grew tired of these paintings and asked the artist instead to paint a picture of love. The court painter had no idea what to do – so he left his home and his family and searched the entire kingdom to find a fitting image. After a year of searching, he returned, having failed to find a picture of love.
When he came home, the painter knocked on the door of his house, and his wife answered. Her face glowed with joy to see her husband again. The painter then realized that he need not have searched the kingdom for a portrait of love. It was before him the whole time.
So often, like the court painter, we search far and wide for what we want and overlook the blessings that we already have.
So this year, like Jeremy, what I want for Hanukkah is Hanukkah with the people I love.
And I wish the same for you.