Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This week was tough. Sunday night, I came down with the stomach flu and was up all night in pain. I was a wreck all day Monday and then when I started to feel a bit better, my two-year old daughter Hannah woke up Tuesday morning with pink-eye.
Illness is jarring. One moment you’re totally fine and then the next minute, you’re out of commission. The experience reminds us how vulnerable our bodies really are. We like to think that we can plan and get tasks accomplished but our sickness (or that of our kids) demonstrate how tentative our plans actually are. As the Yiddish phrase goes: Mann traoch, Gott lauch Man plans, God laughs.
However, I don’t even feel entitled to write that I had a lousy week – given the earthquake in Haiti. One minute everything in Haiti was fine, and then the next minute witnessed devastation of catastrophic proportions.
How fitting then that this week, we read about the plagues. Like illness or an earthquake, the plagues came on suddenly and threw everything out of whack with drastic, debilitating physical maladies. After a few days, the plagues passed, just as suddenly as they had come.
Moses and Aaron had appeared before Pharaoh and asked that he “let my people go,” which he refused. So God brought successive plagues of increasing severity. For the first few plagues, Pharaoh was not overly impressed. However during the frogs plague (and the plagues thereafter), Pharaoh relented but then once the plague was over, Pharaoh changed his mind and refused to free the slaves.
This week, I thought of Pharaoh and identified with him a little. My first day of feeling well after being sick felt like a miracle. Nothing exciting happened; I just took Hannah to the doctor for her pink eye and took care of her at home. But still, I was so grateful that I could function and wasn’t in pain that I couldn’t be upset about anything. But after a few days, I again became stressed (about all that I hadn’t accomplished in the days that I was sick) and forgot the wonder of just feeling physically okay.
The story of Pharaoh reveals something fundamental about human psychology. Often, we’re compassionate in a crisis but less so thereafter. For example, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake or tsunami, people from all over the world give generously – which is absolutely essential. But once the coverage dies down, we forget about people in need, day in and day out.
Pharaoh’s example leaves me with the question: How can we hold on to the gratitude and compassion we feel during a crisis once it has passed?
I once saw a woman wearing a shirt that said: “Too blessed to be stressed.” I imagined wearing that phrase on a bracelet as a daily reminder to keep things in perspective. Likewise, the prayer that is traditionally said each morning after going to the bathroom acknowledges the vulnerability of our bodies, that if one of our intricate parts was “blocked or opened, then it would be impossible to exist.” This prayer thanks God, who “heals all flesh and works wonders.”
For me, most often, the daily reminders come from watching my children. When my daughter was home with pink-eye, my husband Tal called to check how she was doing. We were having a boring morning at home. She was playing with a puzzle while I put away the laundry. When Tal asked her how she was, she said, “I’m having a fun time at home.” My children remind me that even the most mundane moments of life are miracles.
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January 8, 2010 | 3:22 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
My children constantly take off their shoes. When they get into the car, the first thing they do is remove their socks and shoes. When we come home, they immediately remove their shoes. Everywhere we go, they are constantly shedding their footwear.
Maybe they like the feel of the air against their feet. Or maybe they know something that I don’t.
In this week’s Torah portion, when Moses reached the burning bush, God called to him and said, “Take your shoes off your feet for the land that you are standing on is holy ground.”
Why did he need to remove his shoes? Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron of sixteenth-century Poland explained:
“The path is always full of sharp objects and stones. When one wears shoes, one can easily step on the small stones lying on the way, almost without feeling them. However, when walking barefoot, one feels every small thing lying on the ground, every thorn, every painful stone.”
Rabbi Shlomo explained that God told Moses to take off his shoes because a leader “must feel every obstacle and every impediment which lies on his path. He must feel the pain of his people and realize what is bothering them.” In order to encounter holiness, Moses had to experience the challenges along the way.
Like Moses hearing God at the burning bush, becoming a parent is sacred endeavor. Parenthood calls us to drop our guard and open ourselves up to feeling fully. Some of our feelings are wonderful – as we hold our child and marvel at them. But some of these feelings, like the stones on the ground, are painful such as exhaustion or listening to the baby crying and trying to soothe it. Nonetheless, like Moses, we must feel it all. For only then can we encounter God and live more deeply.
I once heard a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Seifer speak about her time in hiding during the war. During the days, she hid in a crawl space in the attic, not big enough to stand up or move. She longed to walk outside in the sunlight in the sunlight, barefoot, and feel the grass beneath her foot. Her wish was simple, but at the time, as a Jew in Poland, it was impossible. With war raging in various parts of the world today, for many people walking safely outside is still an impossible dream.
Even on my most challenging days, Gerda’s example has to power to snap my life back into focus. Each time I am outside with my children, I make sure to take off my shoes for a while and remember that even just being outside in freedom with my children is a precious privilege. This simple action has become an important spiritual exercise for me, a daily reminder of how blessed I truly am.
The daily bumps on the road of parenting can sometimes make us lose our balance. To regain perspective, I offer this advice: Go outside, take your shoes off, think of Gerda, and smile.
December 31, 2009 | 1:08 pm
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.
December 23, 2009 | 6:52 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 | 12:59 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 | 8:28 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.