Stranger in a Strange Season

My 5-year-old son, Jeremy, likes to watch cartoons on television each morning as he gets ready for school. This month, I noticed that most of the programs seemed to revolve around Christmas, and were particularly focused on presents. For example, on “Jungle Junction,” the blue Elephant, Elizam, was searching for a gift for his friend Zuta, the pig, for Christmas. Other shows featured similar themes. I started to worry about what effect these programs would have on Jeremy. Would he start wanting to celebrate Christmas like his favorite characters?

One morning, I asked him about the shows. He explained to me simply, “Well, they’re getting ready for Christmas, and the TV doesn’t know we’re Jewish.”

His statement summed up perfectly my discomfort this time of year. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving through the day after New Years, the radio, shopping malls and billboards all show me that they don’t know I’m Jewish. During the rest of the year, Jews can almost forget that we’re a minority, but during the holiday season, the reminders are constant, and a subtle spirit of rivalry sets in. At a Hanukkah gathering this past week, my friends and I handed out gifts to the children. My friend Danny said, “Well, we have to compete with Christmas.”

Perhaps, it’s fitting then that on Christmas week, we read in the Torah portion about the story of Joseph, who is the first Jew to spend his entire adult life (beginning at age 17) outside the Land of Israel as a minority in a non-Jewish culture. Joseph rose to power in Egyptian society, without losing his faith. However, the parsha demonstrates that Joseph still didn’t feel completely at home in Egypt.

The parsha, called Vayigash (“And he approached”), recounts how Joseph and his brothers met again after years of estrangement. When Joseph was about to introduce his brothers to Pharaoh, he told his brothers that when asked their profession, they should say that they are breeders of livestock because Egyptians hated shepherds. Even though Joseph held great power in Egypt, he was still worried whether his brothers would be accepted.

As it turns out, Joseph’s concern was misplaced. When asked their profession, the brothers answered truthfully that they were shepherds. Perhaps, after years of covering up for having thrown Joseph in the pit, the brothers were tired of lying. Pharaoh was unfazed by this admission and gave them an important job — putting them in charge of the royal flocks. The brothers were unashamed of their identity, and Pharaoh rewarded them.

Upon reflection, I realized that Jeremy’s answer paralleled the approach of the brothers to their minority status. Jeremy didn’t express any desire to have Christmas. Even though the TV. doesn’t know he’s Jewish, he knows who he is. Last week, I attended a Hanukkah celebration at the Jewish Day School that my kids attend. The evening was filled with song, dreidel-making, and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). Presents were collected for the poor, but none given to the students. And there was no contest; it was simply a celebration of who we are.

Indeed, the real contest is not with Christianity (or any other faith) but with the pervasive materialism of our culture. By focusing on presents, we cheapen Hanukkah — and Christmas too.

As we wrap up this year’s holiday season, we can do well to follow the approach of the brothers and be proud of our identity. For even when the TV doesn’t know who we are, we do.

Unexpected Miracles

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 Galicia. 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 “One who humbles oneself, the Holy One raises up, and one who exalts himself, the Holy One humbles. 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.”

This paradox is echoed in the story of Joseph which is read in the Torah portions during Hannukah. As a teenager, Joseph recounted to his brothers dreams of his family bowing down to him. His youthful arrogance soon landed him alone in prison. While incarcerated, Joseph performs an act of kindness by interpreting the dream of a fellow inmate, the cupbearer, who when released promptly forgets Joseph.

During two long years in prison, Joseph probably thought he was stuck there for good. Yet, in the continuation of the story (read in this week’s parsha called Miketz), Pharaoh has a puzzling dream, and the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph. This story offers hope that redemption can come just when least expected – which is precisely the message of Hannukah.

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.

What's In A Dream?

When my son Jeremy was four years old, I took him to the Zimmer children’s museum (near my home in Los Angeles). The exhibit includes a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem with paper for children to write their prayers and insert them between the stones of the wall. I explained this idea to Jeremy and encouraged him to draw his prayer. He drew an indecipherable scribble on the page and stuck it in the wall.

I wondered, what was his deepest longing – a new toy? World peace? Out of curiosity, I asked Jeremy, “What did you pray for?” He replied simply, “A playdate with Evan” (a child in his class). That night after Jeremy went to sleep, I emailed Evan’s mom to arrange a playdate for the following week. If only, all of our prayers could be answered so easily!

This week’s Torah portion also recounts a boy’s wish. The parsha is called Vayeshev (and he settled) because Jacob has returned to his homeland of Canaan. In the beginning of the parsha, Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams. As a teenager, Joseph had visions of grandeur; he dreamt that his brothers and his parents would all bow down to him.

By the end of the parsha, the complete opposite of Joseph’s dreams has occurred. Joseph is forgotten and alone in prison. There, ironically, Joseph becomes a dream interpreter. Rather than fulfilling his own dreams, Joseph helps others understand theirs. This shift ultimately leads to his liberation (when the cupbearer whose dreams he interpreted in prison eventually recommends him to Pharaoh). When Joseph’s goals change from dominating others to helping others, his life begins anew. As a statesman to Pharaoh, Joseph eventually attains the stature that he envisioned as a youth, but only by helping the Egyptians through the famine – which became his life’s purpose.

All this focus on dreams forces us to ask ourselves: What are our deepest aspirations? Like the young Joseph, do we dream of fortune and fame? Or like the elder statesman, do we aspire to serve the community in which we live?

This holiday season may force us to face which of our dreams have come true and which haven’t. As we run around shopping for presents we may not be able to afford, we confront our financial dreams which (for so many of us) have come crashing down this past year. However, upon reflection, we may discover that other dreams have come true – such as having good people to share our lives with and the chance to help others. Indeed, the holiday of Hanukkah celebrates a dream – Jewish survival and autonomy – that has come true against all odds, both in ancient times and in our own day.

This Hanukkah, my deepest prayer is the one that Jeremy wrote in the wall. May this holiday be filled with playdates with friends and family, and may all our worthy dreams come true.

The Courage to Lose

This past weekend, my family and I went out to eat at a restaurant. We happened to sit near a television which showed a wrestling match. The two wrestlers were locked in a hold. One of the wrestlers wore blue shorts. The other, red. “Go blue!” My five-year-old son Jeremy cheered.

“Why are you cheering for blue?” I asked, wondering if blue was his favorite color or why he had chosen that particular wrestler over the other.

“Because the blue man is smushing the red one. Blue is winning.” Jeremy replied. (I then asked the manager to change the channel, and he kindly obliged.)

This week’s parsha also recounts the story of a wrestling match. The parsha, called Vayishach (and he sent), begins with Jacob sending messengers to his brother Esau in advance of meeting him. Twenty years earlier, Jacob fled from his brother who had wanted to kill him. Terrified of seeing him again, Jacob was up all night wrestling with a man (who many of the commentators understand to be an angel).
Who won this wrestling match?

The Torah doesn’t say. Jacob was injured in the thigh while the angel was unharmed. Nevertheless, Jacob refused to let go until the angel gave him a blessing. He asked Jacob’s name and said: “Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; you have wrestled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

This story could be read as a success story of Jacob refusing to give up until he won, exacting a blessing from his opponent. However, the story could also be understood as Jacob losing the match and discovering a blessing therein.

Like my son Jeremy, we often root for the winning team. We like success stories of how people heroically overcome every obstacle to achieve victory. I recently watched the World Cup speed skiing competition where the races were interspersed with video clips of the winner’s stories of how they worked tirelessly to achieve victory. These uplifting programs make us feel that if we give our all to our life’s goals, then we too will be equally successful.

However, sometimes we give our best effort, to no avail. One friend of mine is struggling to admit to herself and her family that her marriage has failed. Another friend spent six months in tortured agony trying to hold onto his flailing business before finally admitting that he needed to declare bankruptcy and start over. In each case, they had to struggle not only with the loss itself but also with the shame and embarrassment that comes along with conceding defeat.

When we lose, we often feel that we’re alone. Yet the Talmud teaches that even God suffered defeat. The Babylonian Talmud recounts that in one particularly heated debate between second-century Rabbis, a heavenly voice intervened and announced that Rabbi Eliezer was right. In response, Rabbi Joshua cited a biblical verse to prove that the Torah had been given to people and therefore heavenly voices should be ignored. The rabbi used God’s words to beat God in the debate!

What did God do at that moment? “God smiled and said, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’”

Smiling with victory is easy, but true courage is needed to laugh again after defeat. Only through our losses do we become who we’re meant to be. By letting go, Jacob became Israel. As we wrestle with painful decisions, we should remember that our loved ones and God are rooting for us, win or lose.

Where ‘Love’ First Appears

Over the summer, I took my kids to the shore with my friend Mia and her children. At a beachside cafĂ©, I explained to my 5-year-old son, Jeremy, what was on the children’s menu.

“You can have macaroni and cheese,” I said.

“Yay!” he said, jumping up and down.

“Or you could have a grilled cheese sandwich…”

“Wow! I love grilled cheese!”

“Or you could have pancakes…”

Again, Jeremy raised his hands and exclaimed, “Yay, pancakes!” as if he were cheering for the home team at a football game. My friend Mia noticed how excited Jeremy was about each of the options. After lunch, we walked to the beach, and Jeremy and the other kids ran and leapt with delight at seeing the ocean. As Mia and I trailed behind, she nicknamed Jeremy, “Mr. Exuberance.”

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of someone who exhibited such exuberance: Jacob. The parsha is called Va-yeze — and he went out — because it recounts Jacob’s journey to his uncle Laban’s home where he falls in love with Rachel. This is the second love story in the Bible; the first was that between Isaac and Rebecca. Prior to this, Genesis retold the story of many couples: Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, and Sarah and Abraham. But the story of Isaac and Rebecca is the first time the word “love” is used in the bible to describe the relationship between spouses. This word shows that Isaac and Rebecca shared something special, something beyond what their parents and grandparents experienced.

When Rebecca saw Isaac for the first time, she had a dramatic reaction. She was riding to meet Isaac. When she saw him, she literally “fell off her camel.”

In this week’s parshah, the word “love” is also used for the relationship between Jacob and Rachel. In that story, Jacob also has an intense reaction to seeing his beloved for the first time. The bible recounts that when Jacob saw Rachel, he kissed her and wept.

The actions of these biblical characters are intense by modern standards. Try to imagine any man today who would cry over a first kiss. Or a woman who would be moved by this response, rather than alarmed, or even scared off.

Children are known for extreme reactions — leaping with glee or sobbing uncontrollably. However, as adults we’re taught to dull our emotions. We try not to cry too much, even when we’re grieving. We rarely jump for joy. (The photographer at my wedding staged a picture of my husband and I jumping for joy, but I can’t remember the last time I spontaneously leapt with delight.) When my husband comes home from work at night, my children sprint to the door and jump into his arms, whereas I tend to stay seated and calmly say hello. Having blunted our responses, we then wonder why we seem to have lost our lust for life.

This week’s parsha reminds us of the inextricable link between emotion and passion. Genesis teaches that to experience love, we have to be open to overwhelming feelings, even when they embarrass us or throw us off balance. In this way, we too can become exuberant.

In a Sentence

A friend of mine from college recently found me on Facebook. We hadn’t spoken to each other since graduation, but I was happy to hear from him. Since we were out of touch for so long, he began by summarizing the last 15 years of his life. In a few bullet-pointed sentences, he concisely explained how he had started a Ph.D. program, left to work in the corporate world, married and had a child. I was surprised how such a long period of time could be encapsulated so succinctly, and I did my best to describe my adulthood in a few brief sentences as well.

On reflection, I realized that the past six years of my life could be summarized in just one sentence – a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Genesis 25:22. This verse describes Rebecca’s experience of being pregnant. And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, ―If so, why this me? And she went to inquire of God.”

This week’s parsha Toldot (Generations) tells the story of Rebecca and Isaac becoming parents. The parsha explains that Rebecca and Isaac had struggled with infertility and long dreamt of becoming pregnant. However, Rebecca soon found that pregnancy was much harder than she anticipated. She was in a great deal of pain and called out to God. Her fragmented question: “if, so, why this me?” indicated the depth of her anguish. Her question was an existential one; she longed to understand her place in the world.

Rebecca sought God – who then responded to her in turn. Until this point in the Torah, God had spoken to other people, but Rebecca was the first person to take the initiative to address God directly and prompt God to answer.

God told Rebecca that she was pregnant with twins, and that these children would each lead a future nation. In responding, God didn’t remove Rebecca’s pain but helped her see the bigger picture by imparting significance to her suffering. God reminded her that her life – and her current pain – was a part of something larger, and this purpose gave her strength to endure.

Rebecca went lidrosh “to inquire” or seek God. This verb is the root of the later word midrash (which means the interpretation of Torah). Rebecca’s quest serves as a paradigm for the process of Torah study which seeks to gain an understanding from God of our life’s purpose.

Like Rebecca, I too found child-rearing more difficult than anticipated. I felt ill throughout my pregnancy, had complications in labor, and then struggled with sleep deprivation for the first few years of each of my children’s lives. This experience led me to question who I was in the world and reassess my priorities. Through the vehicle of Torah, I turned to God for answers and discovered new meaning in life. This insight didn’t make raising children easier but imparted a sense of fulfillment. Rebecca’s verse captures the spiritual journey of parenting.

The verse also encapsulates the spiritual quest of the Jewish people since Rebecca’s time. Throughout the generations, the Jewish people have found life far more challenging than we anticipated. In crises, we turned to God and asked repeatedly, “If so, why this me?” Through Torah, we sought and seek our purpose. In turn, God doesn’t remove our suffering but reminds us that our actions have ultimate significance. This understanding has given our people the strength to endure through the ages.

As it turns out, summarizing a decade or five millennia is easier than it seems. Only one sentence is needed: “The children struggled within her, and she said, ‘if so, why this me’ and went to inquire of God…” The rest is history.

Monsters under the Bed

Recently, my five-year-old son Jeremy had been waking up at night. One evening before bed I asked him why he had trouble sleeping. He said he was afraid of monsters. To calm him, I explained that there were no monsters, but Jeremy insisted the monsters were real. Then, I responded with the first idea that popped into my head. I took a stuffed dog from the closet and told the dog to bark if any monsters come and scare them away. Jeremy hugged the dog and slept well that night. On subsequent nights, I repeated these instructions to the dog and Jeremy continued to sleep well.

I wondered why this approach worked. Jeremy surely knew as well as I did that the stuffed dog couldn’t bark. Why did this idea quiet his fears?

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of someone facing terror and finding comfort. The parshah, called Lech Lecha (Go forth) tells the story of Abraham and Sarah’s journey from their birthplace in Haran to make a new home in Canaan. However, the parshah also tells the story of a second journey – that of Hagar (Sarah’s handmaid) who fled into the wilderness.

At Sarah’s suggestion, Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s child. Thereafter, Sarah began to treat Hagar harshly until she ran away. In the wilderness, an angel of God found Hagar by a spring, called her by name and asked, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” Hagar explained her problem. The angel then promised her that she will have a son named Ishmael (which means God will hear) because “God has heard your suffering” and that she will have countless descendents. In response, Hagar named the place where the angel spoke to her “El-roi” which means “God sees me.” Encouraged, Hagar returned home.

Interesting, the angel of God didn’t do anything to change Hagar’s situation. The angel didn’t provide any physical protection or miracles. The angel just heard her anguish and offered hope. The angel reaffirmed that Hagar’s pain was real, agreeing that Sarah’s treatment was “harsh.” Most importantly, the angel made Hagar feel seen, heard – and significant. The angel taught Hagar that she was not merely Sarah’s mistreated handmaid; she was the mother of generations to come.

In reflecting back on Jeremy’s night-time struggles, the stuffed animal may have served the same purpose. Jeremy knew on some level that the dog couldn’t scare off any monsters. Yet, to Jeremy, the dog represented that I heard and acknowledged his fears. The dog symbolized my love.

Like children, adults often face our own monsters – which are likewise invisible but no less real. Economic uncertainty and fears for the future can disturb our sleep. Our friends and family, our clergy (and even God) can’t make these demons go away. Yet they can see/hear our pain and offer hope that times will get better. They can show us their love. And sometimes that’s enough.

Why Mommy, Why?

Lately, my two-year-old daughter Hannah developed a cute (and annoying) habit of constantly asking “Why?”

This morning, we arrived a few minutes early to her pre-school and I explained to her that she couldn’t go into the classroom because we were early.

“Why, Mommy?” She asked. And I responded: “Your teachers are cleaning up and getting the class ready for you.”

“Why?” She asked again.

“Because they want the class to be ready for you to have fun and play.”

“Why, Mommy?”

“Because they love to play with you.”


“Because they love you.”

“Why?” Again, and again, she asked – until I ran out of explanations, and hugged her in exasperation.

This week’s Torah portion, Bereshit, recounts the creation of the world and humanity, and the experiences of the first people, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. In his first comment on the Torah, Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator asked why the Torah begins with Genesis. He noted that the first commandment is not found until the book of Exodus 12:1 (where God explained how to declare the new month and set the calendar). Rashi noted that the Torah really didn’t need to begin until then, so why begin with Genesis?

Rashi answered by saying that the Torah begins with Genesis because it demonstrates divine power and authority by recounting creation. Yet it seems to me that the real answer to Rashi’s question is found within the question itself. If one reads the Torah with the question in mind “What should I do?” Then you can begin in Exodus. However, if you’re wondering: “Why do I exist?” then you need to begin in Genesis. Bereshit articulates the purpose of human life, showing how God created humanity and placed them in the garden “to work it and to keep it.”[i] The dual purposes of our lives are to protect and creatively transform the world around us for the better.

In our busy lives, we often get caught up in the “what’s” of life. As we work on the tasks on our unending to-do lists, we can easily forget about the whys – the reasons underlying our choices. Yet, it’s precisely this sense of purpose which rekindles our inner light and gives us the courage to face each new day. We each need to be able to articulate the overarching goals of our lives and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Only by having a vision of our life’s purpose and working towards it, can we attain fulfillment through the ups and downs of daily living.

With Genesis, the cycle of the Torah reading commences anew, and we begin again. As we take our first steps into this new year, one spiritual lesson we can learn from our toddlers is to never stop asking “Why?”

[i] Genesis 1:15.

Hurry Up and Wait

“Your friends are coming over for a play-date soon,” I told my five-year-old son Jeremy and two year-old daughter Hannah. They immediately bounded out the door to wait on the sidewalk for their friends.

“It’ll be a while until your friends come,” I said. “Wouldn’t you rather wait inside where you can play with your toys?”

Jeremy said he’d prefer to wait outside, and he and Hannah waited enthusiastically on the sidewalk for half an hour until their friends came. When they arrived, my kids bounced with joy.

A few days later, I attended a rabbinical conference. In the brief breaks between sessions, my colleagues and I pulled out cell phones and blackberries to check email, unable to wait through the five-minute intermissions. I wondered what happened between childhood and adulthood. How had we lost our ability to wait?

On both the secular and Jewish calendars, we are in a season of anticipation. The Hebrew month of Elul marks the time of anticipation leading up to the High Holidays. We turn our focus with heightened intensity towards our spiritual and personal growth as the holidays approach. On the secular calendar, in August and early September, we anxiously buy supplies and get ready for “back to school.” Both children and their parents look forward with a mix of excitement and nervousness for the big “first day of school.” (As a child, I was never able to sleep the night before school started and as an adult, I don’t sleep much better either on that night.) This season forces us to face the spiritual challenge of waiting.

Right now, our country also seems to be in a state of waiting for economic recovery but uncertain when it will arrive. The unemployed are searching for jobs, and many are trying to get by until times improve. When one’s livelihood is on the line, it sure is hard to wait.

Our tradition reminds us that retaining faith while waiting is one of the great tasks of life. In the Talmud, Rava (a prominent fourth century rabbi) stipulates that there are seven questions that a person is asked by God when they die about their life accomplishments – including, ‘Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully?’ ‘Did you study Torah?’ ‘Did you raise a family?’ etc.[i] These questions mostly address our actions, but one of the questions inquires of our state of mind: “Did you look forward to redemption?” In his book, The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven, Dr. Ron Wolfson understands this last question to mean: Did you retain hope even in difficult times? This question is surely one of life’s greatest struggles.

In turning our focus to our spiritual and personal growth, we may feel frustrated when we’re not yet where we long to be. When we take stock of the events of the past year, we may feel sadness at some of the losses we experienced. We may long for solutions that we haven’t yet found. At such times, our tradition reminds us that change takes time. On my summer vacation, I visited Hearst Castle which took William Hearst a lifetime of dreaming and 15 years of construction to build. Our personal goals can take just as much work. Like economic recovery, spiritual growth can’t be wished into existence; it comes in its own sweet, unpredictable time.

This month, let’s relearn from our children the art of hopeful anticipation. Let’s give our dreams a chance to unfold. They’ll be worth the wait.

[i] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

Happy Independence Day!

Sunny California is living up to its name nowadays. It’s bright and hot outside. As is her custom, Hannah, my strong-spirited two-year-old, insisted on picking out her clothes yesterday morning. Despite the heat, she selected jeans, a sweater, a jacket and bunny slippers! I explained to her that it was too hot for long pants and sleeves, but she refused to wear anything else.

Then came breakfast, and she insisted on pouring the cereal into the bowl herself – which of course made a big mess. Then, she wanted to pack her own lunch – an apple and an orange –even though her nursery school serves lunch. Though adorable, her “do-it-myself” kick was driving me nuts.

This week’s Torah portion tells about a King named Balak, who hired a soothsayer named Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balak took Balaam to the top of a tall mountain so that he could look over the people and curse them from there. Balaam agreed to this plan. However, when he looked out at the people, he was spontaneously inspired to bless them instead, saying: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”[i]

What changed his mind? What did Balaam see that inspired him to bless the people instead of curse them?

The Talmud teaches that Balaam saw that “the doors of the people’s tents didn’t exactly face one another, and therefore exclaimed: ‘Worthy are these that the divine presence should rest upon them!’”[ii] The tents were arranged so that no family could see inside the other’s home. The community was structured so that the dignity of each member was respected.

This teaching struck me as fitting for Independence Day, where we express our gratitude for this “dwelling place” where the dignity of each person is respected. Like Balaam, we praise God for the freedoms we cherish. In hearing these past weeks about the struggles in Iran, I am more acutely aware of the preciousness of the right to vote in free, fair elections, the freedoms of press and assembly and all the liberties that we often take for granted. This respect for human rights makes this country “worthy that the divine presence should rest upon it.”

On a personal level, this teaching reminds me to celebrate the dignity and autonomous spirit in my children as well. Their efforts to do things themselves may drive us crazy sometimes, but these attempts also help them to grow and learn.

Yesterday morning, I could have argued with Hannah and tried to force her to wear more seasonal clothing. Instead, I smiled and sent her to nursery school in the outfit she selected – with a bag containing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals for when she got too hot. This holiday weekend, let’s pause to celebrate the independent spirit of our nation and children.

Happy Independence Day to you and your families!

[i] Numbers 24:5.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud: Baba Batra 60a.

Happy Father's Day!

When Jeremy was a toddler, we took him to the Zoo. Jeremy enjoyed the outing but insisted that his father pick him up and carry him the entire time because he was afraid of the animals. Normally, Jeremy was a Mommy’s boy and would prefer that I hold him. However, at the Zoo, he wouldn’t let me carry him at all. Somehow, Jeremy instinctively understood that Tal would be a better defender than me. In this situation, Tal served the role of protector.

I remember when my dad served that role too when I was young. As a toddler in Israel, I accidentally peed on the floor of a store, and the saleswoman yelled at me. My father stood up for me and reprimanded her – reminding her that I was just a child and didn’t mean to do it. I remember feeling that my dad had saved the day.

However, the father’s job of “protector” is time limited. Tal’s role in protecting Jeremy from the animals will expire someday when (God willing) Jeremy will be as big – or even taller – than his father.

I went to lunch with my father last week to ask him some professional advice. This session involved a kind of protection – preventing me from making professional missteps. But the fatherly role of protector had somehow morphed into one of mentor or consultant. Fathers play so many roles as their children grow – guardian, advisor, or guide. What do these roles have in common?

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are approaching the Promised Land after trekking through the desert. At God’s command, Moses sends twelve scouts to check out the land and bring back a report in preparation for entering the land. Ten of the scouts reported that the land was beautiful but that its inhabitants were giants. They were afraid to enter the land, stating: “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.”[i] By contrast, the two remaining scouts, Caleb and Joshua, encouraged the people. Caleb said: “Let us go up, yes, up and possess it, for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it!”[ii]

Caleb's words are a fitting slogan for fathers. Fathers have the power to uplift their children. When children are small, fathers literally pick them up, and at all ages, fathers can encourage their children to achieve their dreams. Throughout life, good fathers lift us up higher than could otherwise go. Rather than feeling like grasshoppers, children know they can reach great heights.

In the car this week, Jeremy said to me, “I wish that Abbah (Dad) had magic shoes that I could ride on his back and we could fly into the sky.”

“Maybe he does,” I replied.

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers who elevate their children’s aspirations!

[i] Numbers 13:33. Translation by Everett Fox.
[ii] Numbers 13:30.

Happy Mothers Day

Two weeks ago, our family went on a Sunday outing to see Thomas the Train in Fillmore. This once a year event includes fun activities such as a train ride and a carnival with games. (The day also had some tedious parts such as waiting in line for half an hour in the beating sun for the train to come.) Overall, the kids had a wonderful time.

On the drive home, I asked my son Jeremy, “Did you have fun today?” “Yes,” he replied enthusiastically.

Looking for more specifics, I asked: “What was your favorite part?” He responded immediately with confidence. “All of it!”

I pressed him further, “Which did you like best – the moon bounce or going on the train?” “All of it!” he replied again. Despite the tedious components of the day, his favorite part was “all of it.” Perhaps he didn’t understand the concept of having a favorite part. … Or maybe he did.

On the holiday of Passover (which we observed last month), there is a custom of eating a special concoction, called the Hillel sandwich (after its inventor Rabbi Hillel who lived in Israel in the first century B.C.E.). This sandwich is made of maror (bitter herbs which represent the bitterness of slavery in Egypt), and haroset (a sweet mixture of fruits and nuts which represents the mortar used by the Israelites to build the pyramids). The maror and haroset are placed between two slices of matzah (unleavened bread which the Israelites took with them as food for their desert trek to the Promised Land). The sandwich symbolically represents bitterness and hard work which when combined with risk lead to liberation.

In her book, Parenting as a Spiritual Journey, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer uses the Hillel sandwich as a metaphor for the experience of parenting. Like the Hillel sandwich, parenting includes both bitter and sweet times and lots of hard work mixed together into one. This combination transforms and liberates us.

This month, Jewish tradition instructs us to count the days from Passover (which recalls the Exodus) to Shavuot (which celebrates the giving of the Torah). This practice means that the journey which begins with struggle leads to understanding. Like the desert trek, the path of parenting, which also involves sweat and tears, cultivates its own wisdom. Like the Hillel sandwich, parenting is a package deal. The tough parts and the good times are inextricably linked. Somehow despite the bitterness, the sandwich is delicious.

So, if I you ask me what my least favorite part of becoming a mom has been, I have several answers – morning sickness, sleep deprivation, and especially labor. Yet, if you ask me what my favorite part of motherhood has been, I would answer emphatically: “All of it!”

Happy Mother’s Day to you and to all our mothers!

Carpool Line

As a parent, moments of inspiration can come from unusual places. One might think that you need to go to a mountaintop or to the ocean for inspiration. But for me, all I need to do is sit in carpool line.

In the afternoon, when I pick Jeremy up in carpool line I found a spiritual mentor of sorts. This man is someone I don’t know well, but he’s changed the way I view life.

The person I’m referring to is Daniel, a security guard at the preschool my son attends. Every morning and afternoon, his job is to direct cars in carpool line. His job seems pretty monotonous to me – standing for long stretches of time to direct the people and cars. What’s remarkable is that he does his job with immense joy. He gives high-fives to the kids walking by. He notices everything and he’ll comment to Jeremy, “Oh, I love your Elmo shirt.” When we walked by one morning, Hannah had schmutz on her face, and he wiped it off. Once he told me that my car’s breaks were squeaking and needed to be inspected, and he was right.

Daniel welcomes each person and makes them feel appreciated through these little gestures. Even if you’re having a rough day, there’s one bright spot in your day. The experience of the synagogue as a warm and loving place begins with him. I wonder: where does his joy come from? How is he able to make such an impact on me and on countless others that he encounters every day?

An answer to this question may be found in one of the most unsightly parts of the Torah. This week’s Torah portion addresses a disease called tzara’at. This word is often mistranslated as leprosy but actually refers to a strange disease that can afflict people or even houses. In people, tzara’at turns the skin white, and in houses, tzara’at is a kind of mold. Either way, it’s no fun!

This part of the Torah is seemingly the least relevant to today – as we thankfully no longer have this disease on our bodies or in our homes. This section is perhaps the last place in the Torah you would expect to find spiritual inspiration but is home to one of my favorite teachings.

Leviticus teaches that if a person contracted the disease, he or she should go to the priest, and the text offers specific instructions to the priest on diagnosis. The verse reads:

And the priest is to look at the affliction on the skin of the flesh; if the hair in area has turned white and the look of the affliction is deeper than the skin of his flesh, then it is tzara’at, and the priest is to look at him, he is to pronounce him impure.

This text is repetitious. The priest is supposed “to look at the affliction” and then “to look at him.” Why is the action of looking stated twice?

Rabbi Y. Y. Tronk from Kutno taught that two levels of looking are required. He wrote:

It would appear that we have a hint here that when one looks at a person, one should not only see his shortcomings – where he has been afflicted – but should look at him as a whole, including his strengths. … Thus, although the priest first needs to ‘look at the affliction,’ afterwards, he must ‘look on him’ as a whole.

This teaching urges us to broaden our vision by looking twice at those we encounter.

In this passage, Rabbi Tronk practiced what he preached. He took a second look at a challenging text – peering beneath the surface of the verse to the deeper meaning hidden within it. That’s what the enterprise of Torah is all about.

Likewise, I think the source of Daniel’s joy is the way he sees both the world around him and his role in it. In a narrow definition, his job is to stand there and wave the cars and people by. However, in a broader view, his task is to care for the people whom he encounters, which is what he does. Like the priest, he really looks at those around him – noticing everything from the new shirt to the smudge on Hannah’s face – and acts as an agent of caring, no less than a rabbi or a doctor.

We often ask children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ but perhaps a more important question is ‘How do we want to be when we grow up?’ Whether one is a clergy person, a lawyer, a mail carrier, a parent, or a friend, the ultimate task is actually the same. The job is caring for God’s creatures. The goal is to open our eyes fully to ourselves and each other.

Daniel does not know that I am writing about him – (though I’ll give him a copy). We rarely realize the depth of the impact we have on one another. Each one of us has the power to brighten each other’s day. All we need to do is take a second look.

A common expression is ‘mothers have eyes behind their head.’ On some level, parenthood does give you a second pair of eyes – a new way of approaching the world. With those new eyes, inspiration can come from the most routine and seemingly mundane parts of our day. With a second look, the security guard becomes a mentor. The gross parts of Torah become our guide. And we become much more than we imagined.

On that note, I better go. Carpool line awaits.

Passover Message

At my son's preschool, there are two ways that you can bring your children to class in the morning. You can drop them off in the carpool line through the garage or you can park and walk them to their classroom. Certainly, the carpool line is a more direct route. You don’t have to find a parking space or even get out of the car. The teachers swiftly unbuckle your child from the back seat, and this quick, simple process only takes a few minutes. By contrast, taking your child to the classroom involves finding parking, walking them through the synagogue building, dropping their lunch in their cubby, finding their teacher and classmates out on the playground where you say good bye, and walking back through the building to the car. All told, walking your child to class takes about a half hour longer than carpool line.

For Jeremy’s first year of preschool, I dropped him off each morning in the carpool line, but one day I walked him in to deliver a form to the office. From that day on, Jeremy refused to go through the morning carpool line and always insisted that I take him to the classroom. He noticed that this extended our time together and felt more comfortable with the transition this way.

As I began to walk Jeremy to the classroom regularly, I noticed a few things gradually happen. I started to get to know his teachers better, as I would see them each day. I also became better acquainted with the other parents. We made play dates and schmoozed about camp plans or swim lessons. Jeremy pointed out to me his art projects that hung in the classroom, and I was far more aware of what was happening at school. In Jeremy’s second year of preschool, both he and I had a better experience by choosing the indirect route.

This month, we celebrate the holiday of Passover which marks the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. When the people left Egypt, God took them on an indirect route. Exodus recounts:

And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them
not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near;
for God said, ‘Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they
return to Egypt;’ But God led the people around, through the way of the
wilderness of the Red Sea; and the people of Israel went up armed out of the
land of Egypt.[i]

God’s choice here is surprising. When fleeing slavery, one would want to leave as quickly as possible! (Indeed, Pharaoh and his army soon came chasing after the Israelites with his horsemen and chariots.) Why would God choose a longer escape route?

The rabbis offer many explanations. Some list practical concerns: that if the people had gone on the shorter route, the Philistines might have attacked them. Yet Rashi (an eleventh century commentator) explained that if they had gone a direct way, they would have found it too easy to turn back when they became discouraged, so God purposely lead them in a circuitous path. The Talmud states that sometimes in life, “There is a short way which is long, and a long way, which is short.”[ii]

Again and again as a parent I’ve discovered the truth of this maxim. I’ve found that the more difficult route is often the better choice. For example, making a birthday cake with one’s child is more work than buying a cake from the store, but the memory of baking together will be with the child for the rest of their lives. (I know because my mother and I made our birthday cake together each year when I was young, which is one of my fondest memories.)

This principle is true not only for our children but for us, as parents as well. One of the frustrations of parenthood is that it can slow us down and change our course. Important projects take longer than they did before kids. A graduate degree that might normally take a few years, may take a parent of young children a decade to complete. A book might take longer to write.

Or our destination may be different than we originally thought. A professional may discover that he or she prefers to be a stay at home parent, or someone who assumed s/he’d be a full time parent, may discover that s/he needs to or wants to work. Moms and dads may end up living or working in a different place than we originally envisioned. As parents, our dreams shift. On an indirect route, sometimes we can’t see the path ahead clearly. We may not know where our new road will lead. We may make mistakes or take detours along the way.

Indeed, my shift in how I dropped off my son to school mirrored a change within me to a less direct route in my own life. Before having children, I was a full-time congregational rabbi, but after having my second child, my career no longer followed a linear path as before. Although I was raised in a dual career family and assumed that I would always work, I was surprised how much I enjoyed being home with the kids, and I didn’t know what to make of those feelings. Where would my new path lead?

In reflection, the Exodus text has a few insights to share. It reminds us that our detours may not necessarily be mistakes. If unexpected turns offer new perspective, then they are important steps along the way. The Exodus text encourages us to have faith – even when we can’t see our way ahead clearly. Sometimes, God knows us better than we know ourselves.

The Exodus reminds us that we are bigger than the categories that we try to fit ourselves into. Working parent, stay at home parent, professional, – those boxes are too small to encompass the complexity and beauty of who we are. Life is far more complicated and wondrous than simple labels allow.

The Exodus reminds us that as long as we are open to learning along the path, then no matter how windy, our road will eventually lead us to liberation. Like taking Jeremy to school, what was important was not only the destination but the relationships that were built along the way. As parents, no matter how many frustrations we face, hopefully we meet some good people along the way and make memories that will last a lifetime.

I better stop writing and go pick up Jeremy from school.

Happy Passover!

[i] Exodus 13:17-18.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 53b. See also Rabbi David Lieber, Etz Chayim (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001) p. 399.