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.