Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5774 • 05 September 2013
There is a story about a man who made out his will with this provision: my son shall not inherit anything of mine until he acts the fool. R. Yose bar Judah and Rabbi went to R. Joshua ben Korhah to get an opinion about this provision. When they peeked in from outside, they saw him crawling on his hands and knees, with a reed sticking out of his mouth, and being pulled along by his child.
Seeing him thus, they discreetly withdrew, but they came back later and asked him about the provision in the will. He began to laugh and said, “As you live, this business you ask about -- acting the fool -- happened to me a little while ago.” Hence the aphorism, “When a man looks on his children, his joy makes him act like a fool.”
~ Midrash Tehillim 92:13 (Book of Legends, p. 633)
I love this midrash for a number of reasons. It starts out as an obscure anecdote about estate law. Rabbi Yose and Rabbi are the lawyers trying to make sense of this strange provision in a client’s will: “my son shall not inherit anything of mine until he acts the fool.” They decide to consult their colleague Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah for his legal opinion.
But when they get to his house, they hear some commotion, so they look in the window. What they see is kind of funny: The great sage Rabbi Joshua down on all fours, a stick in his mouth, and his child – I picture a toddler, of course – pulling him along by the stick, like a dog or donkey or ox.
The two rabbi-lawyers (no offense meant to the lawyers here, by the way...) decide to come back later, when Rabbi Joshua is less preoccupied. And this is the key to the parable. They are so narrowly focused on the legal question that they completely miss the truth in plain sight -- they’ve just witnessed in the flesh the very legal condition they came to ask about! When they finally come back around to ask Rabbi Joshua about the strange will, it’s so obvious to him that he laughs as he answers: “Acting the fool? I just did that myself, as a matter of fact!” The subtext is: If you had just paid a little more attention, you might have noticed...
The midrash ends with a proverb: “When a person looks on his children, his joy makes him act like a fool.” Acting a fool – perhaps another way of saying, simply having fun with one’s children – is an authentic expression of love.
Of course, this midrash is not only about parenting; it is fundamentally about inheritance. The man makes his son’s inheritance contingent on “acting the fool” – a poetic way of saying, being an engaged and loving father. That makes the son worthy of his father’s legacy. And though the question of estate law may be financial on the surface, the inheritance at stake is more important and timeless than money.
Every Rosh Hashanah we read our tradition’s poster text of parenting and inheritance, the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. We will hear it in a moment during the Torah Service. It’s a cringeworthy story; every year when we read it there is much handwringing and gnashing of teeth. And yet we keep reading it, year after year. I always feel bad for the once-a-year shul-goer who comes on Rosh Hashanah morning, maybe with kids in tow, and hears how, once upon a time, the father of our faith was such a fanatic that he took his own son up a mountain in the middle of nowhere to sacrifice him on an altar... Happy new year! Did we mention Hebrew School starts soon? Wait, where are you going...?!
The Jewish way during these holy days is not to go easy on ourselves or our texts, but to be provoked by them, and to push back.
Perhaps the Akeidah can be for us a warning about how our own choices demand certain sacrifices from our children. As one TED talk speaker put it, “...most people have either a great family and an average career, or an incredible career and an average family. The only way to have both is to apply the same level of passion and energy to your family as you do to your work. There can be no asymmetry” (Feiler, 53). Whatever rewards Abraham’s act of faith reaped, he devastated his family. Sarah died soon after, and Isaac never spoke to him again. This imbalance of faith and family needs recalibrating.
* * *
Both these texts and this time of year call us to step back and examine the health of our families. Network technology and the fast pace of life bring new pressures and distractions that challenge how we take care of our families and how happy we are. As Bruce Feiler wrote this year in his book The Secrets of Happy Families:
“No matter what kind of family you are part of, an enormous new body of research shows that your family is central to your overall happiness and wellbeing” (4). “Yet among the things proven to make us the least happy are raising children, tending aging parents, and doing household chores” (7).
You probably didn’t need research to tell you that, but Feiler wrote this book to shed light on what happy families actually do. I want to share with you several of his themes which dovetail with the blessings that Jewish life has to offer us as families.
Before I do that, let me address for a moment those of you who do not have children, or a spouse, or an otherwise “traditional” family. This message, I hope, will speak to you as well. Although Feiler’s book targets most of its advice to families with children, the lessons are universal. Humans are by nature social beings, and what goes for biological families also goes for whatever group or community we surround ourselves with.
On a related note: When I introduce the Blessing for Children (Y'-va-re-ch'-cha) on Shabbat evening, I’m in the habit of saying, “For all the children of our community.” I want those without children to feel included, and there’s a deeper lesson, too: as a Jewish community, we don’t just take responsibility for the wellbeing of our own families; we reach out to our neighbors, too. It’s in that spirit that I offer my comments today.
I’m going to offer two ways toward a happier family, based on ideas from The Secrets of Happy Families, and refracted through a Jewish lens.
Number 1: Family Meal Times.
Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah morning I told a story about a concerned mom who goes to see her rabbi regarding her troubled son, Jordan. She asks the rabbi to speak to Jordan because he’s always angry and she wants to know what’s bothering him. The rabbi says, of course, and offers a time, Wednesday at 4:30. No, Jordan has hockey then. The rabbi offers another time. No good, math tutor. And another time. Nope, guitar lesson. (And so on...) This young man’s schedule is even busier than the rabbi’s, who says he might already know why Jordan is angry all the time... (adapted from Wendy Mogell, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, p. 209).
We are all busy. We are pulled in a thousand directions, and we’re pulling our kids with us. They barely have time to breathe during the school year, let alone have dinner together. And finding a night of the week when everyone’s schedule syncs up is challenge enough. But if we don’t make the effort, we are cheating ourselves and our families.
“A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic...discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services [though we’re glad you’re here!], or playing sports.” (35)
Life is about trade-offs, and sacrifices are necessary. Just be sure you’re making the right ones.
Jewish tradition has known this truth about family meals since the beginning. Shabbat was created as a day of rest, and our people made it into a day of family. As the early Zionist thinker Ahad Haam once said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” In particular, the traditional Shabbat rules limiting how far you can travel ensure that families and neighbors spend Shabbat together. As non-Orthodox Jews, we may have given up those rules, but let’s not lose the essence of the day – breaking bread and bonding. Whatever day and time works for you, what matters is that you set it apart. You can try introducing a question for discussion or just catching up on the days events. It might change your life.
Number 2: Knowing Your Family Story.
One of the things that often comes out at family dinners and holidays are stories of the family’s past. In 2001, a group of psychologists did a study comparing psychological evaluation of children with their knowledge of their family history, which was measured on a “Do You Know?” scale using 20 questions like:
- Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
- Do you know where your parents met?
- Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?
- Do you know what went on when you were being born?
The results were striking. “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The ‘Do You Know?’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness” (41).
As it happened, two months after this study, September 11 happened. The psychologists went back and studied how the same children responded to that trauma. The results were the same: “The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress” (41).
To explain this result, the psychologists coined the term “intergenerational self” – a sense that you’re part of something bigger, a larger narrative. Marshall Duke, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Emory, who also happens to be Jewish, compared this idea to bubbemeises. In his family, the grandmother will say, “You’re having trouble with math, kid? Let me tell you, your father had trouble with math. You don’t want to practice piano? Boy, your aunt Laura didn’t want to practice piano, either” (42). (Grandparents, take note: You have a special role to play in the unfolding of your family story and the cultivation of your grandkids’ intergenerational self. And by the way, Feiler’s book has a whole chapter on you, “The Care and Feeding of Grandparents.”) “Whatever problem the child has,” Duke says, “the grandmother has a story for it – even if it’s made up!” (42). More than just entertain and amuse, these stories serve a higher purpose: they send children a message that they’re not alone, that they’re part of a larger story, that those who came before them had struggles and triumphs just as they do.
It cannot be a coincidence that the Passover Seder – which upwards of 80% of Jews observe – serves exactly this function. According to the Mishnah,
In each generation the individual is obligated to see himself as though he [himself] left Egypt, as it is written: "And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what ADONAI did for me when I went free from Egypt’" (Exodus 13:8). (Mishna Pesachim 9:5)
Passover’s goal is to strengthen your intergenerational self. It probably works better than just about any other ritual we do by combining both lessons of today: it’s a family meal over which you tell a family story. The Exodus is the ultimate Jewish family story, but every American Jewish family also has its own Exodus story, how they immigrated to this country and what life was like. Little did you know, when your grandparents told you their life story, it was making you a better person.
Whether it’s through Jewish ritual like the Passover seder, or your own gatherings, tell and retell your stories. Don’t wait until the storytellers are gone to wonder what stories never got told. The psychologists concluded what Judaism has always known: If you can link your storytelling to a ritualized activity, you’ll dramatically increase the chances that it will be remembered by your children, and passed on to theirs. Marshall Duke, the Emory professor, begins Shabbat dinner by tossing kippahs toward each grandchild in an attempt to land it on their heads. Bruce Feiler recalls asking if that was in the Torah. “‘No, it’s in the Duke Family Hall of Fame,’ he said. ‘And that’s much more important’” (39).
* * *
Judaism is designed to enrich lives by strengthening families. That’s not the accidental byproduct of some old set of tribalistic cult practices – it’s the point.
Those of you turned off by organized religion, by belief in God or prayer services, by Hebrew and Torah study, consider this reframing: Judaism is a rich family story that invites you to be a part of it and reap the benefits in meaning, wholeness, and unity, for yourself, your family, and your community.
When you hear me or synagogue “regulars” asking, Why don’t you come to services sometime? or, Have you registered for Hebrew school? – Don’t take it the wrong way. We’re not trying to nag you (mostly). It comes from a place of caring, and of values. We genuinely believe that Judaism can help make your life better.
But for now, instead of asking why you’re not a member, or why you don’t come to programs or services, here are some better questions to consider:
- How could you rearrange your priorities
to include more family meals,
and a better known family story?
- How high would you score
on the “Do You Know?” scale about your family history? –
and how high would your children score? –
and what are you going to do to improve that?
- How could you be more intentional
about the wellbeing of your family?
Put in terms of our opening midrash, how will you “act the fool” for your children, for your community, for those you love? Rabbi Joshua’s life-affirming gesture of loving horseplay – his active engagement with the next generation – is a model for us all. It is not incidental to the story; it is the story.
In the new year, will you create opportunities for sacred time, perform rituals for lasting memories, and share the stories of where you came from?
If so, then you will have proven yourself worthy of inheriting your ancestors’ legacy, and you will have given the next generation something truly precious to enrich their lives and hand down to those who follow.
May the new year be happy and healthy for us and those closest to us. And may we remember our role
in making happiness happen.