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Evan's Dvar Torah

The Joy of the Future

Evan Wolkenstein  Cohort 1  January 2011 Newsletter

 I’m spending the weekend with a friend, a stay-at-home dad. His wife is away, leading a local Jewish Congregation, and we are confined to the home. He washes loads of clothing. He nudges his daughter to turn off the television and use the crafts basket. He feeds the baby “beek” (which, I’ve learned, means “grapes”), and insists, with a stern expression, that “beek” does not belong on the floor. I watch and write. My friend is creative and independent and struggles with his burdens like any man would, and though he is not the international rock legend he once dreamed of being, he’s still sculpting a masterpiece: working always, advising often, recording sometimes, and being a father, 24/7.

The Jewish calendar during this month brings us an important message about parenting. First, we meet Moshe Rabbeinu’s father-in-law, Yitro. Yitro unites Moses with his wife and children; Yitro had been caring for Moshe's family, during the dangerous days of the pre-Exodus. Yitro greets his son-in-law warmly, and after seeing Moshe's techniques in national leaderships, instructs plainly:  "The thing you are doing is not right. You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. ” (Shemot 18:17-18).

Moses takes a lesson from Yitro, and changes the way he judges: he appoints major chiefs and minor chiefs. In short, as Yitro describes, he shares the burden.

 While this alone could be a lesson for any parent, an interesting Kushia emerges two books later: in Bmidbar, Moshe begs Hovav Ben Re’uel (ostensibly another name for Yitro) to please join him and his people as they enter the land of Israel. Though nudged thoroughly, Hovav-Yitro refuses. The ambiguous text does not declare it outright, but it seems that Moshe loses the argument, and his father-in-law departs, never to witness personally the fruition of the advice he plants within his son-in-law. Why does Yitro leave at this fragile moment?

Two millennia pass, and we meet a man named Honi, the Circle Maker. During a time of drought, Honi begs - nudges - insists that God provide rain. He is no mere holy man, concedes the Nasi of the Sanhedrin, but more like a spoiled child whose parents are willing to submit to his demands. (M. Taanit 3:8)

This same Honi goes on to meet a farmer planting a carob. He finds it difficult to believe that anyone would plant a crop for the benefit of descendants 70 years down the line.

Side by side, we see a repetition: Honi is brilliant at getting his needs met, but he thinks only about the present moment. As we know from the chronicles of Elijah and others, drought is an emergency not only for the 'now', but also, it bodes poorly for the big picture: God demands teshuva for something deep and lurking. Honi, on the other hand, addresses the need for rain without questioning the cause for the drought. And similarly, he cannot fathom the smile on the face of the farmer’s grandchildren, far in the future, sampling the sweetness planted long before.

 Yitro, too, is focused on the now. He advises Moshe and departs, leaving while most of Moshe’s burdens lie on the road ahead. One chapter later, the Israelites encounter tensions that will eventually result in national tragedy. Moshe has learned how to handle the responsibilities of a judge, but not those of a parent. Moshe even cries out to God, “Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant?’ (Bmidbar 11:12). He could probably use a parent figure at this moment.

Like Honi, like Yitro, I have never been very comfortable with the future. I invite guests for Shabbat on Thursday. I buy my plane tickets too late to get the best prices. And left on my own, I spend my days roaming around San Francisco from bookstore to cafe to movie, as if the only care I will ever know is a parking ticket. Admittedly, there is freedom and joy in this. And when my friend and I put our instruments down because the baby is crying for “beek,” I can see a pang of annoyance on my friend's face. The sacredness of the moment is broken.

 But I wait, and watch, and when he picks up his baby and chomps on his cheeks, I see that as a parent, not everything must be a delayed gratification, an investment in the future. My friend could teach Yitro, Honi and me a valuable lesson: the joy of the future begins right now.