Friday, November 4, 2011

Aspiring to a Life on the Ladder

My daughter, now five, definitely qualifies as a “picky eater.”  We have about ten or fifteen go-to foods in the house that she loves, and is happy to eat in quantity.  But getting her to try something new and – God forbid – actually like it…is virtually unheard of in our house.

At first, Amy and I thought there was something wrong…either with her, or with our parenting.  But we soon came to discover that a lot of kids are incredibly picky, or “discerning,” eaters.

In fact, today, most pediatric nutritionists believe that parents have to expose their children to a new food more than 20 times before there’s any realistic chance that the child might try it.  20 times!  Of just putting it on the plate, and hoping for the best.

The more I’ve thought about that statistic over the last few years…the more I’ve concluded that there is something fixed in our human nature regarding regularity, and routine. 

We get stuck doing what we do…We’ve always done it this way…And it is so hard to imagine ever doing it differently.  Change, in other words, is incredibly hard.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha, seeks to shake things up a bit….by arguing against our inherent defense mechanism of retaining the status quo.  We grow, our tradition asserts, when we take the risk of leaving the comfortable and familiar.  

That's reflected in the story of Abraham - which opens by informing us that God commanded our patriarch to start his journey as a Jew by leaving Ur…his homeland, the only place he ever knew. 

Why – we wonder – does Abraham have to leave his home to begin the journey that will ultimately create Judaism?

Rashi, the great Torah commentator of medieval France, suggests that great benefit…or substantial positive change in our lives…only comes about when we have the courage to pick up our bags and start walking…away from that which we’re used to, and towards a destination that is fraught with uncertainty.

There are some in our tradition that suggest that Ur, Abraham’s homeland, was somehow tainted…That there was something stale in the air that would have prevented Judaism from flowering there…and so God had Abraham begin travelling toward the Land of Israel.

But I think there’s a larger metaphorical point to be made here.  It’s not that there was anything wrong with Ur.  It was merely an awareness on the part of God that we can only become our best selves when we switch things up…when we physically move ourselves, or alter our routine, to give ourselves the chance to become something, and someone, different.

Thus the brilliance of this week’s Torah portion, which seeks to teach us that all we have to do is start moving.  Not just in a physical sense – though that’s an easy way to live out this value, by getting up and exercising…or by getting up and moving to a different town or city. 

But we can move in other ways…by changing the way we think about something, or by changing the way we talk about someone or something.  Even the slightest change can put a process in motion that could result in a major difference in our lives for the better.

To start moving is to begin walking the path, being on a journey…rather than remaining fixed in an unmoving spot.  The Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler was an advocate of moving…of being open to going on the journey.  He once wrote that: "The meaning of our life is the road, not the goal.  For each answer is delusive, each fulfillment melts away between our fingers, and the goal is no longer a goal once it is attained." 

To live a meaningful and fulfilled life is not to reach or achieve certain goals, according to Schnitzler.  It is, rather, to remain committed to always going…always journeying…always seeking and moving toward a fuller and richer sense of self….a more meaningful way of looking at, and acting in, the world.

In the 19th century, the Chofetz Chayyim brought this approach to life as he contemplated the mysterious image of Jacob’s ladder, which is described in Chapter 28 of the Book of Genesis.  The Chofetz Chayyim wrote that: "Jacob dreamed of a ladder standing on the ground and reaching to heaven.  This means: We never stand still.  We either ascend, or we descend."  

For the Chofetz Chayim, and for Abraham’s grandson Jacob, the ladder is just a dream…an ideal that we can, and must, yearn for: a vision of our lives in which we would be empowered to always keep moving…to never get stuck on a rung…but to always be exploring, experimenting, and even risk-taking.  Sometimes we are blessed to ascend, and sometimes we are forced to descend.  But the path toward a more fulfilling life is the one in which we never stand still for too long.

Shabbat Shalom.

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