16 Tevet 5777 B’SD Babysitting – A Spiritual Quest
Over the past ten days I have experienced a combination of exhaustion, exhilaration, and excitement all wrapped into two adorable bundles called grandchildren. I was privileged to be offered a position I could not refuse. While I definitely lacked experience and sufficient preparation, the endeavor was a triumph of will, not ability. For the task of babysitting two of my grandchildren, I have been handsomely rewarded. I received one of life’s precious gifts: spending quality time with my grandchildren, an experience that I will cherish for my remaining years. It certainly wasn’t an easy task and I hope my grandchildren will rate me favorably (on yelp). But it also gave me greater insight into myself and a unique way of analyzing our patriarch Yaakov’s family dynamic.
In some ways life was far less complicated in ancient times. Our patriarch Ya’akov realizes his time is nearing an end and wants to prepare his children for life without him. He leaves a wordy testament to his children minus any financial will since there are no tax implications or trusts to navigate. He gathers his children for his final blessing, but instead of only praising them he also critically analyzes their flaws. He realizes that all parents have limitations in raising and controlling their children. As much as we try to instill our values and ideals, life’s hiccups offer a more realistic reality of our failures. He understands that what they may not have listened to when they were growing up, they are more apt to listen to on his deathbed. He chooses to address concerns that will permit him to face death with a greater sense of tranquility and peace.
However, prior to gathering his children, he asks Yoseph (Joseph) to bring his two grandchildren to be blessed. He concludes his blessing by stating: Ephraim u’Menashe k’Rueven v’Shimon yihyeh li, that his two grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe are to be considered like his children. Most people understand his words to mean that Ya’akov is elevating his two grandchildren to have the same status as his children. Also that the twelve tribes will now be thirteen as Joseph’s two sons are now equal to all his brothers.
Yet it’s feasible to interpret the story in an entirely novel manner. In his final days, Ya’akov realizes the error of his parenting and wants to make amends before it’s too late. He asks to see the two grandchildren who grew up without knowing their grandfather. He lovingly looks at them and realizes he is only capable of seeing the good. He can’t be judgmental or critical and offers only encouragement and optimism. He concludes the blessing by saying: If only I can elevate my children by looking at them using the same lens through which I see my grandchildren. Before I die, if I want to give my children an eternal legacy, I must alter my philosophy and relationship that I had with my own children. It is essential to consider them more like my grandchildren and choose to ignore their many minor imperfections and focus on what’s important. He finally understands their flaws may have been less about them and more about him.
Perhaps I can now better understand the blessing parents give their children on Friday night before kiddush. For a boy the traditional prayer is “yesimcha Elokim k’Efraim uk’Menashe – may the almighty bless my children to be like Efraim and Menashe. Perhaps our sages chose the blessing that Yaakov gave to his grandchildren to make exactly this point. Every Friday night, when parents place their hands upon their children’s heads, they are reminded to consider these precious children before them not as children but as angelic grandchildren. Thus the blessing recited may be more insightful to those bestowing the blessing than to those receiving.
And by the way, a secondary benefit with babysitting is that it leaves precious little time to focus on all the peripheral nonsenses that surround our life. You just don’t have a spare moment to worry about anything other than the children. And while I would certainly recommend engaging in this spiritual quest, I would be remiss if I did not share another absolute truth: facilitating the needs of a toddler is reminiscent of riding a bike and eating brussels sprouts; you never really forget how to do it nor the reason you may delicately decline a repeat performance.
Rabbi Jack Engel
PS: I contemplated not printing this article after hearing about the four young members of the IDF who were tragically murdered in Jerusalem. How can I write about my blissful week with my grandchildren knowing these four precious souls will never see the cherubic faces of their children and grandchildren. I can’t but think how their dreams and the dreams of their families were shattered in a fleeting moment. Yet I decided for exactly that reason to print the article I wrote. None of our lives come with a guarantee except for the guarantee that once today is gone, today will never exist again.