A couple was celebrating a very special occasion. Not only were they both marking their 60th birthday, but they were also rejoicing in their 40th wedding anniversary. As they were spending a quiet night together, a fairy came to visit them. The fairy said, “Since you have been such a good and loving couple, I will grant you each one wish.” The woman, being a loving wife, wished for the most romantic vacation that they could ever spend together. Just then, poof, there were two tickets for a cruise around the world. The fairy then asked the man what his wish would be. The man asked to speak to the fairy privately, and in doing so he told the fairy that he would like a wife 30 years younger than himself. So the fairy waved the magic wand and, poof, the man was granted his wish; suddenly he became 90 years old.
This couple, still very much in love, has reached a special milestone. Yet even as they celebrate, they still harbor wishes, yearnings and desires, which belie the fullness of what they actually have. The woman wishes that they could afford an experience that would match and deepen their love. The man, well, he wants a younger wife to help him feel young again.
Yearnings, desires and dreams, whether noble or base, are essential to the human experience. Yet, there is a danger. We can get trapped in fantasizing that if we only had something more in our lives, then we’d feel happy, content and free of stress.
As a father with two children and another due in November, my concern is financial – day-to-day, college and retirement. Data shows that young adults really do have it harder today. Wages haven’t kept pace with rising costs; one of many examples – over the past 20 years, while wages have performed slightly better than inflation, the average sale price for a home is “more than 35 percent higher than the price when accounting for inflation alone.”
In addition to financial concerns, we may have staked our serenity and happiness on…
- Our relationships – we are caught up in fantasies of a better relationship or different relationship, which diminish rather than enrich our reality.
- Our body – we want to transcend our fragility, overcome our DNA.
- Our children – we need them to succeed or make choices that conform to our sensibilities.
- Our freedom – we are forever chasing the illusory freedom from responsibilities and the paradise of more time.
This thinking produces a stressful mindset in which it seems like our lives are unfolding amidst chaos. We stake our well-being on achieving that one thing that will allow us to get our lives on solid ground, so that we can breathe, exhale, relax, coast. The problem is that the things we want most are the things over which we may have some influence, but not control.
We can respond to this very human challenge by re-orienting ourselves, by finding stillness within the chaos, by cherishing the reality of our lives, and by finding purpose in the effort, rather than solely in the outcome.
Abraham’s life is consumed by that which he does not have: a son, an heir. When he finally becomes a father of Sarah’s child, he loses his son Yishmael and then is commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He must let go of that which he holds most dear. Twice, in fact. Imagine the anguish of having achieved all for which you had hoped, and being forced to give it up.
The story with Isaac is introduced as, “God put Abraham to the test” (Genesis 22:1). What was the test? The moment that Abraham is secure with his son, his heir, ready to breathe more easily, ready to taste a measure of completeness to his life, everything is jeopardized.
Ramban (13th century, Spain) explains the nature of a test. “Since a person’s actions are completely within his own control, i.e., if he wants to do a certain act, he will do it, and if he does not want to do it, he will not, it is called a ‘test’ from the point of view of the tested party.” We are tested upon that which is in our control.
We have varying degrees of influence over our health, our relationships, our material well-being, but certainly nothing like 100 percent control. We have even less control over the fate of our children. Abraham teaches that even when we think we’ve arrived, the feeling of reward is ephemeral; life can change in an instant.
How do we achieve a sense of equanimity, that release of tension and sense that our lives are stable, not careening out of control?
Let me offer three approaches.
First is the lesson of Shabbat. The concept of Shabbat is that you get one day a week to rest, physically and mentally, from your work, from life’s problems, from trying to repair the brokenness of the world. Yes, six days a week you toil to earn a living, to improve the lives of others, but life is a challenge; it’ll always be work. So, we get one day to feel content, to experience our lives at peace.
Taking time out for Shabbat, whether Friday evening, an hour at Renewal, Nosh & Drash or yoga, or the whole day, is hard. That’s why we are commanded to rest, to put work aside, not to check email or run into the office. Instead, we free ourselves of chores and to do lists. We make time to be present with our family, to connect spiritually. This Shabbat feeling of freedom, presence and connectedness is why our sages called Shabbat a taste of the world to come.
Second, maybe we need to change our expectations. Alain de Botton, a Swiss-born British philosopher and author, writes, shockingly, that we will marry the wrong person! He says bluntly that judged against the contemporary romantic version of marriage, imagining that a “perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning,” the person we choose to marry will fall short. But that doesn’t matter. We need only to change our expectations. What we really need is, he argues, “Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, we must cultivate the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity.” When we commit to a life partner, we are committing to a process with that partner, a process of listening, caring, respecting and sharing.
We are tested on that which we control. We don’t control the thoughts, feelings or actions of others. We can’t change the other person; we can change our expectations.
Lastly, in these critical areas of life in which we have limited control, we may need to shift our self-assessment from results to effort. Lacking God-like powers, we can never be fully responsible for the outcome of our efforts, and so alternatively, we might see our purpose as remaining engaged in a struggle, rather than achieving illusory results. Rabbi Tarfon taught, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). Take satisfaction in striving for excellence while knowing that perfection is impossible.
The moment before Abraham puts the knife to his son’s throat, an angel calls to him from the heavens: Abraham! Abraham! And he responds: Hineni, I’m here. This year, I suggest we hear the message of the story as follows. Standing here on the precipice of losing his son, losing that which is most important to him, Abraham has remained engaged with life, fully present. He is not untethered. He is solidly grounded in the unfolding drama of his life, despite its chaotic and anguishing fragility.
In conclusion, Rabbi Alan Lew z’’l teaches about the meaning of our holiday journey that begins with Tisha B’Av in mid-summer and ends with Sukkot in fall. At Tisha B’Av we begin this journey by mourning the destruction of God’s earthly abode, a solid stone Temple. We conclude the holiday season by living joyfully in the modest, shaky harvest booth.
What does this teach us? Yes, we weep over not being able to find God, the truth of our lives, in a firm, permanent Temple. But we can find joy while living in the fragile, temporary sukkah. We can find home in what is, not putting our faith in what could be.
This is also the lesson of the unfortunate man in the opening joke. By wishing for a younger wife, he literally loses 30 years of his life.
In this coming year, may we each find a practice or new mindset that allows us to be at home, at peace, without stress, and to taste joy in life, while aware that our lives are not perfect.
 I want to express my gratitude to my friend and teacher, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, for inspiring this sermon by expounding upon Rabbi Alan Lew’s teaching (This is Completely Real, p. 32-33) of finding home in the river.
 Genesis Rabba 9:7 אֶלָּא שֶׁאִלּוּלֵי יֵצֶר הָרָע לֹא בָּנָה אָדָם בַּיִת, וְלֹא נָשָׂא אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא הוֹלִיד, וְלֹא נָשָׂא וְנָתַן
 E.g. Genesis 11:30, 15:2, 21:14, 22:2-3
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