May 20, 2024
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From Trees to Oil: Parental Hopes and Lessons for Tomorrow

As December arrives and the trees are losing their last leaves, the Daf Yomi daily page of Talmud resurfaced for me one of the most famous brachot and stories in all of the Talmud—one that is about trees that we usually save for Tu B’Shvat. Taanit 5a-6b:

Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzchak: Master, give me a blessing. Rabbi Yitzchak told him the story of a traveler in the desert. Walking for days, he’s weary and tired, when suddenly he comes upon a tree. He eats from its fruit, rests in the shade and drinks from the small brook at its roots.

When rising the next day, the traveler turns to the tree to offer thanks: “Ilan, Ilan, bameh avarcheka, Tree, oh Tree, how can I bless you? With fruit that gives sustenance? With branches that give shade? With water that quenches thirst? You have all of this!”

In a tender moment, the traveler looks to the tree and states, “I have only one blessing. May that which comes from you be as beautiful as you are”1 So it is with you. With what shall I bless you? If I bless you with Torah, if I bless you with wealth, if I bless you with children, you already have all of this. Rather, may it be God’s will that your offspring shall be like you.

While the story is a beautiful parable of the hopes of us all passing the best on to the next generation, it left me thinking a lot about our prayers and dreams for children. While we bless our friends that their children should reflect their strengths and values, all too often society and parents make the mistake of wanting their children to “be just like them”—wanting to place our growing children in a particular social, familial or personality box.

The epic story of Yaakov and his sons that we read over the weeks of Chanukah are, in some ways, an appropriate antidote to such erroneous thinking.

Yaakov is the third generation from Avraham. Avraham had two children. The legacy of our nation and the ultimate brachot ended up falling on the shoulders of only one of them, Yitzchak. Although he gets a blessing from God, Yishmael is set aside in the Jewish story. The same for the next generation. Yitzchak had two children: Yaakov continues our tradition, and, for all intents and purposes, Esav is set aside. Yaakov’s family bucks that trend of channeling the central bracha on one child.

Despite the mistake of favoring one son, of Shimon and Levi’s destruction of Shechem, of Reuven’s sleeping with Yaakov’s concubine and despite Yehuda’s sin with Tamar, somehow Yaakov keeps the family together.

At the end of the epic story of love, betrayal and violence, Yaakov, in Parshat Vayechi, while living on his son’s “turf” in Egypt, finds a way to bless each child. Each child has his own blessing based on his true essence and each child remains an inheritor of the Jewish story.

While Yaakov has forever been clear to his children about his disappointments and pain in the journey of his family, in the end he keeps the family close, recognizing the uniqueness of each individual. As we deal with the often messy realities of family, we too should take Yaakov’s lesson to heart.

Oil on Chanukah reminds us of this value of finding the true nature of the other. R. Eyal Vered writes that oil is the product of the core of the fruit or vegetable whose essence is only found after a long process.

Additionally, oil, just like each of us, has a dual character. On the one hand, it has a character all its own that it cannot mix with other liquids, but when combined with foods it brings out the best in them, producing amazing new flavors.

Chanukah’s oil, found in the origin story, in our menorahs and in our foods, reminds us that we each have a unique character: one that on the one hand stands strong and on the other hand enhances the flavor and personality of our families, our workplaces and our communities.

So while the tree prayer poetically prays for the continuity of our legacy, it is one that must also be combined with the model of Yaakov and the message of the oil as we work to understand the individuality of our children and also keep them close as part of our story of our family and people’s future.

Khalil Gibran, in his book “The Prophet,” put it best when he wrote about children.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls. For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Chag Chanukah sameach!

1 Translation from R. Avi Weiss.

Rabbi Aaron Frank is head of school at Kinneret Day School.

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