To Make Your Life Better, Tell A Better Story
As our daughter Temima arrived home last Friday, I asked her what she had learned in school that day. (For reference, Temima is recently four years old.) Temima: I learned about unicorns and rainbows! Me: Really?! That's what the Morah taught you? Temima: Silly Abba. That's what I was learning about. I don't know what the Morah was doing. But Look Abba, I drew a rainbow!
There's a lot of charm to a four year old's imagination. (And I'm sure we'll hear more about this particular imagination at parent-teacher conferences...) But it dawned on me that our daughter was simply verbalizing a reality which we, as adults, experience all the time, but have conveniently forgotten about. Four year olds are always clearly living in the fuzzy space between tangible reality and their perception of it. But truthfully, so are we all, whether we like to admit it or not.
Simply put: The world that we live in is nothing more or less than a story that we are telling ourselves, about ourselves. We are the protagonists, the directors and the narrators. Everything and everyone is a supporting character in your story.
Of course, many of the events and props in our story are far beyond our control. But the way we tell the story? The genre of the narrative? That's completely up to us. We get to choose which seemingly meaningless details are crucial to the plot. We get to choose if the protagonist (ourselves) is successful in overcoming their fears, chasing their dreams and finding fulfillment. We get to determine if the villains of our story break the will of our hero – or if he or she will prevail and learn from their challenges. (Most of the time, we even get to choose if the villains are really villains at all.)
You might argue that since we can never know the end of the story, we can never fully choose the genre. Indeed, sometimes the story is a tragedy, regardless of our efforts. But even so – what kind of tragedy? It is uplifting? Inspiring? Boring? Engaging? Would you recommend the story of your life (thus far) to a friend? Is this story of your life – according to you – a good read?
Mind you, we all know that a good story doesn't need to be particularly eventful. It doesn't necessarily need fast cars and fancy vacations. Sometimes the greatest tales are told of ordinary people living ordinary lives – it all depends on the narrative being told in the minds and hearts of the characters.
I have often explained this schism to my students as the difference between the p'shat (simple meaning) and the d'rash (explanation) of our lives.
For example, consider the following story, which many of us have starred (or co-starred) in: “After dinner, dad helped his kids with their homework.”
From the outside that's all that happened. It's story, but it's boring. A good story teller, however, might embellish: “Despite his frustration with his boss, and the exhaustion of his commute, dad refused to bring his negativity home. Knowing that his family was his greatest legacy and responsibility, he resolved to be present and engaged.”
Both descriptions are true. The p'shat is the outside. The d'rash of our lives is left to us to interpret, explain and embellish. Tragically, many people today leave the meaning of their own lives to be interpreted for them by the news, social media or political parties. It's a depressingly lazy way to live, but it doesn't have to be that way. We simply have to start learning our lives like we learn the Chumash.
What Was Yaakov's Roommate Thinking?
Let's examine the story of our Parsha:
Yaakov Avinu, following his flight from his brother Esav, arrives at some place, goes to sleep and dreams of a ladder with its feet on the ground, reaching up to the heavens.
Rashi explains: The place that Yaakov slept was Har HaMoriah; the future site of the Beis HaMikdash. Hashem performed many miracles to ensure that Yaakov would sleep in this place. He made the sun set early, He made the earth contract beneath Yaakov's feet. All so that he would sleep on this desolate mountain top. Yaakov places stones around his head to protect him from wild animals, and in the morning, he finds these stones united into one stone, a preamble to the eventual unity of his yet-unborn twelve sons.
By all standards, Rashi is describing a uniquely serendipitous account of a moment that would guide Yaakov for the rest of his life.
This is the story that we are told since kindergarten. But the Seforno sees matters a little differently.
“The place” that Yaakov sleeps, is “a place known to all travelers” – some kind of road side motel, like that which exists in all towns and cities. He takes a stone, that travelers might use a table, chair or bed, and arranges himself a place to sleep.
From Seforno's account there is no magic, no miracles. Think of Yaakov, alone and afraid sleeping next to some Canaanite pagan. Trying desperately to avoid conversation or confrontation.
At this point in his life, Yaakov is lost, confused, lonely and alone. And in this place he has that lofty vision of the ladder.
Seforno is telling us the outside of the story – the p'shat. Rashi is describing Yaakov's inner world. The pagan sleeping next to Yaakov, could never have known that he was within a few feet of the greatest person he would ever encounter. He would not have understood that in that place, in that moment, his roommate was experiencing the most lofty revelation where world history was unravelled before him; past, present and future. On the outside, Yaakov looked like a simple traveler. But on the inside, he was on fire.
Heaven and Earth
The Chasam Sofer explains that this vision of Yaakov is in its essence, paradigmatic of this dual perspective: The ladder has its feet on the ground and the head reaching up to the heavens. Within this dream, Hashem is explaining to Yaakov that although he was about to wander the earth, working and engaging in a mundane world, only his feet should be planted on the ground. His head could and should be focused on Heaven.
Rashi conveys a similar sentiment when he famously tells us: עם לבן גרתי ותרי״ג מצוות שמרתי – Yaakov kept 613 mitzvos even in the house of Lavan. As far as Lavan could see, Yaakov was simply tending sheep. But in Yaakov's mind, he was wearing augmented reality goggles. Everywhere he looked was a new opportunity to deepen his connection to Hashem and the purpose of Jewish history.
The Beis Yaakov of Izbitz writes that when we look at the world with Yaakov's AR googles, Hashem reciprocates: The moment a Jew, wherever we are in this world, desires to connect to Hashem, הנה ה׳ נצב עליו – Hashem is there with him.
A number of years ago, Moreinu V'Rabbeinu, Rav Schachter was invited to speak in South Africa. Unbeknownst to him, or the organizers of the trip, South Africa has a law that you cannot enter the country without a blank page in your passport for the entry stamp. Rav Schachter's passport was full.
Shortly after landing, officials detained him at the airport. Community members in on the ground in Johannesburg arranged to pick up his passport, drive it over to the US embassy in Pretoria and get a new page inserted. But the entire process took a number of hours, and all that time Rav Schachter was in a holding room at the airport.
When he was finally released, a friend asked him if he was ok, and how the experience was. Rav Schachter related that it was Gan Eden – he was never better. He had a few hours to sit with a Gemara uninterrupted, and nothing could be greater.
This is the secret of Yaakov's ladder. We might be detained in a holding cell, tending sheep, or doing homework with our kids. But in reality, if we want to, we're deepening our relationships, connecting with Hashem, heroically changing the world and fulfilling our hopes and dreams. No one will ever see our miraculous inner lives. But so long as we tell the story to ourselves, Hashem will be there telling it along with us.