Lessons From a One-Year-Old
There once lived a truly good couple who loved God, gave tzedakah, and helped the poor. The whole town honored the couple, and yet they had one sorrow: they had no children. Years passed, and one day, as the couple sat at their Passover Seder table, they read the Haggadah and retold the Exodus. While the husband and wife were talking, there was a sudden knock at the door. At the threshold stood a ragged old man. The couple invited him to join their Seder and treated him with the greatest hospitality. However, when the old man took his leave of the pair who had hosted him so kindly, he turned to them and, instead of thanking them, said, “I pray to God that next year your Pesach table will be a wreck!” The ungrateful old man’s curse astonished the couple and angered them, but out of respect, they said nothing. A month later, the wife discovered that she was pregnant! And two months before the next Passover, a son was finally born to them. Their great joy could not be described, and the old man and his curse were forgotten. The next Passover, the couple sat around the Seder table and read the Haggadah with their son. The baby behaved like all babies do. He laughed and fussed and tipped over the wine. He knocked over the cups and broke the plates. But his mother and father loved their only child so much that they took pleasure even in the havoc he wreaked. This was the son they had prayed for. It was only at the end of the Seder that the couple remembered the old man and his curse that their Pesach table would be a wreck! This was indeed a blessing in disguise, and the old man, they had no doubt, was none other than Elijah himself.
This old folktale spoke to me this year since my Seder table was also a wreck. Last Passover, my husband and I were adjusting to life with a four-week old baby, so this was our first real Passover as a family of three. This year’s Seder was shorter, louder, and much, much messier than ever before. It was also sweeter than ever before. While the Haggadah is all about teaching the story and lessons of the Exodus to the next generation, our son has been teaching me a few lessons too, and it just so happens that these lessons are also taught by Jewish tradition, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share them with you. I’ll stick with four lessons, in keeping with the other “fours” of the Seder.
Lesson #1: Our bodies can do amazing things. It is easy to take our bodies for granted, at least until something goes wrong. That’s why our ancestors wrote the Daily Miracles – Nissim b’chol Yom – a series of blessings at the beginning of the morning service that gives thanks for the ability to wake up and get out of bed each morning. The blessings compare each mundane act to something more extraordinary: opening our eyes is likened to God giving sight to the blind, and the ability to stretch is compared to freeing the captive. These blessings are meant to help us feel a sense of awe and gratitude for the workings of our bodies. We can find a similar sense of wonder when we watch a baby learn how to use his body, how to sit up, crawl, walk, or use his hands. He is in awe of his newfound abilities and of the new world that opens up to him, and it does seem like a miracle that our children grow from tiny, flailing newborns to sturdy, self-possessed toddlers.
Lesson #2: The world is full of new and exciting things to explore and learn about. Also in our morning liturgy is the blessing for creation, Yotzer Or, which describes God, saying, “Uv’tuvo m’chadesh b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh v’reishit. In goodness, God renews daily the work of creation.” One-year olds naturally see the world this way, appreciating everyday things as new and wonderful. Mav is endlessly fascinated by staring at the trees and sky, and he could spend all day picking up and examining rocks and twigs. There is no object that doesn’t belong in his mouth to see how it tastes and feels, or doesn’t need to be banged on the table to find out what kind of sound it makes. Imagine if we all retained this sense of fascination and delight in exploring the world around us (maybe without the chewing on everything in sight).
Lesson #3: The world is a frustrating and sometimes dangerous place. Even though the world is full of new and wonderful things and people, it is also a place where we have limited control. My son’s plans are thwarted dozens of times a day: every time he tries to chew on the computer cord or pull all of the toilet paper off of the roll or go where he isn’t supposed to go, he faces the limits of his own will in the face of his all-powerful parents. You might think that by the time we are adults we would learn this lesson – we can’t always get what we want – and yet so many of us still struggle to accept this simple fact. Babies also know that the world can be a dangerous or scary place. New faces, loud noises, and the ever-present possibility of falling down: life is full of frightening things even if you don’t watch the news. Our children, and we, have to learn to cope with the frustration of seeing that the world isn’t as it should be, and figure out what we have the power to change and what we must simply accept with grace. Our task as Jews is to both appreciate the world that is and commit ourselves to bringing about the world that could be.
Lesson #4: Most pain in life is made better when we’re held by a loved one. Until I was a parent, I never fully appreciated the emotional rollercoaster of a toddler’s day. One instant, Mav is laughing and playing, happy as can be, and suddenly, total despair: his toy has rolled out of reach, he’s fallen and bumped his head, Mommy has left the room. Fortunately, hugs from Mommy and Daddy cure most ills. When Mav is in our arms, he feels safe and loved and not alone. The rest of us are not so different. Our troubles may be harder to overcome, but when disappointment, illness, conflict, or grief come our way, the embrace of a loved one does help lessen our suffering by making us feel safe and loved and not alone. Hashkiveinu, the nighttime blessing we sang tonight, is the prayer form of this kind of hug. In it, we are asking God to help us give and receive that sense of love and shelter, so we say, “Ufros aleinu sukkat sh’lomecha, spread over us the shelter of Your peace, O God. Uv’tzel k’nafecha tastireinu. Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings.” We imagine that we are all held in God’s arms, safe and loved and not alone.
Four values from Jewish tradition: gratitude for our bodies, wonder at the world, dealing with frustration, providing and receiving comfort. You don’t need a one-year old in your life to learn these lessons, of course, but watching children learn and grow can remind us of the necessity of each of these elements for a happy and meaningful life. As my son learns these lessons, I hope I will too.
 Adapted from Change Happens by Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, page 155.