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Restoring God's Given Gift of Dreaming

A famous line in the Haggadah (the book we use on Passover) instructs us to see ourselves as if we were personally liberated from Egypt. It is a wonderful idea that makes us put ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, feeling their physical and mental agony and thus learning about gratitude, compassion and empathy. The poor slaves who had just been set free from Egypt were able, in time, to heal from the wounds of slavery, yet some wounds remained open and kept bleeding as long as their hearts were beating.  

One of these open psychological wounds was their inability to dream and to aspire to greatness. Time and again the Israelites pleaded with God to send them back to Egypt. They were scared of the endless opportunities embodied in freedom and independence.  A life of a slave is harsh, but after a while one gets used to the meager food and strenuous work and finds comfort in the familiar structure. The daily tasks and the habitual routines become the slave's entire world, leaving no space for dreams. God tried to change the Israelites with miracles, promises and threats, until He gave up. 

One of the greatest Yiddish writers, I.L.Peretz, wrote a story named Bontsha the Silent. Bontsha lived unknown, in silence, and in silence he died. "He existed like a grain of sand at the rim of a vast ocean, amid millions of other grains of sand exactly similar, and when the wind at last lifted him up and carried him across to the other shore of that ocean, no one noticed, no one at all." 
But when he died, there was a great excitement in Heaven. There, in paradise, two angels came bearing a golden throne for Bontsha to sit upon, and for his head a golden crown with glittering jewels. And what was the reason for the honor bestowed upon this simple poor man? Despite unspeakable suffering and being more tormented than anyone before him, "He never complained, not against God, not against man; his eyes never grew red with hatred, he never raised a protest against heaven."  

At the end of the story, God tells him "Everything in Paradise is yours. Choose! Take! Whatever you want." Bontsha had but one humble request, that every morning for breakfast he would like to have a hot roll with fresh butter. Hearing this request, God and the angels bent their heads in shame. What was stolen from Bontsha, and all who live like him, was the ability to dream.  
Today, in the U.S., our lives couldn't be more different from those of Bontsha and the Israelites.  We have unparalleled abundance and easy access to knowledge, but do we know how to dream? Is the sky really the limit or is it more like the mere tips of our fingers? 

In the book Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction, author Jake Halpern asked high school kids this question: “When you grow up, which of the following jobs would you most like to have?” 

The results among girls were as follows: 

  • 9.5% Chief of a major company like General Motors
  • 9.8% Navy Seal
  • 13.6% United States Senator
  • 23.7% President of a great university like Harvard or Yael, and
  • 43.4% Personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star

Halpern goes on to hypothesize why so many boys and girls are obsessed with fame. His research showed that kids, especially those with low self-esteem, would rather be famous than smart, strong or beautiful.  I find these results to be troubling.  I am far from promoting an aspiration of being famous, and it is very disturbing that so many kids can only dream of being an assistant to a celebrity, enjoying but a few sprinkles of someone else’s stardust.  

So, as you sit around the Passover Seder table with your family and friends, ask the question, why have so many people in the Western world lost their ability to dream, and how can we restore that God given gift? 

Happy Passover,
Rabbi Alon Levkovitz 

Fri, December 4 2020 18 Kislev 5781