Parashat Shabbat Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
At the end of two years' time, Pharaoh had a dream: there he was, standing by the Nile, when seven cows came up out of the Nile, handsome and fat. They grazed among the reeds. And now seven other cows came up after them from the Nile-repulsive and gaunt. They stood beside the (other) cows at the bank of the Nile. The cows that were repulsive and gaunt then ate the cows that were handsome and fat, and Pharoah woke up. He fell asleep and dreamt a second time: this time, seven ears of grain were growing on a single stalk; they were healthy and good; and then seven ears of grain-thin, scorched by the east wind then swallowed the seven ears of grain that were healthy and full, and Pharaoh woke up; behold- it was a dream!
-Genesis 41: 1-7
In Parashat Mikeitz, Joseph is asked to interpret Pharaoh's dreams of seven healthy cows and seven gaunt cows, and seven healthy ears of corn and seven thin ears. Does the dream hold significance? Does it prophecy the future? Upon hearing the retelling of Pharoah's dreams, Joseph reveals that the dreams symbolizes great plenty (seven fat cows, seven fat ears of corn) and also great famine (seven skinny cows, seven skinny ears of corn). His lesson to Pharoah is that when the going is good, save up so that when the going gets bad, (and it will), you Pharaoh and all of Egypt will be prepared to weather the difficulties. And because the skinny ears of corn eat the fat ears of corn, and the skinny cows eat the fat cows, Joseph counsels Pharaoh to find it to mean that an administrator should be in charge, someone who will oversee the gathering and storage of the huge provisions during the years of plenty that will sustain all of Egypt for the seven years of famine that will follow.
So what does all this talk about cows and corn and dreams have to do with our role as parents? If we are to see Torah as a living book, as a blueprint for how to live our lives today, we have much to glean from its' pages. As we strive to meet the challenges of parenting, let's look at the stories of our ancestors for timely and sage advice on how to raise our children in modern times. How can we prepare now when our children are young, for what our lives and their lives will be like in the years to come?
Our focus this week is on the importance of preparation, of laying a strong and vital foundation. During times of abundance, while it is important to recognize and be thankful for our blessings, it is also necessary to work diligently and be mindful of the need to prepare for the future. This has the potential to provide us with sustenance if and when times are lean.
Knowing that a strong foundation provided for in a child's early years can have a far-reaching impact is important and invaluable information for parents as they strive to support their children as they develop into the individuals they are to become. We can think of the early years with our children, when they are naturally focused on home and family and when they are delightfully interested in all that the world has to offer, as the years of plenty. If we take the time to provide all of the cuddles and stories and playtime that we can offer, we are laying a foundation of positive experiences and filling the well of good will for our future relationship with them. This is also true for Jewish experiences. An abundance of rich, sensory Jewish experiences like Shabbat meals and songs, Passover Seders, Purim carnivals, Hanukkah festivities and the like can lay a strong foundation for Jewish identity building.
Taking a cue then from Mikeitz, when your children are their youngest, it is important to behave compassionately and morally, to practice and model patience and politeness and generosity and love, for our youngest children are watching every move we make and learning how to "be" in this world. Teach them that others (people and creatures) matter, that people are loving, and that they can resolve differences peacefully and fairly. Teach them lessons from the Torah, our Tree of Life, help them see that these centuries-old stories are relevant today and forever, if one just takes the time to look and listen.
This is not to say that there will be years of famine in respect to our relationships with our children or in the development of their identities. But, as they grow, their world will broaden beyond the scope of home and family and the Jewish life and experience they now know. There may or may not be challenges in these areas,; this we cannot know or effect at this point. What we do know is that early positive experiences in this area can only help build a reservoir of comfort and security that our children will be able to draw on later in life. What we can do is work to fill that reservoir with all that we have to offer and hope that like in Parashat Mikeitz, we will be storing up for the future.
Also imminently noteworthy is the fact that Jewish values and traditions experienced in a child's early life can help them stay affiliated and connected to their Judaism even after the predictable lapses that come for many during the late teen years and 20's of life. Rituals at home, in and around ones' own Jewish community and synagogue, can make a tremendous difference in a persons' later life, when the search for meaning, and memories of early childhood experiences can bring a person back to their Judaism.
Therefore, one can see the early childhood years as the "fat cow/fat ears of corn" period, when Purim carnivals and Passover seders, weekly Shabbat meals, Hanukkah festivities and Sukkot gatherings can constitute an important part of a child's experience. The "skinny cow/skinny ears of corn" time is surely to come, and when it has come and gone, even the skeptics might find themselves with an inclination to re-visit their Jewish identity and affiliation. We believe that this is much more likely to happen if and when the attention and focus in the "fat cow/fat ears of corn" years has been done, when the foundation has been built.
Children are a God-given beautiful gift, and ultimately the foundation we build as our children are raised will be the most important responsibility we will have as parents. Remembering that we are the authority in their lives, that good training, excellent modeling, and doing the hard work of being a parent or teacher (and not just a friend to our children) will reap untold benefits for them and for the Jewish people in the years to come.
Questions and Ideas for Parents:
1. Are there any family observances, or rituals, or activities you can recall regularly experiencing when you were child?
2. Do you regularly set aside time to play or be with your children, giving them your full attention? If you aren't doing this now and it is a goal of yours, how might you achieve it? If so, how do you think it impacts your relationship with your children? What experiences are you giving your child that might influence them as adults?
3. Can you list some experiences that you remember that helped you learn the importance of preparing for the future?
Questions for Children:
1. Name three things you can do to help your parents prepare dinner.
2. Do you remember a dream you had?
3. What is your favorite holiday? Why?