Friday, December 25, 2009

Where Will You Be in Ten Years? Thoughts for Vayigash

With the close of the first decade of the 21st century, media outlets are rife with retrospectives of the past decade: the decade in pictures, the decade in news stories, the decade in movies. (Truth be told, when I look at the lists of top movies from the decade, I've never heard of most of them.) But one podcast that I enjoy asked a poignant question: where were you ten years ago? It's a good question, because it also begs the next question: And where will you - and do you want to - be in ten years.
After learning that Yosef was still alive, Ya'akov decides to travel to Egypt to see his long-lost son. On the way down, he stops to offer sacrifices to God, who appears to him in a vision during the night. God tells him,
אל תירא מרדה מצרימה, כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם
Do not fear from descending to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there (46:3)
Rashi (along with most everyone else) notes that clearly Ya'akov feared something. What did he fear? Rashi answers that, "he was upset that he was forced to leave the Holy Land." It's a nice idea, and certainly highlights the value of living in Israel - but it doesn't answer the question: what made him afraid? The Zohar gives a different answer:
Said Rabbi Yeisa: When Israel traveled down to the exile in Egypt, a great fear and dread fell upon him. Said to him the Holy One blessed be He: "Why are you afraid? Do not fear from descending to Egypt." From the fact that it says, "Do not fear," it's clear that he was afraid. [Ya'akov] said to [God], "I fear that my children will be destroyed." He said, "I will make you a great nation there."
In essence, Ya'akov feared not the near future, but the distant future. What would be not next year, but in ten, twenty, a hundred years? Would his children survive the spiritual wasteland of Egypt? Would they suffer debilitating persecution that could destroy them? Or perhaps would they end up assimilating into a warm, welcoming Egyptian land? We can well understand Ya'akov's worry at this point in time, and his fear for the future.

Ten years ago, right about this time, I was actually asked where I would be in ten years. I was the rabbi at Agudas Achim in West Hartford, and it was time to move on. By the time we decided to try out for new shuls, it was really the beginning of the year (and only one shul - the Young Israel of Oak Park) was looking for a rabbi. On Saturday night, during the "Ask the Rabbi" session, someone asked me, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" What they really wanted to know was, "Do you see us as a stepping-stone for your next rabbinic job?" But that's not what they asked. So I answered, "In ten years I see myself living in Israel, together with all of you." Truthfully, at the time I didn't mean it. I had no concrete plans to move to Israel. I thought it was a rather clever dodge of an unfair question.
But when I think of how my life has changed during the past ten years, I find it difficult to think of a way in which it has not changed. We've been blessed with two additional children. I've changed jobs - and cities (actually countries) twice. And yet, none of this happened on its own. I feel that my life has followed a path - with each decision leading to the next, big or small.
All of this makes me wonder: what about the next ten years? I think it's a good, and important question not because we can know the future - nor should we try - but more because the visions we have for our long-term future can focus our behavior. If I want to see myself as a computer programmer in ten years (I don't - it's just an example), at some point during that time I'm going to have to take a class or two in that field. If I want to be living in Israel in ten years, that requires not a little bit of life-tweeking as well.
At the same time, long-term planning does not mean agonizing about the twists and turns of life. Personally, I'm quite good at worrying, specifically about the near future. Aliyah has proven to be an ongoing lesson in patience; doing my part, and waiting to see how things play out; making my hishtadlut, and putting things in the hand of the Almighty.
I guess that's the sense of balance we all need. Ten years is a sizable chunk of time - a significant portion of one's life. So we need to have a vision of where we want to see ourselves in ten years' time, and make the small course corrections that will hopefully steer us towards that goal. But we also must recognize that we are subjects of God, whose plans and infinite wisdom far outstrips our feeble vision. So, armed with our visions of the future, we place ourselves in His hands and pray for the best.