The other day I took my almost 7 year old son to the dentist. He’s a good sport about dentist visits – it’s amazing what a plastic toy at the end will do for a kid – so we were relaxed and chatting in the car on the way home.
Like all kids, he asks a million questions, and like all moms, my job is to respond patiently in a way that helps him understand a little more about the world – while still recognizing the number of things he does not know.
The chatting went something like this:
“Mommy, why are the lights all red?”
I paused to come up with an answer that will make sense to him. Should I go technical? Spiritual? My answer ended up something like this: “Well, I’m not sure. You know, they set the lights sometimes so that the traffic will go smoothly. Or maybe it’s because Hashem has arranged the lights so that we can get there in the right time.”
The next question:
“Mommy, why isn’t that car in front of us going?”
“Because that car has other cars in front of it.”
“Mommy, why don’t you switch lanes so that you can get away from that car?”
“Because I want to be on this side of the road.”
“Because eventually we’ll have to turn right and I don’t want to be in the far left.”
“Why don’t you get into a different lane now so that you’ll be in the right lane?”
I move into the other lane, although it’s a mile before we have to turn.
“Mommy, why are all the lights green now?”
And so on.
There was a level of anxiety underneath his questioning. Already, he’s a self-contained little boy and he likes to control his situation when he can. We’ve organized his room to support him in being a big boy, and he keeps it organized himself. He has chores in the house.
But in the car, he’s powerless. All he can do is ask questions. If it seems like things are going wrong, he’s powerless to change them.
Of course, nothing's going wrong. We’re driving in traffic and there are going to be a million variables between the dentist and our destination. Most of them are completely unimportant. And he has no capacity to distinguish what matters from what doesn’t matter. The important thing is that we get there, and as the driver of the car, I’m not worried. But there’s little I can do to reassure him.
I have often taken comfort from the concept in our tradition of G-d as a loving father. Sometimes, as a parent, I feel we have opportunities to understand our relationship with G-d more deeply. As I was having this conversation with my son, it suddenly occurred to me that this conversation is similar to the one I’m constantly having with G-d.
"Where are we going?" "How will we get there?" "Why didn’t I get that thing I asked for yet?" "Why are we going so fast?" "Why are there so many things in my way?"
In some ways, the experience is similar to a kid in the back seat of the car. Powerless, with someone else driving. It requires a kind of trust (in the Driver) that we don’t often develop in this society. We think we know what we need and where we’re going, even though the greatest blessings sometimes come with surprise.
In an article that I’m helping prepare for the Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment, we are exploring the 10th commandment – not to covet what others have. Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a contemporary teacher in Jerusalem, notes that coveting happens when a person loses site of their actual needs and instead begins to compare himself or herself to other people. We stop trusting that what we have at this moment is exactly what’s right for us, and instead start wanting what might be right for other people. This kind of coveting has both spiritual and environmental consequences.
To put it in the language of my son, we start thinking that because the cars in the other lane are going faster, maybe that’s where we should be.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (In his book Haketav VehaKabala, published in 1839 in Prussia) taught that the answer to this instinct is to be fully committed to loving G-d with all of one’s heart. The way I read this is: trust G-d. He’s driving. He knows what He’s doing.
When we can trust G-d, we realize that where we are is exactly where we’re supposed to be. The anxiety of the backseat driving is not necessary.
While of course we still need to pursue what we’re committed to, perhaps this can allow us to take some time simply to enjoy the ride.