For the week of January 23, 2021 / 10 Shevat 5781
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
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And when in time to come your son asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall say to him, “By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Shemot/Exodus 13:14)
The other day, I happened upon a local school board promotional ad on a bus shelter that read, “Helping your child find out what they want to be. Even if it’s a Gruffalo.” If you don’t know what a Gruffalo is, as I didn’t, it is a character in the very popular (over 13 million copies sold), award-winning illustrated children’s book, entitled, “The Gruffalo” from the UK. It has been made into plays performed on both Broadway and London’s West End as well as a short, animated film nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA.
The main character of the book is not the Gruffalo, but a mouse, who, as he walks in the woods, is confronted by several animals. When, in turn, each animal expresses their desire to eat the mouse, the mouse escapes by fabricating an imaginary horrific beast – a Gruffalo – whose food preference happens to be whatever animal is threatening the mouse at the time. Surprisingly (to me at least), they believe him and run away in terror. Then to the mouse’s own surprise, he comes upon an actual Gruffalo, who is exactly as he portrayed him. The Gruffalo’s favorite food is actually mouse. But the mouse says he can prove that he himself is the scariest creature in the woods, if the Gruffalo would walk behind him as they visit the other creatures. The Gruffalo is so affected by the creatures’ frightened reactions, he becomes afraid of the mouse and runs away.
I think it’s wonderful when parents and educators strive to help children discover their true potential. I also think that encouraging children’s imaginations is key to this. Imagination enables human beings to envision what could be when the state of our lives appears otherwise. Perhaps the philosophy behind this promotion is based on the belief that human potential is based on placing no limits whatsoever upon a child’s imagination.
We have been hearing a version of this for a long time. It’s usually through movies that make assertions such as “You can be whatever you want to be as long as you put your mind to it.” There is some truth in this. God has given human beings the ability to overcome great obstacles. Working hard at something and not giving up often results in great accomplishments. But we can’t be anything we want. Just about anyone can learn how to sing, for example, but not everyone can achieve a performance standard.
The school board promotion takes this already extreme idea even further, however. At first glance, it sounds as if they are simply committed to do whatever it takes to help your child achieve their goals no matter what they may be. This might create enough positive feelings in a parent to prod them to register their child for kindergarten. I doubt that there are many parents thinking, “Finally an education system that’s going to help my child become a Gruffalo!” Still, this kind of ad could not be tolerated without a certain sentiment taking hold in our society. That sentiment is the physical world we live in, including our very bodies, is irrelevant to who we are as people. The material world; with its laws, properties, and other people; stifles our potential. Our imaginations enable us to break free from the material world’s control. Escaping from reality is the new salvation. We are mice deluding ourselves and others to control our lives with no repercussions, or so it seems.
In contrast we have another tale. A true story this time of a people oppressed by a world power. They had potential they had lost touch with. God sent Moses and Aaron to rekindle their collective imagination. It wasn’t easy to dream of a better life. Things quickly went from bad to worse at first, but eventually their oppression was miraculously lifted, and they began their journey to a new life.
In the not-so-distant past, the Gruffalo would have eaten the mouse. His manipulative concoction would have been his demise. Not so today. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that our illusions of self and life will set us free from the overbearing burdens of reality. We don’t want to accept that our delusions will eventually swallow us.
This is not to say that we, like the mouse or like the people of Israel, aren’t in trouble. We are. The world oppresses us, preventing us from being what we are meant to be. Yet, it won’t be fantasy that saves us. We cannot escape reality by becoming Gruffalos. Instead, with God’s help, like the people of Israel, we can escape to the reality of God’s will for our lives.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version