Of recent memory, few Talmudic stories have been harder for me to shake than the story of Alexander the Great at the Gates of Paradise. My husband was telling it over to my seven-year-old son at dinner one night and his inquisitive blue eyes were completely entranced.
Alexander the Great alighted to Gates of Gan Eden and banged on the door, demanding to be let in. He was answered with the verse from Psalms 118: 20, “This is the Gate of G-d, only righteous people may enter.” But Alexander was undeterred. “But I’m a king! A very important man! They call me great! There must be something you can give me!” And so, G-d did indeed give him something by way of explanation for his denied entry. It was a round circular object and not knowing its meaning, Alexander decided to literally weigh its importance in the only way he knew how. He put it on one side of the scale, and put all his valuable possessions on the other side. No matter how many things from his various conquests he added, the small circular object outweighed them all.
The object was an eyeball. It outweighed every valuable object that Alexander had ever pursued and amassed because no matter what a person does or acquires, the eyeball is never satisfied. You can be a conqueror of nations like Alexander the Great and go around the world, accomplish and acquire everything your eyeball sees, but once the current pursuit is over, that eyeball will still want more. Shocked, Alexander asked the rabbis to prove to him that the object was an eyeball. They placed dust on it to render its vision useless and suddenly the scale tilted completely in the side of the riches.
There are many lessons I see in this story, some of which have already been covered in my previous posts. But what I want to hone in on here is the lesson of what comes from endless conquests, not in terms of objects, but in terms of expended time.
We live in a society where the pace of life is, dare I say, crazy. Most of us run around all day as if someone has pressed the fast-forward button. We try to pack every possible pursuit, experience, and “necessity” into every day, and if you are anything like me, you find daily that there are very few things that have been checked off your to-do list anyway.
The same pace of life trickles down to our progeny. Many of our children are over-scheduled and I believe this doesn’t leave enough downtime and opportunities for imaginative play or creativity. I have spoken to many parents that are determined to give their kid “every possible opportunity out there” which often translates into way too many after-school programs and activities. As adults in a high-pressured, competitive society, we want to give our children every possible edge and if we don’t provide each of our children with every opportunity and enrichment out there we are often made to feel like we have done them a disservice. But what if the disservice is that we are actually making them feel too much pressure at too young an age and making them unhappy for it?
Earlier this year I attended a lecture where I heard a fascinating homiletical take on the Shema prayer phrase Va’avadtem Meheira. Normally translated literally as “You will be lost quickly”, the homiletical interpretation quoted was an allusion to slowing down the pace of our lives: “Lose the rush!” (slow down from all the hurrying). Putting these literal and non-literal meanings together I see a message of “lose the rush in your life before the rush makes you utterly lost”.
I believe the disservice we are sometimes doing for our children’s sense of happiness is actually the pressure of over-scheduling. Downtime and time for creativity and reflection is so important for happiness. And when I say downtime I am not talking about plugging them into an electronic entertainment device.
The other piece of all this is that children simply don’t appreciate being hurried in the first place. Children are rushed all the time, not always because their schedules make things busy, but because our schedules make everything busy. We as parents have very demanding schedules and often this translates into us rushing our children from place to place. It makes children stressed out to be under the gun of time pressure even more than it stresses us out. The reason for this is because we at least have control over our schedules so we know what is happening next, but they often have no idea what is coming! So suddenly going from being in a world of imaginative play to having to cut it short because they are being herded into a car can be quite disorientating and frustrating. Personally, I find it helps so much to let my kids know 5 to 10 minutes ahead of time that we are going to need to leave somewhere so they can wrap up what they are doing instead of suddenly getting an order of ‘put on your shoes, get your coat, your bag (insert any other object here) now so we can go!”
We used to live in a condo on the top floor and so the “boarding process” of getting all my kids to the car used to be a good fifteen minutes. We’d have to do all the usual “gearing up” of proper clothing and footwear, gathering the stuff we needed to take with, getting out the door and all the way down the long condo hall to the elevator, waiting for the elevator sometimes up to several minutes, taking the elevator all the way down to the underground garage and then walking all the way to our parking space…..and all this before we ever laid eyes on the actual car. No matter how many times I went through this process, my brain could simply not fathom how it could possibly take a quarter of an hour. As a result, I’d ultimately reach my car in a state of shock, annoyance, and extreme lateness- none of which are ingredients of recipes for success. Once we clamored in, my three-year-old son would ultimately throw a fit about wanting to buckle himself into the car seat on his own (another numerous minute process) and by then I would lose it. “We don’t have time, we are so late, it took too long to get downstairs, etc. Let’s go!” One day as he struggled with his small fingers to maneuver the web of car seat buckles probably safety-compliant enough for a NASA spacecraft, he basically turned to me and sternly said, “You are always rushing me and it makes me feel bad.” I stopped immediately mid frustration, let him take as much time as he needed, and made it a point to leave our condo 5-10 minutes early from then on. By that small shift in our schedule I set myself up for success so that no matter what, I had that extra five minutes to let him fumble with the car seat to his heart’s content. That small move to leave the rush behind us made so much of a difference for him going off to school happy and feeling like he had accomplished something independently that morning.
As it says in Kohelet, “The eye is never sated with seeing”. There is always more to do and pursue. That is the nature of existence. Lose the rush though, and you’ll begin to see how much you gain. Pick a few things to pursue for your children’s enrichment, development, and even entertainment but don’t try to do it all. Try to slow down the pace of your family life, even if it means waking up five minutes earlier in the morning to make the epic morning struggle to get ready go smoother. Or tell your kids the list of that whole day’s schedule so they know what will be expected of them when and where so they won’t feel so rushed. At some point, all our eyeballs will be covered with dust and we too will be knocking on the door of Gan Eden. Let us learn from Alexander the Not-So-Great’s mistakes, and not forget that while we are here on this earth, endless pursuits are not necessarily the best end in of themselves…
* Originally published in Times of Israel