Jacob’s Dream and Jacob’s Children

Parshat Va-yetzei: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Jacob’s Dreams and Jacob’s Children

by

Howard Adelman

Family is important. Jacob stopped to rest en route from Beersheva to Haran, also known as Paddan-Aran. Haran was the dwelling place of Terah, his three sons, Abraham, Nahor and Haran, from which Abraham, then called Abram, left the family homestead and went on to Canaan. In Haran, Abraham’s two brothers – Nahor and Haran – along with their children and grandchildren, lived. Among those grandchildren was Laban, grandson of Nahor and brother of Rebekah.

Haran (the place, spelled with a chef versus a heh) comes from the Hebrew word, har, meaning “mountain,” but the word can also mean “parched,” an unlikely association of the place name given how the flocks and sheep and goats under Jacob’s care flourished during his courtship of Rachel. En route to Haran, Jacob stopped to rest where he had his famous dream of the ladder between heaven and earth and the angels ascending and descending the ladder or staircase. Jacob would name the place Beth-el, God’s abode, after he had that dream.

Family and diachronic relations are not the only items of primary importance in the Torah. Each specific place (makom) and its name, the synchronic reference, always rivals the account of descendents, the diachronic dimension of the Torah. Parshat Va-yetzei, the departure, or, more precisely, “he went out,” is the place of the home of Jacob’s father and his brother, Esau, the place from which he fled. Perhaps the section is as much about the place that he left as the place he stopped to rest or the place, Haran, to which he travelled. Between the two, the place he grew up in and now feared, and the place in which he placed his future hopes, was the place he named Beth-el, which means house of God, God’s abode, where God is first worshipped in one place. Beth-el was where Jacob received his first revelation directly from God in the form of a dream.

The importance of that place is stressed, as usual, by repetition. Since in a few sentences, macom is used six times, Beth-el is clearly a very important place. It is where Jacob’s famous dream takes place of the stairway to heaven or the ladder joining earth and heaven with angels ascending and descending those steps or the rungs of a ladder.

He had a dream; a stairway (more accurately, a sulam, probably a ziqqarat or ramp though I will continue to use the tem “ladder” as that is how the dream is best known) was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. 13 And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. 14 Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. 15 Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. (Genesis 28:12-15)

The Lord God was standing beside him or, in an alternative translation, at the top of the ladder in the dream. God directly promises Jacob, first that the land on which he rests and that He promised to Abraham, will be the land of Jacob and his descendents. Second, God promised Jacob that his descendents will be like the dust of the earth, settling everywhere, east and west, north and south. Third, God promised that all nations will be blessed through the nation founded by Jacob. Fourth, God promises Jacob protection until he returns to his homeland.

This is more or less the same promise that Jacob received from his father, Isaac, nine verses earlier, before Jacob set out for Haran. There were several significant differences however. Isaac never included the third promise that other nations would be blessed as a result of the nation that will be the product of Jacob’s loins. Second, Isaac never promised Jacob that God would protect him until his return. Third, the order of the first two promises is reversed. The promise of being fruitful, of having many progeny and becoming a congregation of peoples, precedes rather than comes after the promise of ownership of the land.

God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples; and give you the blessing of Abraham, to you, and to your seed with you; that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham. (Genesis 28:3-4)

This blessing was very different than the one Jacob supposedly tricked his father into giving him when it was presumably intended for Esau. That blessing promised enormous wealth and prosperity. That blessing promised, not that other nations would be blessed through the mediation of Jacob’s descendents, but that nations would serve and bow down to Jacob. Other nations who curse the house of Jacob would be cursed. Other nations that bless the house of Jacob would be blessed.

God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.2 Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you. (Genesis 27:28-29)

In the third of these three blessings, the only one given directly by God, promises for the future are clear. But what was the meaning of a ladder or staircase joining heaven and earth? What is the meaning of the angels traipsing up and down? And where precisely was God standing in the dream? To the last question, there are three answers. God was at the top of the ladder. God was on the ground beside Jacob. Third, the meaning could be equivocal and suggest that God was in both places at one and the same time. I suggest the second answer as the clearer meaning. God was on the ground beside Jacob.

Generally the dream is interpreted as angels, servants or messengers of God, running up towards God and down to mankind as intermediaries. But that is odd because the very sense of the dream is that God is talking to Jacob directly and not through any intermediary. Further, angels are not always intermediaries. Before God gave the Torah to Moses, the angels in heaven, according to the Talmud (Shabbos 88b) evidently protested, insisting that angels are better designed to honour and cherish it. But Moses took up the challenge and insisted that since they (the angels) had neither children nor parents, they could not follow the mitzvah of honouring parents, The Torah was, therefore, meant for humans because humans had progeny.

However, if those traipsing up and down are literally angels, why would they need a staircase or a ladder or, for that matter, a ramp? They can fly up to heaven and down to earth. Yet virtually every commentator I have read insists they were actually angels. The debate is over the meaning of the ladder or staircase, some interpreting it diachronically as representing progressive stages in history, others interpreting the ladder as representing different stages in the rise to spirituality from human degradation where, after the so-called Fall, man was a “vessel of shame and disgrace, empty and wanting.” In either case, then those running up and down cannot be angels because they do not have ethical lives on earth that can be improved and they are not characterized as having higher and lower degrees of spirituality.

Rashi interprets the dream as having a strictly earthly and synchronic dimension, in keeping with the repetition of “place”. The ladder stood on the boundary between Eretz Israel and the diaspora. Most commentators, however, take the hierarchy of spirituality approach. Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed (I.15) argues the angels are the prophets who serve to translate the meaning of Torah to the rest of humanity. God then is not standing beside Jacob on the ground, but at the head of the ladder. He is the unchanging constant, the stabilizer and reference point for humanity in terms of which we can measure the development of our rationality in true Aristotelian style in reference to the Unmoved Mover that is God. The Torah is not in service to man, but casts man in the role of a servant to God in strong opposition to the view that humanity is dearer than the entire world, even real angels.

A Chassidic disciple of the Vilna Gaon agreed that the ladder represented different stages of spiritual development and stressed, not human reasoning or even thought more generally, but deeds, deeds that try to be more worthy of God. In the Zohar, the ladder is not actually on the ground but is anchored in heaven where spirit (ruach) and the soul (nefesh) are united and can then descend into the hearts of man.  At least the Torah is seen for the benefit of man rather than seeing man as only put on Earth to worship God as mankind aspires to move upwards towards God. In the latter view, man is base and must overcome his evil ways.

Is the Torah God-centered or human-centered? Are intermediaries needed? As I reflected on these and other interpretations, I grew very tired. As most people know, I get up very early. But I do not usually go back to bed for a nap until after breakfast and I have finished my blog. This morning I became overwhelmingly tired. I lied down and instantly fell asleep. That instant sleep is common. Most unusual, however, I had a dream. I even remembered it.

The angels were my angels, my six children and all their offspring. They were my children and grandchildren, some going up to heaven and others descending from heaven. They were angels with legs not wings. And all of them belonged to both worlds, heaven and earth, idealism and the practicalities of everyday life. And all of them at different stages of their lives were traveling in one direction or the other, sometimes towards aspirations, at other times to more practical concerns – getting an education, finding a partner, earning an income, finding a house. But every one of them was involved in both to different degrees at different times. Children and grandchildren traipsing up and down are the gateway to heaven. The abode of God is within the family, in having a place for that family and in having children. That is where God lives among humans. The gate of heaven is on the ground where it meets earth, not at the top of the ladder. It is the place where a frightened fugitive, a refugee from his own home, has to swap the comforts of that home for a stone as a pillow.

This is perhaps a mundane rather than esoteric interpretation, different but akin to Rashi’s, but it made total sense to me. Further, I understood not only the dream, but the meaning of the story that followed in a way I had not understood before.

The story that follows is straightforward and virtually everyone knows it. At the well, Jacob falls in love with Rachel, Laban’s daughter, who is shapely and beautiful. Jacob works for Laban seven years to win her as his wife. But Laban tricks him and sends in Leah, the older daughter, into his marriage bed, just as Rebekah once sent Jacob into Isaac to get the blessing ostensibly intended for Esau. To win the beautiful Rachel’s hand, Jacob has to work another seven years. But he has worked fourteen years for no material benefit and has only wives and children to show for it. (More on that in a minute.) So he makes a deal with the very tricky Laban. By then, Jacob had 11 sons and one daughter, 6 sons by Leah, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah (Levi and Judah constituting the priestly and political/military class of the House of Israel and Judah), Issachar, Zebulun, the latter two and a daughter, Dinah, only born after Leah uses a mandrake to get Jacob once again to make love to her. Rachel is the one who willingly gives her place in bed to Leah for the mandrake root that Reuben, Leah’s eldest, had found and collected and which allows her at last to bear the first of her two sons, Joseph. As Jacob once traded a hot pot of soup to Esau for his birthright, Rachel now trades her place in bed for a right to give birth.

Jacob then turns the tables on Laban by learning, via the lessons of his mother, Rebekah, and also his wife, that if you are to gain anything on this earth in terms of wealth, you have to be wily, though not dishonest. He tells Laban not to give him wages, but to give him “every speckled and spotted animal – every dark-coloured sheep and every spotted and speckled goat – as his wages. Such shall be my wages. In the future when you go over my wages, let my honesty toward you testify for me: if there are among my goats any that are not speckled or spotted or any sheep that are not dark-coloured, they got there by theft.” (Genesis 28: 32- 34) Laban then tricks Jacob once again by having his sons remove the spotted and speckled and mottled animals. But Jacob is by now onto Laban and turns the tables by breeding spotted, speckled and mottled goats and sheep, leaving the feebler uniformly coloured animals for Laban. Before Jacob’s time was up and he had served another six years, Jacob snuck away with his wives, his concubines and his servants, just as Laban had snuck away and left his sons to steal away the spotted, mottled and speckled members of the flock when he first made his deal with Jacob.

There is one more tale of trickery. Rachel steals her father’s household idols. When Laban chases Jacob in flight with all his animals and household staff and catches them in what is today Jordan, the hill country of Gilead, he is warned by God not to begin a conflict because God is there to protect Jacob. Laban changes his mind in his intention to wrest what he considers his animals back from Jacob. Laban says that he only chased Jacob and his family because Jacob did not allow Laban to send them off with a proper goodbye.

However, when Laban demands the return of his household idols from Jacob, who never knew that Rachel stole them, Rachel sits on them hidden under a camel pillow and claims she is sitting on her pillow because she is having her period (with the implication that she is unclean). Jacob then turns the tables a second time and ends his role as a supplicant. He remonstrates Laban for his false accusations, for his trickery, for his deviousness and cheating Jacob of all he deserved over the past two decades.

Laban then says: “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne? Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.” (Genesis 31: 43-44) The real wealth Laban had lost was not the sheep and the goats, but the love of his daughters and his grandchildren. Laban made a pact of peace with Jacob. And we have been taught that the real wealth of life is the children who climb up and down the ladders between idealism and practicality. So when Jacob leaves the camp to finally head home, he once again sees angels and Jacob recognized that where he had made that compact was God’s camp and he named it Mahanaim, just east of either the Jordan River or the Jabbok River.

Was it named “two camps” because the place represented the location where the two camps of Laban, the wily trickster greedy for wealth, and Jacob, who took twenty years to master the ways of the world, finally made peace? Or was it named two camps because the place represented the site where the camp of God met the camp of Jacob. I believe the name was given because it was the place where the camps of idealism and the camp of realism, the camp of striving for perfection and the camp of necessary guile, first met and agreed that Israel was to be founded on the complementarity of both rather than exclusion of one by the other. Instead of wisdom and judgement as the perfect balance between reason and compassion, the balancing act requires hard-headed strategic thinking married to ideals. The balance is not an equilibrium constant but is constantly shifting and requires us to shift with the requirements of a situation. Steps and rungs are not stages but mechanisms for going down as well as up, and going down is often a virtue.

Christians often cite the passage in John (1:45-51) where Jacob’s dream is cited and interpreted and where Jesus greets Nathaniel and says, “Behold an Israelite in whom is no guile.” The response from Jews must be, “A human with guile is not without ideals, but he has gotten rid of his naïveté that in all others who are less ‘pure’ becomes the root of hypocrisy.” We must travel back and forth on a highway between Haran and our homeland, between realpolitik and idealism. Jews do not need a leap of faith to accept inherently contradictory positions. Nor do they require steps or rungs or stages to reach a higher level. Jacob acquires that wisdom through experience in the rough and tumble of life.

I regard the view of Jacob as someone who seeks to overtake Esau as mistaken. He needs to hang onto Esau until he can cope on his own because he is a naïve dreamer. His first effort gets him an empty birthright without any guarantees. His second effort guided by Rebekah only gets him a blessing which promises only wealth. In his subsequent efforts, he is the one who is tricked until he learns to turn the trick on the one taking advantage of him. Jacob is akov, indirect, not because he is a deceiver, but because he has not yet found his way. When that route is completed, he will become and be renamed Israel

On Raising Children

On Raising Children

by

Howard Adelman

One of the great joys of feast days is that your children, children’s spouses and grandchildren return home from near and far if feasible. The greatest joy this Passover was that all six kids, their spouses (in one case an ex-spouse) and all my grandchildren came home for Passover – two from Israel, five from Princeton, one from New York, one from Boston, two from Victoria. Seven are still in Toronto. My wife Nancy pulled it off – as well as preparing all the great meals, including the Passover feast.

Passover is about telling a tragic tale of oppression, threatened (and, in the case of the Egyptian children) actual death of children and then the march from slavery into freedom. The story as formally told is in great contrast to the comedic stories the children tell of their own father. The stories make you wonder why they come home at all. For they delight in telling each other how idiosyncratic and incompetent their father was.

Allowances

Last night at dinner – there were still 10 of us left of the original 20 plus friends for a total of 33 – my two youngest sons regaled my grandchildren with stories of how they negotiated their allowances. The stories were instigated by one of my teenage grandchildren telling me he was broke and could he get some money from me since he was no longer eligible to win the money for finding the Afikomen according to the rule that teenagers become ineligible for a reward just because they are teens. I asked him why he did not ask for a job rather than for money – a not unexpected question from me. This triggered Daniel and Gabriel asking the grandchildren how much allowance they received and how they themselves, when they were even little kids, had to negotiate their allowances for the coming year on their birthdays. They would enter my study with a proposal for how much they needed and why they needed a raise. But most of all the negotiations were not so much over the amount of money – since they had a pretty reasonable idea of what they could get – but over the list of duties they were required to perform for those allowances. They knew in entering the negotiations that the list would never be long enough so they left off a number of duties and, inevitably, I usually forgot to include some of them. They described to my grandchildren the ritual of writing up the contract, signing it and having it witnessed. They were surprised in retrospect about how seriously they took the task since I had become by then such a poor enforcer.

Drugs

When out of earshot of the grandchildren, they would tell stories of their drug taking and my total obliviousness to their behaviour when they came home stoned. I was viewed – rightly – as an absolutist when it came to forbidding drugs, especially cigarettes, but surprisingly not alcohol even though I did not drink – but a total incompetent in detection and hence enforcement.

Tatoos

They all flirted with the idea of getting tattoos but they also all knew that tattoos were totally and absolutely verboten at the peril, accepted as fully realistic, that I would cut off contact if they got a tattoo while dependent on my largesse.  Only the oldest ever got a tattoo – it was a very small one – long after he had moved out of the house and he regretted doing so. They all knew the story and the threatened consequence and it was the one and perhaps the only one they took seriously, though not one of them accepted the arguments I proffered – if I bothered to give any at all for this absolute taboo – as being at all rational.

Physical Wrestling

The occasion was one of my grandchildren – a fifteen year old – inviting me to wrestle with him. He is now a six footer and very heftily built. I declined. I told him I had an absolute rule – I only wrestled with my children and grandchildren when I could still beat them. As soon as I detected that they could beat me, pacifism became the order of the day.  When he wasn’t looking, I grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze to incapacitate him and explained that the rule was applicable except if and when I could get away with breaking it.

A Wife’s Despair

Because my relationship with my children and grandchildren was so physical, my wife complained that I only instigated their rambunctiousness and bad behaviour. I never taught them to be polite and well-mannered or how to behave in adult company since I became such a child myself.

Fear

Yet  one of my younger children described how afraid he was of me when I became angry and threatened to whip him. I said I thought I gave up such threats with the younger two. He insisted that I really gave up because I could no longer catch them and how exhilarated and powerful he felt at a relatively young age when he learned he could outrun me.

A Lawyer for Hire

Since I was a total failure at enforcement or even consistency or perhaps even more importantly noticing, the enforcement of infractions was totally arbitrary since most of the time I never seemed to attend sufficiently to whether the behaviour conformed with their actual practice. But if they got in trouble with their mother, I was available to be hired – at a very modest fee – to serve as their defence attorney – not to actually come to their defence, but to help them prepare their case. The fees, very modest to begin with – never kept up with inflation.

Disappointments

My youngest grandchild told me how much I had upset her very recently. I have a practice of bringing my grandchildren who live in Toronto bagels, cream cheese and lox on Sunday mornings. Since most of the boys slept in, I suggested changing the practice to taking them out to eat individually. My granddaughter who did not sleep in said she missed the bagels. I promised to resume the practice the Sunday before Passover. Only I forgot. Not about bringing the bagels, but that I had promised her. I planned to bring the bagels as a surprise but with the chaos of all the returning children and grandchildren and the big breakfast to get on the table for all the returnees, I thought I had better skip the surprise – again, totally forgetting I had promised. She was evidently so upset that I had not kept my promise and cried uncontrollably. My apologies to her did not seem to ease my guilt even though she seemed to dismiss my failure with a wave and a laugh. Parents and grandparents are not permitted to break promises and deals – only children can.

Telling and Reading Stories

I am somehow incapable of reading a story or a lecture for that matter. I don’t recall ever having read a paper at the hundreds of conferences I have attended. I would speak to the paper but never read it. When I read stories to my children, they would giggle and laugh at all the times I fell asleep, which they could tell when I started to read a sentence like a broken record repeating one word over and over again. Then they would know I had successfully put myself to sleep and they could fall asleep contentedly. But they would regale each other with the small repertoire of stories that I acted out orally, especially the tales of Uncle Remus.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read Pirsig’s book and no book has ever infuriated me more. It was not simply the stupidity of the philosophical ideas he was proffering, or the large number of errors he made in interpreting philosophers. What so upset me was how he treated his child. His young son rode behind him as the journeyed each day westward towards California, clinging to him and unable to experience the world in front of them. It seems Pirsig never learned why in All nomadic and even primitive settled societies mothers carry their children in slings facing forward. When Pirsig stopped traveling for the day, he was totally obsessed with the proper maintenance of his motorbike. And he could not understand why his child had such a stomach upset at the end of the trip.

Crying

I have often told my children the story of how, during my sabbatical in Israel when I was a Lady Davis Visiting Professor there, our first apartment was on a ground floor and my study faced a gan, a pre-kindergarten day care. I would watch as the children were being dropped off and the care givers sat on a log smoking (the dangers of second hand smoke had not yet penetrated Israeli public consciousness) and chatting. Children would have small incidents, fall, and cry but they were simply allowed to pick themselves up and get on with it. The care givers rarely interfered, except if the hurt was serious or if there was real danger. I, however, regarded their conduct as extremely negligent and finally went to the university authorities to ask what could and should be done. They explained to me that this was the official doctrine for raising children, including very young ones, because it taught those children independence and self-reliance at a young age and NOT to be risk-averse. While startled at this account of a semi-official policy of socialization, I too generally preferred to raise my children and let them cry and discover how to get around their problems, interfering as little as possible. Though not nearly as extreme as evidently semi-official Israeli child-rearing practices, and, as a Canadian, much more risk-averse, I too never did learn that there is no evidence that letting children cry and learn from their mistakes made them more self-reliant and less dependent as adults. I am always surprised that in the most important responsibility I ever took on or accepted – raising children – how much ignorance and bias went into my child-rearing practices.

Idiosyncrasy

I am supposed to be a philosopher steeped in rationality but the taboos, the modes of punishment and the methods of discipline I used with my own children seemed to have little thought and less rationale behind them.

Listening

I do not think I was a very good parent or grandparent in advising and guiding my children and grandchildren. They turned out to be terrific in spite of me. I was never good at talking to them about their various forms of misbehaviour. But I was a vey good listener when they came to me – whether as children or grown adults. Except for my moments of irrational excitability, I was generally laid back. Though often inconsistent, I was always consistent in providing for them, in contrast to m y own father. I always treated them as mini-adults with some unfortunate decisions in exposing them – or wanting to expose them – to material inappropriate for their age, such as wanting to take them to see Schindler’s List when the youngest two were not even near their teens – prevented only by my wife determined to protect her children’s sensitivities from the bizarre notions of her husband.

Physical Health

Surprisingly, given my terrible eating and sleeping practices and my absence of any regular exercise program until I started with the heart rehabilitation unit this last Thursday, not one of my six children is an ounce overweight. They all exercise regularly and they generally eat healthily. I do joke and say I taught them by offering a bad example. The children certainly learned the lessons of a healthy lifestyle and good eating habits in spite of my example.

Religion and Regret

I have only one child who has a sense of the value of organized religion and especially of Judaism and who appreciates the impact of institutionalized religious practices. The rest are indifferent or quasi-antagonistic while they agreeably participate in the Passover seders. I suppose they have learned from my own ambivalence – my strong attraction to religion and my suspicion and wariness of its institutional practices.

Surprise and Delight

With all my accumulation of faulty parenting skills, I remain absolutely delighted and how they all turned out – each very different than any of the others. I honestly believe they like me and enjoy spending time with me in spite of all my failures.

I am a very lucky and blessed father and grandfather.

Children of the Earth

CHILDREN of the EARTH

(Address following the marriage of Daniel and Jessica Adelman on Friday afternoon, 9 August 2013.)

by

Howard Adelman

The Passover seder we hold each year focuses on children who  are invited to ask questions. Customarily, we describe four types of children according to how they perform. An innocent child, usually one too young, is unable to verbalize questions; for that child, we formulate both the question and the answer. The simple child can ask but needs only a simple answer. The wise child needs an extended story and multiple possible answers to the same question. A contrary child, the fourth type, sets himself apart from the community gathered together to celebrate the feast of freedom and asks: “Why do you – not us, not we – why do you celebrate Passover?

I pose the following question to you: what kind of child was Daniel? (You can email me if you want to know the correct answer.)

Now I want to make a different fourfold division among children. The division is rooted in Greek philosophy rather than in our Hebraic heritage. Children are divided into four types and become four kinds of adults. There are children of air and children of fire, children of water and children of earth. My six children came in all four varieties. We are blessed to have with us at this celebration all of Daniel’s siblings but one. The sixth could not come but sent her son, Eitan, from Israel to be with us. Eitan, thank you for coming all that way.

Eitan’s mother, my daughter, Rachel, was a child of the air, an ethereal child about whom I always had nightmares as Nazi thugs pursued us. Her daydreaming and other-worldly imaginative pre-occupations threatened to delay our escape. Capture was always immanent. Fortunately, Rachel found a career and lifestyle as a professor of biblical studies that allows her to be both a child of the air but, combined with her beliefs and practices rooted in Orthodox Judaism, keeps her grounded. If you meet and talk with Eitan for awhile, you will get a glimpse of a child of the air. He may have won recognition when he won the President of Israel’s medal for being an outstanding paratrooper in the Israel Defence Forces, but that is not what I mean when I describe him as a child of the air. He lives in his imagination, in a mediaeval world populated by knights governed by a code of courage and valour. The children of the air blow the spirit of the divine breath, ruah, on both Daniel and Jess. Rachel has asked me personally to convey how deeply she regrets not being here; she sends her heartfelt wishes to Daniel and Jess for a happy and loving life together.

Some of my other children are more difficult to categorize. Two of them – Shonagh and Gabriel – were children of fire, not wildfire, but children of light and colour and angle of vision – as well as darkness and fiery lava from within the crust of the earth. That fire thrust them into artistic careers – Shonagh is a well recognized pop-surrealist painter and Gabriel is a film maker. Thank both of you for coming – Shonagh all the way from New York.

Eric is more difficult to categorize. He, and his son Sasha and daughter, Esmé, flew from Toronto. Sasha and his father share a sensitivity to others that sometimes becomes painful to observe. Neither is or was a child of air or fire. I do not think Eric is a child of the earth, and, perhaps, is like his oldest sibling, Jeremy, who came to British Columbia with his family from Princeton with his wife, Debbie, and children, Sammy, Jo Jo and Sadie. Jeremy was a child of water combining a capacity for fluidity with an ability to cut a stream through granite rock to produce one scholarly book after another to capture and preserve every whisper, every sigh, every word he has heard or read to produce one scholarly masterpiece after another. His latest book has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Eric and Jeremy are very different. But the Nile and the Mississippi are different. So are the Mackenzie and the Fraser. No two rivers are the same. But each river cuts its way through rock and each allows the earth to be nourished.

Daniel is my only child of the earth. Anne Michaels in her novel, The Winter Vault, began with these words: “Perhaps we painted on our own skin, with ochre and charcoal, before we painted on stone.” Children of the earth especially paint themselves and their characters with what they do with their own skin, their own flesh and their own bones. They do not paint or portray or depict others in words, but become the personalities of their own portraits. They have an exceptional wisdom in choosing friends and especially life partners. Daniel has, as well and, as everyone knows, an extraordinary capacity for cultivating acquaintances. Malcolm Gladwell called these children of the earth “Connectors”. They accept the obligations that friendship requires.

Daniel manages to occupy and enjoy many different worlds, subcultures and niches from tiling to philosophy, from researching oil pipelines to an interest in real estate that allows him to collect an enormous range of characters as friends. He does not do it deliberately. It is an offshoot of his curiousity, sociability and energy. Daniel is a people enthusiast. 

Children of the air, may, like the dove, leave the ark to test whether the flood has receded and return with a single leaf in their beak. But when they find the earth has dried out, they do not return. Children of the earth, however, never forget their origins even if they vigorously protest the illogic of their beginnings and the absurdities in memorializing change. Their sentiments root them in their genesis. The future is always cast in the shadow of the past.

Children of fire and children of water find origins unfathonable. They are entranced by kinesis rather than genesis. But for children of the earth, each moment is a new beginning and each beginning is a joy to behold. 

Magic is found in the particulars, whether escorting us on a hike through the rain forest in a downpour or showing us where the salmon spawn. All places have feelings, colours and shapes. They have height and depths of emotion; each place is a living bouquet. Moments are memories of simple happiness. If children of the air want moments to be eternal, if they desire to capture all of time in a single instant of ecstatic bliss, children of the earth appreciate the uniqueness of the singular. If children of fire love movement more than the moment, but unlike the chidren of water, are more concerned with different juxtaposed moments that illuminate one another rather than continuity, children of the earth will not allow sunrise’s noise to interrupt the hallowed ground of a moment of sheer joy. Children of the earth long to hold back time and make it less lonely rather than watch it rush forth to cascade over rapids and waterfalls or leap back and forth between memory and experience.

Daniel is a child of the earth because he is attached to a landscape, in his case, to the world of trees and rocks, sea shores and sprays, animals and birds. He is a child of the earth because he does not see the world as something you convert into a possession by your labours. He is not a possessive individualist, but a protective collectivist. The earth is something to be watched and observed and tended. Daniel will become rich, not because of what he wants to own, but because of what he wants to protect. He is not out to define space, but will allow space to define him. Daniel desires to give shape – not to space, but to emptiness – as God did in the beginning – to ensure the earth is full and abundant. When heaven meets earth, when the water and the land divide, there you will find the place where Daniel and Jessica will forge their lives together.

Jess is also a child of the earth. When she came to our island retreat for five days, she discovered a nest with two eggs and watched the chicks hatch and the mother feed her offspring. The first thing in the morning and throughout the day, Jess checked on their well-being, never interfering. Jessica, however, is a very different child of the earth than Daniel, more watchful, more delicate. She listens to the echoes in the silences more than filling the air with the gurgle of conversation.

Daniel is more akin to Jack, Jess’s father, with his eyes on the rocks and trees, while Jess is entranced by the filtered light that comes through the overhanging branches and leafy umbrella above. Though Jess is attracted to the artist’s light and shadow that reveals new forms and illuminates new meanings and discovers new patterns, her light is filtered, freckled and fragmented. Both Jess and Daniel will be dedicated to preventing earth from becoming a Martian arid surface where the atmosphere has disappeared or even the badlands of Alberta where Jack showed us a remnant of the jaw of a Tyrannosaurus Rex that he had found when he was twenty. He showed us the sockets where the teeth were and the impressions where the upper incisors sliced through flesh. Daniel shares with his father-in-law the love of detail of the historical record left in the crust of hollowed out rocks and bones to preserve the record of its history. The beautiful spoon Daniel made out of wood for his mother, the simple but very elegant and almost magically thin and polished wafer of wood that Jack proudly showed us that Daniel made for him and that he uses as his key holder, are both exquisite as well as useful artifacts.

Jess certainly has the skills of her own mother, Allain, and her new mother-in-law, Nancy, in making a meal into a work of art, a feast for the eyes and the soul. I, however, do not know Jess well enough to assert that she has Allain’s skills of divination, probably inherited from her Scottish background, for on Tuesday evening, Allain, with absolutely no foreknowledge, served us my favourite dessert, New York cheesecake, with a berry topping that, to use the well-worn cliché, was “to die for”.  Even the most famous restaurant on Broadway for cheesecake would have been envious. 

Children of the earth are artisans, not artists. Artisans, unlike artists, remind us that simulation is a perfect disguise. Artisans prefer revelation to masks, physical presence to harlequins. Unlike artists, they preserve rather than displace what they imitate. For the artisan, creativity is a way to commemorate origins. The old wood Daniel collects all have memories. For the artisan, a knitted pair of mittens is magical. Together, Daniel and Jess weave a tapestry of personal potency.

Daniel and Jess are on the verge of a path of lifelong happiness, but not one without its vicissitudes and challenges. With help and their own inborn capacities, they will relive the type of life that Jess’ grandparents did who remained lovebirds their entire lives.

A toast to two lovebirds.