In the opening of the Torah narrative about Joseph, a character narrative that will span more sections of Genesis than any other character in the Torah's opening book, we learn that Joseph is described as his father Jacob's בן זקונים--the child of his old age.
The medieval commentator Rashi notes that "whatever Jacob learned during his years of study in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever, he taught in turn to Joseph."
I sat contemplating these lines last night and the next day while in two different hospital emergency rooms waiting for some attention to a bumped knee on one of my kids. Our pediatrician had sent us into the city, to the NYU Hospital for Orthopedics, thinking that the x-ray would get shot and interpreted quickly. Three and a half hours and few blown fuses later, we had yet to get seen, so we left in frustration. The following morning we went to Methodist, our local hospital, where we zipped through triage and then waited two hours to be seen and another 45 minutes before the x-ray was taken and read (diagnosis: big bruise, no break), the knee wrapped and the child crutched. Back outdoors, to a sunny day and a quick lesson in using the little aluminum devils.
"My whole life I wanted to be that kid walking down the sidewalk in crutches," my daughter said. "Until now. This isn't so fun."
We passed the time in the car last night, walking down the street today, talking about past injuries and what was done to overcome them. And while in the waiting rooms at both NYU and Methodist, we each had the tools of our trade--she, her cellphone, her iPod and some school work; me, the blackberry and Da'at Hamikrah, a terrific collection of commentary both traditional and historical to Torah. Between my own outbursts of prophetic annoyance at the abysmal condition of the health care system in our nation ("Wow, Dad, it's REALLY fun hanging out with you," she deadpanned, before convincing me to go for a walk and get us some supper.)
Thai noodles from 2nd Avenue and 17th Street. Another dad was sitting with his daughter in the restaurant, their plates were empty at the table. So was his glass of red wine. The daughter was diddling with his iPhone. There was silence and benevolent smiles between them. The waiters behind the bar were organizing drink glasses and in off moments, checking their cellphones. I sat with my blackberry at the ready, in case my daughter, holed up in the emergency room across the street, needed me--after all, she was in the "emergency" room.
Where did all the talking go?
When I got back to the hospital, we cracked open our noodles and my daughter exploded in narrative--about the little person who slept in her chair and the other woman who kept trying to console a crying Russian mother with the offer of taking her to sing Christmas Carols on an upper floor of the hospital. Across from us sat a group of African American women, waiting for their cars to take them home after a long day of work. They were exhausted but had the day's news and holiday wishes and all sorts of gossip to get out of the way before parting for the night. It was a very rich scene and for a moment I forgot that I was annoyed with the health care system in our country and instead I was a student of the human body and soul, in a place which treats both, and whatever I had learned in my 46 years of existence I wanted to pass on to my daughter.
So I told her about Jacob and Joseph, and how one of the things that made Joseph's brothers so jealous of him was that Jacob favored Joseph in passing on the family wisdom to him and not the others. In fact, when Torah reveals that the brothers hatred for Joseph was rooted in their perception that Jacob loved Joseph the most, it says, "they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him."
And then we started telling stories. My injuries. Her sisters'. Her mother's. On and on. It was a real tale of woe. And we shared the pain, really feeling it for one another. Suddenly, we decided to go home and try again at a different hospital in the morning. Which we did. And when the x-rays were complete and all we had to reckon with was a bruise, a knee wrap, and some temporary crutches, we could begin to pivot toward a different day than we had been having since the night before.
And I have to say, I emerged from the hospital more the patient than my eldest daughter. At one point during one of my deeply annoying monologues about inefficiency (though I still think my point is valid--the young doctor was spending more time filling out forms on-line than he was examining patients, not his fault necessarily but damn all this process!), my daughter says, "You know, Dad, instead of telling me your boring stories about what's wrong, why don't you just come stand here and tell me a funny story."
I dare say the kid taught me a lesson. A credit to her mother. And here I had shlepped my Torah commentary into the hospitals to teach her something, only to discover that I had more learning to do.
The Sages say that before a person is born, God tells them the entire Torah and then when we're born, angels gently wipe our mouths and remove the learning, leaving the small dimple above our top lip as a sign that the Torah was once present. We spend our lives re-obtaining that innate wisdom.
As I grow older, I have to admit to the certain joy in passing on what I know to those who will succeed me in this world; but this experience reminds me of an even greater and richer joy--to learn the simple wisdom from those who still retain a relationship to its purer origins, the small remnant that the angels couldn't steal, saving it up for children to use on their parents, when they could stand to do a little learning themselves.