I recently read my 3-year-old nephew one of my favorite books from my childhood—as much a treat for me as for him.
The book, appropriate to dig up in time for Jewish Book Month this month, is a cherished Yiddish folktale called It Could Always Be Worse, by author Margot Zemach, about a poor shtetl man who thinks life can’t get any harder than living in a tiny one-room hut with his wife and many children. His home has become so noisy and chaotic that he can’t take it anymore so he consults the village rabbi for advice.
To the man’s shock, the rabbi advises him to bring more creatures into his home each day—first chickens, then a goat, plus a cow too.
The animals live with the man and his family in the hut for a few days and, then, when the man thinks things can’t get any crazier, the rabbi finally tells him to release the animals. That night, sans animals, the man’s home feels peaceful, roomy, and quiet.
It Could Always Be Worse is a parable that I’ve thought about often throughout my life. I learned the lesson when I was as small as my nephew, but that book has wisdom that can apply to us at any age.
The story teaches us to be thankful for all the wonderful blessings in our lives—even when life is hard—and not to take the good for granted. As Thanksgiving approaches, it seems like the right time to stop and think about that lesson.
Whenever we watch the news or read the headlines, we’re reminded to appreciate what we have when so many people in this country and abroad are plagued by high unemployment, natural disasters, war, famine, persecution, and terrorism.
Even so, in our own lives, we can’t help but complain, and sometimes rightfully so, bogged down in the details and headaches of our over-scheduled daily lives amidst a bad economy and divisive political climate.
But I take a moment each day, some days briefer than others, to reflect on all I have—something Judaism instructs us to do every morning. The very first prayer observant Jews recite before they get out of bed is Modeh Ani, “I give thanks,” thanking God for protection.
Giving thanks was the focus of a recent dinner conversation with three of my Jewish girlfriends, a group of grounded, intelligent, and spirited women who share with me similar worldviews and values. Our conversation suddenly devolved into a gripe fest about everything from long hours at work to rising rent costs to bad dates. But—then—we stopped ourselves, regained our sense of perspective, and pointed out how lucky we are.
We’re lucky we’re American Jewish women, endowed with the freedom to be anything we want to be, no matter what our religion or gender. We’re lucky that we were raised in loving, compassionate, and haimish Jewish homes, with parents who served as models of love to emulate in our own lives. We’re lucky that we attended excellent schools in safe learning environments with teachers who nourished our potential. And we’re lucky that we’re members of this committed, caring, and vibrant Jewish community here in Chicago, where we’ve found like-minded friends like each other.
When I was growing up, my mom used to tell me a phrase she made up that but for “a few inches on a map and a few pages back on the calendar” it could have been us in Tsarist Russia or it could have been us who suffered during the Holocaust. My ancestors, who lived through the hardest of times, paved the way for me to be a free Jew with opportunity at every turn.
Sometimes, in a weak moment, I forget how lucky I am. So I imagine what it would be like to fill my home—my downtown apartment—with all the chickens, goats, and cows like the man in the shtetl did.
And then I imagine letting all the animals go. It is then I remember how good I have it and hope you will too.