What Your Kids Teach You About Joy

Some personal reflections as we prepare for the High Holidays

by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg


Yonatan, my 7-year-old, has been climbing trees lately. There’s this one tree in the parking lot of his school, near where I usually park when I pick him up – it’s his special tree. He always wants to climb it and spend time hanging out there. And me, I’m usually impatient and anxious about getting where we need to go, since traffic is always beastly, and soccer practice is starting soon, and our 4-year-old is getting restless and the baby will need to eat soon and…

In front of me, is this gorgeous sight: a little boy climbing a tree, getting a little bit higher each time.

And I’m spending my time stressing about traffic.

The 20th century rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel often wrote about “radical amazement,” that sense of “wow” about the world, which, he said, was the root of spirituality. It’s the kind of thing that people often experience in nature, for example, on the proverbial mountaintop. But not only that. A lot of it is about bringing that sense of awe into the little things we often take for granted, or consider part of the background of our lives. This includes not only flowers on the side of the road or the taste of ice cream in our mouths, but also things we generally don’t even think of as pleasures, like the warm soapy water on our hands as we wash dishes.

The small moments of our lives can be opportunities for wonder. Every day offers a myriad of possibilities for delight, but usually we don’t notice them. We too often take things for granted, or lead with anxiety or fear or anger or boredom. We worry about the traffic or are caught up in our to-do lists, we get sucked into our phones or fall into a reverie. So the wonder goes untapped, sits inert.

Kids, of course, are the masters of wonder; seeing their excitement when they pet a puppy, see fireworks, eat ice cream (or a lemon slice), or just find a good stick on the sidewalk can be magical for many reasons; they remind us how to encounter the world fresh ourselves. Most of us grownups have forgotten to climb trees or even just to look up to see the branches and the sky.

Our children are our teachers – we may forget to live in radical amazement, but they use the way in. Their awe can catch us, remind us to look at the tree and the bubbles and the bright sky above it all. And when we remember how to do that, we can find that wonder, that wowness, in the dishwashing, in the red tomato we’re about to slice, and, of course, for us parents, in the tushies and toes of the cuddly, sticky, demanding little monsters we so love.

When I tune into the Radical Amazement channel, it makes me a little bit nicer, softer and gentler in general. And it definitely makes me more open and compassionate with my kids. Wonder helps me enjoy my life more. I remember that the present moment has a lot that’s grand about it when I’m able to plug into the love and the joy and the magic and the hallelujah about the small things, the mundane things. If I can manage to get even a tiny amount of wow into the most drudgery of the drudge moments… well, that’s a good day.

Heschel writes, “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”

Maybe today you can find a second to be dazzled by the flowers on the side of the road. To feel the warm water pouring over you deliciously when you shower. To savor the taste of iced coffee in your mouth. When your kids want to climb a tree, or stop to stare at the ants – experience the joy a little bit with them. Try to see what they see, let their awe be contagious. Look closely at the tree, at the ants, at the bubbles. Find something new to see in them that you never saw be-fore. And remember that the fight about how it’s time to get on to the next thing — well, it probably takes as long as just letting the magic unfurl a little bit.

It’s only your life, right?

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. She was named by Newsweek as one of ten “rabbis to watch” and by the Forward as one of the top 50 women rabbis in America.

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