A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to broaden my horizons. I fish almost exclusively with dry flies, in which the fly sits on the surface of the water and you must attract the fish to rise up and grab it. I find dry fly fishing to be exciting. One minute you are watching your fly float slowly down the river, ever so peacefully. Then suddenly the fly disappears with a loud smack, as a nice sized rainbow takes a bite.
Yet there is another whole world of fly fishing out there, nymph fishing, in which the nymph fly sinks below the surface and drifts by the hungry trout. I picked up a slightly over-priced but good book called: “The Orvis Pocket Guide to Nymphing Techniques.” While reading, I learned that trout flies, like the caddis fly and the may fly, have the same life cycle as the butterfly.
I first learned about the amazing transformation of butterfly when I was a child and I read the wonderful book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” That is the one that has the huge green caterpillar with the red head on the cover. The caterpillar spends 6 days eating, not a bad idea if you ask me. He eats oranges, and pears and plums, and then chocolate cake, ice cream and pickles. On the 7th day, the caterpillar eats a single leaf. Then he creates a cocoon for himself and separates from the world. And finally, the shell of the cocoon begins to crack, and out comes a beautiful butterfly.
At the butterfly preserve near Niagara Falls, New York
These stories about butterflies got me thinking about growth. A butterfly undergoes and amazing process of change, from crawling, to cocoon to flight. And in the course of our lives we grow as well. We mature physically from children into adults. And even after reaching our full height, some parts of our bodies will grow our whole lives, like our hair. But in the course of our years, hopefully we will mature in other ways too. We all grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
Each one of us undergoes the journey of growth from child to adult. The physical change is guaranteed by biology. But the emotional growth needed to become independent is not always so easy. We start out as a caterpillar, a baby, a child who needs to be fed and taken care of. And then at some point we begin to separate. We build a cocoon around ourselves. Maybe it is at the age 13, when we lock ourselves in our rooms, our cocoons, and talk to our friends on the phone for hours. Sometimes the cocoon we need is to go to a college far away, in another state or half-way across the country. And then at some point, we break out of that cocoon, and spread our wings as adults.
As a parent, I imagine it is hard to give your teenager or your college student space. It is not easy when you spent so many years caring for their every need. But when you give space to your children, when you let them burrow in their own cocoons, that allows them to grow into the adults you want them to become.
I watch this process happen all the time with Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids, the 13 year olds about to become Jewish adults. During the ceremony, the kids give a speech about the Bible which I help them write. Sometimes when I work on a Bar Mitzvah speech, I receive an amazing first draft. It is filled with an SAT vocabulary and the intellectual sophistication of a PhD. It’s not hard to figure out that the parents helped out. And I find that a bit sad. It is a missed opportunity to teach responsibility and independence. It is treating a child like the caterpillar that needs your help, rather than the young adult who can begin to take care of him or herself.
If a parent can give that kind of independence to a child, it is an amazing chance for growth. One boy in my class was working on his speech and it needed a few more changes. I let the mom know what was going on, and she said: “Well, go ahead and e-mail it to him. It’s his speech and he needs to take care of it.”
Of course a parent should love and care for his or her child. But in trying to shepard the growth from child to adult, we would do well to remember this Jewish teaching: “Rabbi Yishmael said: A parent should teach a child Torah, and teach him a livelihood. Rabbi Akiva replied: You must also teach your child how to swim, so that he can take care of himself.” When we teach our children to swim and let them grow their own wings and fly, we have given them a great gift.
We are all the caterpillar and the butterfly at the same time. We are all growing. We are in a process of becoming. In some areas of our life, maybe we are the caterpillar, vulnerable and hungry. In some relationships maybe we are in a cocoon, taking time and space, or doing our best to give it to others. And in some ways, we are all fully grown, mature and free, like the butterfly.
On Mt. Sinai, God tells Moses the divine name: Eheyeh Asher Eheyah, “I will be what I will be.” God does not say “I am.” Rather God says “I will be.” In some divine mystical sense, God is becoming and changing. And thus it is our task to emulate God, to grow and to become and to improve ourselves throughout our whole lives.