The Parable of the Carpenter and His Daughter

On a cold winter night, not long past Chanukah, a master told her disciples this parable.

Many years ago, a widowed carpenter built a house for himself, and he lived there with his young and gifted daughter. The house was magnificently made, with elegant staircases and fine polished floors. The carpenter had taught his daughter woodworking too. She learned to cut planks, join and carve. Some skills she learned through her father’s instruction, and others she learned as she simply watched him, whittling by candlelight.

This carpenter was famous for his work, for he could make simple necessities look like sumptuous luxuries. In his free time, he studied books of woodworking, architecture, landscaping, gardening. His joy in his craft showed in everything that he did. His daughter kept house, cooking and sweeping his workshop.

As she grew older, the carpenter’s daughter said to herself: “My father has run out of room for his vast library. I will surprise him by building new rooms on to our fine house so that my dear father will have space for his many books. Maybe I will even build a room just for myself,” she further pondered, “and pursue my own studies there.”

And so the carpenter’s daughter secretly began planning her clever addition which would sit on the hill at the back of the house and be connected to the original building by means of a passageway lined with windows. She was proud that her design fitted almost seamlessly with the home her father had built so many years before, yet it also had elements which were entirely hers. She started building as soon as her father left on his yearly journey to buy exotic woods in a faraway city. And she intended to finish the entire project before her father returned home. It would be a surprise gift for him.

Alas, nothing went as quickly as planned, and on the evening her father was due to return to the village, she had finished everything except the passageway that would connect her creation to the original house.

She worked frantically, sawing and nailing and cheerfully imagining her father taking his books out of unsightly boxes and placing them in the new cabinets she had built with her own hands.

When the carpenter arrived back at his home, he heard the familiar sounds of a carpenter at work. Looking out the back window of his home, he saw to his surprise a small building perched on the hill right in back of his house, on his own land!

Furious, he ran out the back door, intent upon finding the person who had violated his property. He saw the unfinished passageway, so well made that it looked to him like the grand entrance of a wealthy household was being built. He did not notice how small the building was and how closely it matched the structure of his own house. Instead of admiring the beautiful engravings on the new door frames and the glossy shine of the new walls, he noticed instead bent and broken nails, sawdust, and paint chips lying about on his back porch. Finding his own tools on the ground, he realized that the work could only have been done by his daughter. “What has happened here?” he asked, enraged.

And he imagined that—rather than building a new section for his own house —his daughter had built a second house, one to rival his own, and that her intent, now that she was grown up, was to supplant him and undermine his prosperity. Her ungratefulness took his breath away. “How stupid I was to bring her gifts!” he thought. And when he saw the tools lying so near his front door, he became convinced in his rage that she intended, once her own house was finished, to demolish his own.

At that moment, the carpenter’s daughter appeared in a newly-built door frame. “Papa!” she cried. “I have so much to tell you! Welcome home!”

“Traitorous child!” he shouted. “Did you think you could destroy all I have worked for in so short a time? What a fool I was to teach you my trade! I disown you! Get off my land!”

And with that, the carpenter rushed into the new building with his hammer, intending to smash everything. He broke windows and tore up floorboards. Clenching his teeth, he thought of all the opportunities he had missed to be stern with his daughter and thus prevent her from being greedy and deceitful. He grew angrier, and swung his hammer harder.

But when the carpenter got further into the house, he saw the scores of old boxes containing his treasured books, sitting beside the cabinets his daughter had prepared to hold them, and he saw how the morning light came through the windows, warming the room, making a pleasant spot to sit and read, and he realized suddenly that his daughter had not betrayed him.

He emerged from the house he had almost destroyed, and saw his daughter trudging down the road, away from the village. “Wait,” he called to her. “Please forgive me for what I did and said! Perhaps we can join these houses after all!”

When the young woman heard the pleading sound of her father’s voice, she almost wanted to ignore it, but instead she turned and walked back in the direction of the house. In silence, she and her father repaired the windows and fixed the floorboards and fastened the shingles to the roof. Finally, they attached the new building to the carpenter’s house.

When they were done, the daughter said: “Papa, I love you. How could you think that I would do anything to destroy your hard work? I only wanted to create something new, to show you that I also am a good carpenter.”

“You became a stranger in my eyes,” replied her father. “It frightened me that you had built something without me. I was so happy with things as they were.”

“Everything changes,” said the daughter. “I learned that from you.” She shifted her feet uncomfortably. “I need time to sort all of this out on my own.”

Her father sadly agreed. He hoped that someday they would find a way to live in harmony again. And so the daughter traveled and learned, building houses and furniture to earn a living while she discovered the world. Everywhere she went, people praised her work, for her own creative power, and her father’s wise teaching, showed in everything that she did. She came to understand her father’s hopes and fears in a new light, and she came to know herself as intimately as she knew him, and to listen to her own voice as well as his. After a long time, she realized how much she missed her father and the village in which she had grown up. She packed her wagon, harnessed her horse, and set off for home.

When she came to the finely built house in the little village, she was surprised to find that not all was as she expected. Her building with its windowed passageway was still there, but the walls were a different color, and other looms had been added, lending even more beauty and complexity to the whole. Even the flowers in the garden were new. Her father met her at the door.

“Papa,” she stammered, “how different it all looks.”

Her father smiled. “Everything changes,” he said. “Welcome home.”

“But rebbe, what does the story mean?” the disciples clamored.

“What is your interpretation?” the master asked them.

One of the scholars busily cleared his throat. “It clearly parallels Hasidic stories of the 20th century, in which father and daughter represent male and female aspects of the Divine. As in those stories, the Shekhinah. the Divine Presence, is sent into exile from the heavenly realm, yet this parable breaks the traditional pattern. At first the Shekhinah is exiled by her father, but later she willingly exiles herself. This reminds us that exile can be forced on us, but exile can also be chosen, for it teaches wisdom as well as pain.”

Another scholar exclaimed: “The daughter shouldn’t have been exiled in the first place. She wanted to wield the knowledge which she had gained from her father. Yet after giving him so much, she had to leave her home in order to keep something for herself! This story reiterates the prophets’ warning: unequal power breeds injustice, and injustice breeds narrowness and division.”

“But the father comes to understand his mistake,” one student pointed out, “and the daughter returns to her home.”

“And what do we learn from this?” the rebbe prodded.

“That love causes exiles to return,” the student answered. “And that our image of God as a parent is both beautiful and flawed, for parents inspire devotion but also rebellion.”

“Master,” one young student whispered, “perhaps the carpenter and his daughter do not represent the Divine at all. Perhaps they represent us. They show us how the generations threaten and enrich each other. The father is angry at the daughter for changing the way things are, because he fears she will replace him. The daughter is angry at the father for misunderstanding her intentions, because she fears he will reject her. Yet he receives from her the gift of innovation, and she receives from him the gift of memory. They will build their future together.” The student fell silent. Looking down, she saw as if for the first time the carved wood of the table before her.

The rebbe nodded in approval. Then she lifted her hands to the warmth of the fire where an old copper kettle shone brightly, for it was a very cold night. “My dear ones,” she said, “this is my interpretation.

“The carpenter’s house represents the Torah. The father represents tradition. The daughter represents the will to grow and change. And the change itself? This represents our constant struggle to understand God’s will. This is what Solomon meant by saying: ‘It is a tree of life—to those who hold it fast.’ The tree grows and grows, and we must grasp the farthest of its blossoms— while keeping the roots in sight.”

Jill Hammer is a published poet and story-writer, and a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.