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January 27, 2000

Honoring Thy Many Selves

Parashat Yitro: (Exodus 18:1-- 20:26)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/honoring_thy_many_selves_20000128

A month ago, I gave birth to our first child, a little girl with a full head of dark hair and almond eyes. Since then I have spent countless hours struggling with the question: Whom do I serve? On the surface the answer seems obvious -- I serve my child. She is totally dependent upon me and my husband. I nurture her with my milk, and together, we bathe, dress, change and console her. Though she cries at what I once considered "ungodly" hours of the night and early morning, every time I pick her up, and hold her close, I am filled with awe and wonder at the true miracle and blessing that she is in our lives.

Yet the obvious answer, that I serve my child, is not so cut and dry. There are many other people who also deserve and need my attention. On the first day of our daughter's life, my husband and I picked up the phone and called both sets of our parents back East. Six days later, they flew to Los Angeles to meet their granddaughter. While providing an extra set of hands, along with ample amounts of advice, my own parents and parents-in-law began to compete for my attention. After all, our daughter is their granddaughter, and they do live very far away, so shouldn't I be as accommodating as possible?

Still another force pulled at me -- my marriage. I knew that these first few weeks were sacred time -- time that I wanted with my husband to enjoy and experience to the fullest. I promised myself never to wish away a day, but rather, to live every day together, connected to our deepest feelings and thoughts, not just to whether we were running out of diapers.

And then there was me. I had my own needs. From the very banal -- taking a warm shower, eating and drinking -- to the highly coveted -- getting dressed , putting on my make-up, getting out of the house and seeing other people. I also yearned to connect with my friends who seemed so distant after such a huge life-changing experience.

Though I do not claim to equate myself with Moses, I was relieved to find that in this week's Torah portion, Moses also struggles with balancing personal and familial interests. The portion begins by telling us that Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, hears about Moses' success in leading the Jews out of Egypt. He decides to bring his daughter, who is Moses' wife, and his two grandchildren, Moses' children, back to Moses in the wilderness, near Mount Sinai. The scene is almost embarrassing. The Torah reads: "He [Jethro] sent word to Moses, 'I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.'" [Exodus 18:6] I can just imagine the tone in Jethro's voice, as if to say, "Hello, remember me? Remember your wife and kids?" Jethro even rubs a bit of salt in the wound by calling the boys "her sons," not Moses' sons, and by defining himself as his father-in-law, as if saying "Jethro" wouldn't have been sufficient.

It's interesting to note that the Torah emphasizes Moses' family relationships, or lack thereof, over and over again in this short story. The word choten (father-in-law) appears five times, eyshet (wife) three times, and ben (son) three times in the first seven verses of the story. While the word am (people) only appears once. It's as if the Torah is shouting out, "Hey Moses! Wake up! You've spent all this time serving your people, but have you forgotten that you have a family, too?!"

I imagine that balancing the needs of our loved ones, our self, and our work is a never-ending journey. It's no surprise that the commandment to honor (kabed) one's parents, also from this week's portion, comes from the Hebrew word, "to be heavy or burdensome." The journey is all the more challenging when we find ourselves in the lucky situation of being both a parent to a child and a child to parents.


Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood..

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