April 19, 2007
It’s all downhill from here
Parshat Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)
I just love newborn babies, especially at around 3 months old. As I brush my
face along theirs, I love their baby smell, their soft, smooth skin and their
expressions. The fact is it's a joy caring for babies. They don't talk back, they
don't miss curfews, and they don't give you gray hairs.
There are some fascinating prayers that we say at a baby boy's brit milah (ritual circumcision ceremony), a mitzvah that is highlighted in this week's Torah reading. According to tradition, there are six special prayers inserted in the Birkat HaMazon, or Grace After Meals, at the circumcision feast. These prayers are blessings to the people involved in the brit. The first blessing is proffered to the baby's parents: "May compassionate God bless this child's father and mother, and may they merit to raise him to adulthood, to educate him and to imbue him with wisdom."
Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (1818-1898) was bothered by the ordering of this blessing. We're praying that this baby's parents first raise him to adulthood, and then educate him.
Shouldn't that be just the other way around? A child's education starts at a very young age, while we're not finished raising our children until they reach adulthood (for some Jewish mothers, adulthood doesn't start until age 45, years after they've graduated). So why do we first bless mom and dad with the ability to "raise" their son before blessing them with the wherewithal to "educate" their boy?
The answer, suggested the rabbi, lies in the fact that while educating a child may get easier as the child gets older, raising the child becomes more difficult as he or she grows.
You know the old saying, "Small children, small problems; big children, big problems." As a mohel, I express sympathy and encouragement to new moms and dads who come to the bris with dark bags under their eyes from sleep deprivation. Sometimes, after the bris they ask me, "Rabbi, how do you do it? We're not getting any sleep!" My answer: "Today, his crying in the middle of the night is keeping you up. In about 17 years, his silent, empty bed in the middle of the night will be keeping you up. Enjoy his cries while you can."
Contrary to the song, I can honestly attest that no, the first cut is not the deepest. And baby, I know.
I, too, remember the awesome mantle of responsibility that had been placed upon my wife and me with the birth of our firstborn. Parenthood is life- altering, to say the least. I also remember naively thinking that it would be all downhill from infancy, and that it would get easier as the child became more independent, both physically and emotionally. If I could handle a crying baby, I pridefully thought, I could handle anything this child had to dole out.
I think God's gift to parents is the slow transitioning of our children from baby, to toddler, to young boy/girl, to adolescent. It's His way of easing us into the real challenges of parenthood, dealing with adolescent angst, insecurity over a broken friendship, and frustration over being too old to be a kid but not old enough to be an adult.
This is why we bless the new parents with the ability to "raise" their child before "educating" him. We are saying: May it always be as easy for you to raise your son -- even when he is a difficult 17-year-old -- as it is to raise him now, while he is a cherubic bundle of love. May your challenges in rearing a child stay just as they are now, never getting any harder, and may you always be only plagued by the small stuff.
Karen and I sometimes look at our adolescent children and wonder how they possibly could have been those same wisps of humanity on the sonogram just a few years ago. We've both become wiser over the years, bumping along and making mistakes as we try to raise our children to be good people and good Jews. We are grateful for the education our children receive in Hebrew day school, but know better than to confuse education with child-rearing. The challenge of raising our kids is ours and ours alone.
And, while we face new and uncharted challenges daily with our older children, we welcome the old and familiar opportunity to nurture and reassure our newborn baby when he awakens with a start in the middle of the night.
That's the easy part.
In addition to being a mohel, Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park and directs community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union's West Coast Division.