October 17, 2012
The Torah of motherhood
My road from twice-a-year Jew to Torah-study groupie took 40 years. With the heady days of the High Holy Days, Sukkot and Simchat Torah still fresh in my mind, it’s worth examining how I got here.
During my youth, my family and I attended synagogue only during the High Holy Days. Even then, like most adolescents, no matter the Jewish preschool, Jewish summer camp, bat mitzvah or confirmation, the rabbi’s sermon was my cue to flee the sanctuary with my sister to find the other kids in the parking lot tearing into a purloined challah snatched from the synagogue kitchen.
As I got older, I began to appreciate the meditative, communal experience. After every High Holy Days season, the spiritual renewal that filled me had me vowing I’d be back the very next Shabbat. But, inevitably, by the next week the excuses came readily — “I’m too tired,” “We’re out of town” or “I’ll go next week” — until the weeks piled up and the High Holy Days were back again.
So what happened to make me a Torah- study groupie? Eleven and a half years ago I became a parent, which means I am now the mother of a middle-schooler, and I need as much help as I can get. As kids get older, the problems get thornier. I pine for inspiration and guidance, for clues to being a better parent than I often feel equipped to be. When a friend gushed about Torah study, calling it her weekly “vitamin,” I decided I had nothing to lose. And while I have dog-eared my share of parenting books, ranging from sleep training to sibling rivalry, I have found that the biggest questions are answered in The Great Big Parenting Book — Torah.
It’s a best-seller, but it’s not an easy read. It doesn’t give away its wisdom to those hoping for a quick skim. For example, during the High Holy Days, we read one of the Torah’s grimmest parenting stories — the Binding of Isaac. Those are pretty words for a nightmarish chapter — a father leading his son up a mountain, tying him to a rock and preparing to sacrifice him with a blade through the sternum. What parenting advice could I hope to get from that catastrophe?
At my synagogue, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Amy Bernstein, who is also a mother, gleaned something positive out of this horror story. “God stopped Abraham,” she said, “before he hurt Isaac. Sometimes we need a voice from God to stop us from hurting our kids.”
To the sanctuary full of well-meaning parents, she wasn’t talking about physical hurt. My mind catalogued those moments when I wished I could take back certain words I’d uttered. Greeting my sixth-grader after school with, “How much homework do you have?” instead of “Hi, kiddo, it’s great to see you.” Nagging my second-grader to finish his homework instead of paying attention to the imaginary world he is creating with Legos. Sharing with my friends stories I considered “cute” but that would embarrass my kids. Telling my children in any given moment what they are doing wrong instead of what they are doing right. These are the times I need an inner voice counseling restraint, an angel on my shoulder advising, “Don’t criticize. Don’t pile on the stress. Bite your tongue.” I know my sons would appreciate it if I were to bite my tongue during baseball games, instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from the bleachers. (Restraint is so hard!) I resolved to try harder.
With the new school year well under way, there’s another kind of hurt I am even more troubled by — the pain inflicted by their peers, the slights, ribbing and put-downs that can penetrate guileless thin skin, or even thicker skin. My son’s friends engage in banter that tiptoes along the line of insults, jokes that cut, a contest of one-upmanship, which my son frequently reports in dejected tones. One boy gets made fun of for the color Gatorade he drinks or for wearing glasses. Another is ridiculed for liking the Clippers or for the color of his shorts. They toss the word gay around as pejorative. Did I mention that these are their friends? I struggle with how to handle this not-quite-bullying-but-hurts-just-the-same comments. I need ancient wisdom to tell me how to be a loving guide through pre-adolescence and beyond, to salve the injury of having your feelings hurt by those you know best.
I think back to the story of Isaac’s near-catastrophe and find two more clues. First, God didn’t intervene until the harm was imminent and irreparable. By the time God stepped in, things looked pretty bleak for Isaac. Barring Isaac pulling some sort of superhero moves, bursting through his restraints like the Hulk, kicking Abraham’s weapon down the mountain and shouting, “What the hell was that, Dad?” God had to intervene. But only at the last possible moment.
Great. I need to wait until there’s a metaphorical knife at my kid’s chest before stepping in? That seems too much. But since my Jewish mother’s instinct is to jump in at the slightest hint of a problem, it’s good to set a high bar. Usually I’m ready to call in the cavalry when he’s over it. It’s not easy to see that kid struggling on the rock, but if my kid can get out of the mess on his own, I have to let him.
Second, I think about what to do with hurt feelings that linger. I imagine what a modern therapist might tell Isaac to make sense of what happened: “What Abraham did had nothing to do with how he feels about you. He loves you! He had his own issues.” I can tell my son the same truth, that when people say mean things, it usually means they are suffering. It has nothing to do with him. I can show him his power, praise his good heart and instill in him the self-reliance to tell his friends to knock it off, to stand up for himself or to walk away. And the choice is his.
A of couple months into the school year, the reports of meanness are getting farther apart. I’m quite sure that, as usual, his bruises hurt me longer and deeper than they bother him. I need to remember that he is more resilient than I am. Like Isaac getting up off that rock, brushing himself off and walking down the mountain, he is moving on with the rest of his story.
I may not have appreciated what Judaism had to offer when I was a child and all I wanted was for the services to be over, but I am grateful to have kept the connection to my family’s faith all these years. It’s there for me now when I need it. Every week, I’ll be back in Torah study with the group of intelligent, curious souls, mining more of our ancient stories for modern parenting gold.
Laura Diamond is the editor of the anthology “Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood” and is working on her first novel. She is a member of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.