Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
At my son’s preschool, there are two ways that you can bring your children to class in the morning. You can drop them off in the carpool line through the garage or you can park and walk them to their classroom. Certainly, the carpool line is a more direct route. You don’t have to find a parking space or even get out of the car. The teachers swiftly unbuckle your child from the back seat, and this quick, simple process only takes a few minutes. By contrast, taking your child to the classroom involves finding parking, walking them through the building, dropping their lunch in their cubby, finding their teacher and classmates out on the playground where you say good bye, and walking back through the building to the car. All told, walking your child to class takes about a half hour longer than carpool line.
For my son Jeremy’s first year of preschool, I dropped him off each morning in the carpool line, but one day I walked him in to deliver a form to the office. From that day on, Jeremy refused to go through the morning carpool line and insisted that I take him to the classroom. He noticed that this extended our time together and felt more comfortable with the transition this way.
As I began to walk Jeremy to the classroom regularly, I noticed a few things gradually happen. I started to get to know his teachers better, as I would see them each day. I also became better acquainted with the other parents. We made play dates and talked about camp plans or swim lessons. Jeremy pointed out to me his art projects that hung in the classroom, and I was far more aware of what was happening at school. In Jeremy’s second year of preschool, both he and I had a better experience by choosing the indirect route.
In this week’s Torah portion, when the people left Egypt, God took them on an indirect route. Exodus recounts:
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near;
for God said, ‘Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt;’ But God led the people around, through the way of the
wilderness of the Red Sea; and the people of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.
God’s choice here is surprising. When fleeing slavery, one would want to leave as quickly as possible! (Indeed, Pharaoh and his army soon came chasing after the Israelites with his horsemen and chariots.) Why would God choose a longer escape route?
The rabbis offer many explanations. Some list practical concerns: that if the people had gone on the shorter route, the Philistines might have attacked them. Yet Rashi (an eleventh century commentator) explained that if they had gone a direct way, they would have found it too easy to turn back when they became discouraged, so God purposely lead them in a circuitous path. The Talmud states that sometimes in life, “There is a short way which is long, and a long way, which is short.”
Again and again as a parent I’ve discovered the truth of this maxim. I’ve found that the more difficult route is often the better choice. For example, making a birthday cake with one’s child is more work than buying a cake from the store, but the memory of baking together will be with the child for the rest of their lives. (I know because my mother and I made our birthday cake together each year when I was young, which is one of my fondest memories.)
This principle is true not only for our children but for us, as parents as well. One of the frustrations of parenthood is that it can slow us down and change our course. Important projects take longer than they did before kids. A graduate degree that might normally take a few years, may take a parent of young children a decade to complete. A book might take longer to write.
Or our destination may be different than we originally thought. A professional may discover that he or she prefers to be a stay at home parent, or someone who assumed s/he’d be a full time parent, may discover that s/he needs to or wants to work. Moms and dads may end up living or working in a different place than we originally envisioned. As parents, our dreams shift. On an indirect route, sometimes we can’t see the path ahead clearly. We may not know where our new road will lead. We may make mistakes or take detours along the way.
Indeed, my shift in how I dropped off my son to school mirrored a change within me to a less direct route in my own life. Before having children, I was a full-time congregational rabbi, but after having my second child, my career no longer followed a linear path as before. Although I was raised in a dual career family and assumed that I would always work, I was surprised how much I enjoyed being home with the kids, and I didn’t know what to make of those feelings. Where would my new path lead?
In reflection, the Exodus text has a few insights to share. It reminds us that our detours may not necessarily be mistakes. If unexpected turns offer new perspective, then they are important steps along the way. The Exodus text encourages us to have faith – even when we can’t see our way ahead clearly. Sometimes, God knows us better than we know ourselves.
The Exodus reminds us that we are bigger than the categories that we try to fit ourselves into. Working parent, stay at home parent, professional, – those boxes are too small to encompass the complexity and beauty of who we are. Life is far more complicated and wondrous than simple labels allow.
The Exodus reminds us that as long as we are open to learning along the path, then no matter how windy, our road will eventually lead us to liberation. Like taking Jeremy to school, what was important was not only the destination but the relationships that were built along the way. As parents, no matter how many frustrations we face, hopefully we meet some good people along the way and make memories that will last a lifetime.
I better stop writing and go pick up Jeremy from school.
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January 15, 2010 | 5:17 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This week was tough. Sunday night, I came down with the stomach flu and was up all night in pain. I was a wreck all day Monday and then when I started to feel a bit better, my two-year old daughter Hannah woke up Tuesday morning with pink-eye.
Illness is jarring. One moment you’re totally fine and then the next minute, you’re out of commission. The experience reminds us how vulnerable our bodies really are. We like to think that we can plan and get tasks accomplished but our sickness (or that of our kids) demonstrate how tentative our plans actually are. As the Yiddish phrase goes: Mann traoch, Gott lauch Man plans, God laughs.
However, I don’t even feel entitled to write that I had a lousy week – given the earthquake in Haiti. One minute everything in Haiti was fine, and then the next minute witnessed devastation of catastrophic proportions.
How fitting then that this week, we read about the plagues. Like illness or an earthquake, the plagues came on suddenly and threw everything out of whack with drastic, debilitating physical maladies. After a few days, the plagues passed, just as suddenly as they had come.
Moses and Aaron had appeared before Pharaoh and asked that he “let my people go,” which he refused. So God brought successive plagues of increasing severity. For the first few plagues, Pharaoh was not overly impressed. However during the frogs plague (and the plagues thereafter), Pharaoh relented but then once the plague was over, Pharaoh changed his mind and refused to free the slaves.
This week, I thought of Pharaoh and identified with him a little. My first day of feeling well after being sick felt like a miracle. Nothing exciting happened; I just took Hannah to the doctor for her pink eye and took care of her at home. But still, I was so grateful that I could function and wasn’t in pain that I couldn’t be upset about anything. But after a few days, I again became stressed (about all that I hadn’t accomplished in the days that I was sick) and forgot the wonder of just feeling physically okay.
The story of Pharaoh reveals something fundamental about human psychology. Often, we’re compassionate in a crisis but less so thereafter. For example, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake or tsunami, people from all over the world give generously – which is absolutely essential. But once the coverage dies down, we forget about people in need, day in and day out.
Pharaoh’s example leaves me with the question: How can we hold on to the gratitude and compassion we feel during a crisis once it has passed?
I once saw a woman wearing a shirt that said: “Too blessed to be stressed.” I imagined wearing that phrase on a bracelet as a daily reminder to keep things in perspective. Likewise, the prayer that is traditionally said each morning after going to the bathroom acknowledges the vulnerability of our bodies, that if one of our intricate parts was “blocked or opened, then it would be impossible to exist.” This prayer thanks God, who “heals all flesh and works wonders.”
For me, most often, the daily reminders come from watching my children. When my daughter was home with pink-eye, my husband Tal called to check how she was doing. We were having a boring morning at home. She was playing with a puzzle while I put away the laundry. When Tal asked her how she was, she said, “I’m having a fun time at home.” My children remind me that even the most mundane moments of life are miracles.
January 8, 2010 | 3:22 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
My children constantly take off their shoes. When they get into the car, the first thing they do is remove their socks and shoes. When we come home, they immediately remove their shoes. Everywhere we go, they are constantly shedding their footwear.
Maybe they like the feel of the air against their feet. Or maybe they know something that I don’t.
In this week’s Torah portion, when Moses reached the burning bush, God called to him and said, “Take your shoes off your feet for the land that you are standing on is holy ground.”
Why did he need to remove his shoes? Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron of sixteenth-century Poland explained:
“The path is always full of sharp objects and stones. When one wears shoes, one can easily step on the small stones lying on the way, almost without feeling them. However, when walking barefoot, one feels every small thing lying on the ground, every thorn, every painful stone.”
Rabbi Shlomo explained that God told Moses to take off his shoes because a leader “must feel every obstacle and every impediment which lies on his path. He must feel the pain of his people and realize what is bothering them.” In order to encounter holiness, Moses had to experience the challenges along the way.
Like Moses hearing God at the burning bush, becoming a parent is sacred endeavor. Parenthood calls us to drop our guard and open ourselves up to feeling fully. Some of our feelings are wonderful – as we hold our child and marvel at them. But some of these feelings, like the stones on the ground, are painful such as exhaustion or listening to the baby crying and trying to soothe it. Nonetheless, like Moses, we must feel it all. For only then can we encounter God and live more deeply.
I once heard a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Seifer speak about her time in hiding during the war. During the days, she hid in a crawl space in the attic, not big enough to stand up or move. She longed to walk outside in the sunlight in the sunlight, barefoot, and feel the grass beneath her foot. Her wish was simple, but at the time, as a Jew in Poland, it was impossible. With war raging in various parts of the world today, for many people walking safely outside is still an impossible dream.
Even on my most challenging days, Gerda’s example has to power to snap my life back into focus. Each time I am outside with my children, I make sure to take off my shoes for a while and remember that even just being outside in freedom with my children is a precious privilege. This simple action has become an important spiritual exercise for me, a daily reminder of how blessed I truly am.
The daily bumps on the road of parenting can sometimes make us lose our balance. To regain perspective, I offer this advice: Go outside, take your shoes off, think of Gerda, and smile.