Tisha b'Av, and parenting, and responsibility, and change

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"I'll be at synagogue for Tisha b'Av," I tell my son. What's that, he asks. "It's when we remember that we used to have a Temple in Jerusalem, but it was destroyed. So we built it again, and it was destroyed again. It's a time for thinking about all the things that hurt -- in our history and in the world now." That doesn't sound like a holiday, says my son. That sounds sad.

And then he asks, why can't we just have holidays for the happy things? "Lots of our holidays are joyful," I point out. "Most of our holidays are joyful! This is the one where we let ourselves feel the things that hurt." His response makes me clutch at my heart: he says, simply, but I don't want to feel sad. "You're a kid, you don't have to," I assure him.

It's age-appropriate that he doesn't want to feel sad. (Especially now, a scant few months after his first grandparent's death. We're both still navigating that.) It's age-appropriate for him not to want to engage with the world's brokenness, how bad things happen to good people, the fall of the Temples, any of it. Right now he needs a sense of safety, not a broken heart.

It's easy to knock "pediatric" theology -- childlike theology that doesn't (yet) engage with theodicy and suffering. If we never grow beyond that, our spiritual selves and our relationship with tradition will be stunted.  We might choose to throw away relationship with God and tradition altogether because the simple version we got as kids doesn't speak to life's challenges.

And yet... for a kid, simple and sweet theology is appropriate. I'm grateful that my kid has the luxury of not living with tough questions of theodicy and suffering on a daily basis. I keep thinking about the children whose testimonies make up this prayer. I wish every child had the luxuries my child enjoys. I wish the suffering in Lamentations didn't still look so familiar.

Of course, there are adults who never outgrow reluctance to feel sadness or difficult emotions. I empathize: celebrations are plenty more fun than funerals. But when we want religion to be a source of happiness and light, but don't want to feel loss or sadness or culpability, our spiritual lives get out of whack. That's spiritual bypassing. Tisha b'Av is the opposite of that.

Tisha b'Av calls us into uncomfortable relationship with loss and sadness and culpability. Loss is hard-baked into the human experience: we can embrace it or we can ignore it, but we can't avoid it. But the sense of culpability -- taking responsibility for our role in the brokenness; facing our complicity in the patterns that lead to brokenness -- that one's up to us.

And to me that's the most fascinating thing about Tisha b'Av: how the tradition makes the spiritual move of saying: yeah, it's our fault. Tradition says this is the anniversary of the date when the scouts brought back a false report, a fearful report, dooming their entire generation to wander in the wilderness. Because we didn't trust, our homeless wandering continued.

Tradition says the Temples, destroyed on this date, fell because of our transgressions -- the first one because of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, and the second one because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, which teaches us that senseless hatred is equivalent to idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b.) That's a hell of a teaching.

As R' Alan Lew notes, in his Tisha b'Av chapter in This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, any historian can tell you that we couldn't have stopped the juggernaut of the Roman Empire, or for that matter Babylon before it. But the tradition says: that historical truth is irrelevant. What matters here is the spiritual truth that calls us to take responsibility.

In a way it's a victim fantasy. We want to believe that what happened to us must have been our fault, because if it were, then we can act differently next time and protect ourselves from the trauma recurring. But in another way it gives us agency. It reminds us that we can always choose to behave differently, to make teshuvah, to be better people than we were before.

And even if teshuvah doesn't protect us from sorrow and loss, the inner transformation might be its own reward. Because on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition says, the messiah will be born. We find hope even in our darkest places -- especially in our darkest places. As an adult I find profound comfort in that teaching. It's like the hope at the bottom of Pandora's Box.

The thing is, in order to get to that hope -- in order to get to the uplift of Tisha b'Av afternoon -- we have to be willing to go into the loss and grief and sense of communal responsibility that comes before. Where are our Jewish communities falling into senseless hatred, failing to be welcoming and inclusive?  Where are our national / secular communities doing the same?

Tisha b'Av is the hinge that turns us toward the Days of Awe. It's 7 weeks until Rosh Hashanah. We have 7 weeks to take a good look at our selves and souls, our (in)actions and choices. That inner work won't protect us from trauma and loss, personally or nationally. But it might change who we are and how we respond. And isn't that what spiritual life is for?


Watch me

"Watch this, Mom, watch me."
My son jumps into the pool,
surfacing to ask "was that

a perfect pencil dive?" Or
"look at this, do I look
like a dolphin," wiggling

through the water, "or more
like a whale?" breaching
and landing with a splash.

If I don't witness, it's
as though it didn't happen.
Sometimes I watch, hungry

for every instant of his
nine-year-old summer, glimmer
of sun-sparkles on the water

and maybe a popsicle after
with hair still dripping wet.
Sometimes behind my shades

I want to roll my eyes: kid,
I can't be there your whole life
to see every move you make.

But what else are these poems
if not me calling out to you
watch this, Mom, watch me?

 


First letter

Your grandson has taken up needlepoint.
I see you rolling your eyes. I remember
when he was five and asked to do ballet:

you demanded, "is it because you wanted
a daughter?" I snapped at you no, Mom,
it's because he wants to try dancing.

And when he asked me to paint his nails
blue and purple and green you averted your eyes.
My fervent hope today is that wherever

you are -- the World to Come, the afterlife,
getting fabulous manicures with Shechinah
or simply resting, pain-free, in God's embrace --

all of the old life's pre-judgements
about "boys" and "girls" and what we can be
have fallen away. Look, Mom, he's taking up

needle and thread to be like me, and I'm
taking them up to be like you, to finish
the canvas you started. Isn't that what

we all do, in the end: add clumsy stitches
to the unfinished tapestry of generations?
He's trying to make something beautiful

from hard work and yarn. I told him
I'm proud of him. I told him
wherever you are, you're proud of him too.

 


Experiencing shiva from the inside

Faces-of-mom

For years, presiding over funerals and shiva minyanim, I have thought: someday this will be me. I suspect that every rabbi with living parents has had those thoughts. Someday this will be me burying my parent. Someday I will be the one at the center of this emotional and spiritual whirlwind. Someday I will say kaddish for my parent.

I didn't know how different it would feel to say the words of mourner's kaddish for the first time as a mourner for my mom, standing at the lip of the hole in the earth into which we had just shoveled dirt atop her casket. I didn't know how different the words would feel, or how I would cling to them like a lifeline of meaning.

I didn't know how it would feel to stand at the bimah of Temple Beth El to offer a eulogy, looking out at a room full of people who'd known her. I didn't know that she would request the singing of Taps to close her memorial service, in honor of the summer camp bugler with whom she fell in love at fourteen, who is now a widower.

I didn't know how it would feel to sit shiva in the home that was hers, without her in it anymore, surrounded by family and by their friends. I didn't know how it would feel to return home and finish shiva here. To sit in my condo with mirrors covered and door open. To tell stories about her, and show photographs, when friends come sit with me.

I didn't know how it would feel to reread the letters she wrote me at camp when I was twelve, which I'd saved in one of my dad's cigar boxes. To reread years' worth of emails, most of them banal but significant now because they came from her. To discover that recordings of her playing piano make me weep as though the world were ending.

I keep remembering that I can't email her daily photographs of her youngest grandson anymore. What does it mean to document my life now for my own sake, and not for the sake of sharing it from afar with her? I will never hear her play the piano again. For how long will the sound of piano keys played expertly and with heart bring me to tears?

Shiva is a foreign country for which I don't have a reliable map. And next time I visit it will be different. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting the hang of it. Other times I am bewildered, fragile, red-eyed from crying. Just as I'm getting accustomed to sitting with these memories, it will be time to exit this stage of mourning and move to what's next.

Sometimes I think: it will be good to return to normal life when shiva is done. Other times I can't imagine how I will re-enter the world of working life, and the news, and life's million assorted obligations, when my skin feels so thin and my heart feels so bruised and so exposed and so tender. Time distorts: was that a week or an hour?

I've learned this week (again) that I can feel bereft and grateful at the same time. I've learned that my sense of fragility, of what death means, of what loss means, has shifted. I've learned that ordinary acts, like putting my child to bed and singing his usual bedtime lullabies, feel both the same and not-at-all the same as they did before.

I've learned that I can still talk to her, though I haven't heard an answer. When I speak aloud with God (talking with Shechinah in blue jeans in the front seat of my car) I can speak now with Mom, too -- hoping, imagining, that part of her is still with me, freed now from all of life's constrictions of body and spirit, freed from all misunderstanding.

Because we did misunderstand each other, sometimes. This week I've been learning how to begin letting that go. During my mother's last week of life, I thanked her for my life and told her how glad I am that I got to be her daughter. I will always be glad that I got to be -- that I get to be, that I will always get to be -- my mother's daughter.

 


A mother and a mystic -- during school vacation

I am reading the second essay in Cynthia Bourgeault's The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice. She is talking about the difference between the nondual, in Eastern thinking, and the unitive in Christian thinking.

I am thinking about Jewish parallels to the Christian theology of mystical union to which she alludes. Remembering Reb Zalman z"l saying that we can relate intellectually to the transcendent, but the heart needs a God with Whom the heart can be in relationship. I'm thinking about my own spiritual life and how frequently my awareness of holiness is in yetzirah, the realm of the heart.

"Mom! Mom! Mom!" My nine-year-old wants my attention. He is building a LEGO set and wants to show me something cool about how it works.

As I set down the book and try to listen whole-heartedly to his explanation of this LEGO Minecraft set and how the lever works to raise and lower the Iron Golem, my mind offers me the core question of spiritual direction as I have learned to practice it: where is God in this?

My answer, of course, arises in synchronicity with the passage I was just reading about the unitive and the relational. God is in relationship -- or can be, anyway. The challenge of the divorced-parent mystic during winter vacation is precisely finding God "in this" -- in baking and decorating cookies, in reading Harry Potter aloud. The work is finding the God-presence, the holiness, in the laundry and the LEGOs -- or more specifically, in the relationship with my kid that lies behind the laundry and the LEGOs.

It's not the "union with the divine beloved" that Bourgeault describes. (And it's surely not the transcendence of the binary between lover and beloved, between us and God, to which she alludes -- I can't even see there from here.) But I resonate with her suggestion that there can be a "rewriting of the 'operating system'" that can allow one to see "from oneness." That has to be one of the deep purposes of spiritual practice, to rewrite the operating system of the mind and heart.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow makes the point that our received spiritual traditions were largely codified and written down by men who had wives whose job it was to care for the children and the household. They didn't have the experience of trying to enter into a theological text while also listening with one ear to a cartoon, or putting the book down to admire creations built out of plastic bricks. 

But I feel like my work right now is embracing that tension, bringing the theology into the parenting and vice versa, glimpsing the unitive from this place of relationship. Torah instructs me to love God "with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my being." Surely one of the ways I fulfill the mitzvah of loving God is through being in relationship with reflections of the Infinite right here.

 


Morning conversation, two days later

"But why did he do it?" my son asks me this morning in the car on the way to school. "It couldn't be just because he hates Jewish people."

"Some people hate anything that's different from them," I say, carefully, feeling my way into the words. "It may be that he hates us just because we're not like him."

"That's bad," my son observes.

"It is," I say, nodding. "But the shooter did say something, before he went into the synagogue with his gun, about being angry that Jews are welcoming refugees into our country."

Then I realize I'm not sure my son knows what that word means. "A refugee is someone who comes here fleeing war or danger, someone who comes to our country looking for a safe place to live. The shooter thought that welcoming refugees was a bad thing that Jewish people do. But we think it's a good thing, it's something to be proud of about who we are."

"That's why we give tzedakah," says my son, his voice more certain now.

"It is," I agree.

 


Fresh air

N31766772985_1412396_6955In 1877, The Fresh Air Fund, an independent not-for-profit organization, was created with one simple mission – to allow children living in low-income communities to enjoy free summer experiences in the country. [Source]

Back when the Fresh Air Fund was started, tuberculosis was a serious danger, and fresh air was understood to be restorative. We have other ways of treating TB now, but the Fresh Air Fund is still sending low-income city kids to the country. Their mission -- "getting children out of the city and into fresh air where they [can] play freely and not worry about the grinding pressures of hunger, crime, and poverty – remains unchanged." [Source]

Some months ago, the local Fresh Air Fund representative contacted me to see if I would share a flyer with the synagogue community. The place where I live is part of their Friendly Towns Program, and I have congregants who have hosted Fresh Air Fund kids in years past. Of course I agreed to share their materials with my shul community. And I thought, "Wow: wouldn't it be great for my kid if we served as a host family?" 

I ran the idea by my kid, and he agreed enthusiastically to the idea of hosting. My ex and his partner and I filled out the paperwork, underwent the requisite background check, and waited. Finally we learned that we'd been matched with a boy a year younger than ours. And this week we are a Fresh Air Fund host family, in our two households, introducing a city kid to life in northern Berkshire (and southern Vermont, where he is joining my son at day camp for the week.)

When I ran the idea by my kid all those months ago, I think he was mostly excited about the prospect of having a playmate. We talked about how it's a mitzvah (a commandment, a core part of Jewish life and practice) to be generous and hospitable, and to share what we have with those who have less, but I'm not sure how much that really penetrated his consciousness. 

I don't think my son realizes how fortunate we are. He has not one but two homes: his father's house and mine. He has summer camp opportunities, and a condo pool, and pretty much all the LEGOs a kid could want, and great expanses of back yard and woods to run around in. I want him to learn that it's our job to share our abundance. One way we try to do that is that half of his allowance each week goes to tzedakah. Another way we're trying to do that is inviting someone who doesn't have all of those opportunities to share for a week in the bounty we enjoy.

And... while I know I just said we're sharing our abundance, we also can't position ourselves as the generous hosts who "have" and are sharing with those who "have not." These boys both have things to teach each other and to learn from each other. In a way, this is a cultural exchange program both for the city kid who comes here, and for the country kid who hosts him. 

As our first Fresh Air Fund week unfolds, I think both boys are learning a lot. Our visitor speaks Chinese on the phone home with his parents, while my son's vocabulary is sprinkled with Hebrew words. My son marvels that his new buddy walks to school and to the grocery store and takes the subway all the time -- those are city norms that are unfamiliar to my small-town kid. Meanwhile, his new friend had never swum in a pond or a stream before, and finds it strange that we have to drive to get anywhere other than our mailbox and the condo pool. 

Welcoming an unfamiliar kid into the household is a learning experience for all of us. It's an opportunity for my son to learn how to be a gracious host, which is an important mitzvah though not always an easy one. Sharing one's stuff with another kid is hard, especially when that other kid is a stranger, especially when you may not easily be able to find common ground. I'm learning how to moderate the two boys' needs, taking into account the fact that one of them is a visitor far from home and the other is my own kid whose wants and needs I know well.

I'm grateful that we're doing this -- and I'm grateful not despite the challenges, but in part precisely because of them. I think my son is growing a lot this week, and I suspect that as I grapple with the challenges of parenting (or serving in loco parentis for) two very different kids, I'm growing too. And I'm happy that we're able to give this city kid a week's worth of country adventures: frog ponds and campfires, swim dates and streams, evening popsicles on our mirpesset under the wide open small-town sky. 

 

Deep gratitude to Camp Sarsaparilla in Pownal, VT, which offers scholarships each week for Fresh Air Fund kids. 


A blessing for blowing the candle out

41enBytTguL._SY355_I love sitting with my son on the mirpesset in the evenings. He doesn't have a ton of patience for just sitting and watching the sky change colors, but I can usually entice him out for at least a little while.

Last night we sat on the mirpesset and I lit the citronella candle on his request. When it came time to go inside for his bath, he wanted to blow it out, but then he paused.

"We should say a blessing," he suggested. 

Generally speaking we make blessings when we light candles, not when we extinguish them, but I didn't say that. (I don't ever want to quash his spiritual impulses.) I said, "Okay, go for it."

"Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam," he began ("Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of creation" -- the opening words to many Jewish blessings), and then paused. "Wait. I don't know the rest of the words."

"You get to use your own words," I told him.

He thought for a moment.

"Thank You God for the light of the candle. When I blow it out, may Your strength flow through me," he intoned.

"Beautiful," I murmured.

And then he blew out the candle. (Which took a few tries; they're designed to be resistant to breezes!) When the flame went out, a plume of smoke rose and curled and danced up and around, revealing hidden currents. "Look, Mom," he said, "there's God's strength, flowing through the air!" 

Talk about sanctifying the ordinary.

Thank You, God, for the privilege of nurturing this extraordinary soul.


Seeking: seeing the ordinary through new eyes

41103862801_a487c0fafd_zOn the eve of Pesach we search for hidden hametz by the light of a candle.

On Thursday evening I hid ten pieces of bread. I called my son downstairs when they were all hidden, and I handed him a candle, a feather, and wooden spoon. With those traditional implements he searched the house for hametz. The following morning I took the pieces of bread, along with last fall's lulav, and burned them.

On the first two nights of Pesach we search for the hidden afikoman.

The seder has fifteen steps (like the fifteen physical steps up to the Temple in days of old), and one of them is Tzafun, "Hidden." At every seder a piece of matzah is declared to be the afikoman and then hidden. The kids hunt for it and then redeem it (in some households, holding the seder "hostage" for a prize, because until the afikoman is found and shared, the seder can't continue.) 

Because of how the Jewish and Christian calendars overlap this year, our three days of (Jewish) searching bumps right into a (Christian) day when kids search for something hidden, too. Today my son will visit his Christian grandmother and search for colored plastic eggs filled with treats and small toys. He noticed the thematic resonance between our Jewish customs and this Christian one, and proclaimed it "awesome." I asked him what the searching means to him, and he said:

It's fun because it's about finding something new in regular places. If you find something new to do, then you always have it with you. And that makes it like you're traveling, finding new places, even though you're not going anywhere.

When I think about the candle-lit search for hametz, I think about the inner work of searching the corners of my heart for the last crumbs of old "stuff" I need to let go in order to be ready for freedom and transformation. When I think about the search for the afikoman, I think about the teaching that we hide the larger half of the broken middle matzah (rather than the smaller half) to affirm that there is more that is Hidden and Mysterious than we can ever grasp.

And now I will also think of the wisdom I received from my son. The candle-lit nighttime search, the afikoman hunt, and the Easter-egg hunt all take "ordinary" places and make them special and different because of the act of searching there. They enable us to "travel" without physically going anywhere, because they give us a traveler's wondering eyes. And when we train ourselves to seek the special within the ordinary, we acquire a skill that we can carry with us wherever we go.

As we move into the Omer journey of preparing ourselves to receive Torah anew, may we be blessed with eyes of wonder. May we continue to seek, and may what we find uplift us, challenge us, enrich us, and enable us ever-more to become the people we aspire to be. 

 

Image: searching for hametz by candle-light.


On saying bedtime prayers with my son

Logo-twd-headerMy latest essay for The Wisdom Daily is a meditation on saying bedtime prayers with my son, and how that experience has changed. Here's a taste of what I wrote:

...In recent days he’s shifted the language of his prayers. Not the shema or the angel song, but the “God bless…” section of the evening ritual. That litany used to begin with “Mommy and Daddy.” Then came both of his sets of grandparents, followed by “and all of my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, and everybody else, amen.”

Most of the litany is the same as it ever was. But recently he chose to add his father’s new partner to the prayer list. Then he decided he wanted to add our cat and his father’s new cat. The new litany begins with “Mom,” on a line by itself, followed by “Daddy and [Girlfriend].” Then come the two cats, then come the grandparents, then everybody else...

Read the whole thing: After My Divorce, My Son's Bedtime Prayer Is A Nightly Reminder That I'm Alone.


Visiting where I come from with my son

38615714700_782af0734e_zWhen I walk around San Antonio, time telescopes. I'm here now with my eight-year-old son -- and I remember being eight in this city too, attending second grade at what was then called the Jewish Day School. As he spends time with his grandparents, I remember spending time here with mine. 

We walk on the riverwalk and share illicit bits of bread with the ducks, and I remember feeding ducks at his age from the back of a motorboat on the Guadalupe. I'm sure my parents brought me to the riverwalk when I was his age, though I think the area where we walk now wasn't so built-up then.

He's come to San Antonio once or twice a year since he was born. There are places in my hometown that he remembers fondly but has outgrown. Like Kiddie Park. When we drive by it now on Broadway, my son remembers when the wee Ferris wheel looked huge and grand to him, and laughs.

This year 's highlight is visiting a ranch outside of Castroville, which belongs to two of my parents' friends. When we first mention the outing to him, he asks, "What's a ranch?" which makes my parents laugh: my little Yankee boy doesn't know what a ranch is! (My father explains.)

On the ranch we marvel at a chandelier made out of discarded deer antlers, learn about the difference between antlers and horns, and climb into a two-story treehouse that's built into a giant sprawling live oak. We pile into a red Suburban with the ranch manager and drive all around the land. 

While we're out roaming the land we spot zebras, and springbok, and water buck, and two kinds of deer bounding past prickly pear, sweet acacia, and mesquite. We see sharp-horned Watusi cattle at their feeder. We get to feed honey nut cheerios to fluffy Sicilian miniature donkeys who follow us around and take cheerios from our palms. 

It's sweet to be able to spend time with my son and my parents together, and to layer new memories for him (and me) atop the old.  And when our time in San Antonio (and environs) is up, it's also good to return to our own beds and regular routines. The best of all possible worlds: to feel blessed in our going out, and in our coming home. 

Shabbat shalom to all.

 

Photo: Texas flag, live oak tree, freight train. Taken in D'hanis, Texas. 


Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow

9781250064943Somewhere in my first year or two of parenthood, it dawned on me -- through the haze of fatigue, laundry, diapers, and tantrums (Yonatan's and mine both) -- that I actually had access to a treasure trove of wisdom that could help me do the exhausting, frustrating, challenging work of loving and raising my kid. It took me a while to realize it, though, because how I was changing as a mom seemed to be taking me away from my tradition's ideas about what spiritual practice is supposed to be. It had been panic-inducing for some time there, honestly, feeling like I was on a boat that was drifting, slowly, from the island on which I'd made my home for almost fifteen years.

And yet, when I looked more closely, I realized that the treasures that had sustained me for so long could nourish me through this new, hard, bewildering thing. In fact, the Jewish tradition (as well as other religious traditions that I'd studied, even if I didn't live as intimately with them) can actually illuminate the work of parenting -- the love, the drudgery, the exasperation, all of it.

That's from the first chapter of Nurture the Wow by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and it is as good an encapsulation of this beautiful, thoughtful, necessary book as any review I could write. (You'll also find a good encapsulation in the subtitle: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.)

From what I just quoted, R' Danya continues:

This fact isn't necessarily intuitive, though, because, let's face it, for thousands of years, books on Jewish law and lore were written by men, mostly talking to other men. These guys were, by and large, not engaged in the intimate care of small children. Somewhere else, far from the house of study, other people -- women, mothers -- were wrangling tantrumy toddlers and explaining to six-year-olds that they really did have to eat what was on their plate. At least, I assume that was what was happening -- again, for most of history, the people who were raising children weren't writing books, so we don't totally know.

This means a few things. This means that a lot of the dazzling ideas found in our sacred texts about how to be a person -- how to fully experience awe and wonder; how to navigate hard, painful feelings; how service to others fits into the larger, transcendent picture -- was never really explicitly connected to the work of parenting. It just didn't occur to the guys building, say, entire theological worldviews around love and relationships to extend their ideas to the kinder -- probably because the work of raising children just wasn't on their radar screen.

Oh, holy wow, do I wish this book had existed when my son was born seven and a half years ago!

Continue reading "Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow" »


Shavuot and parenthood, then and now

When I think of my last Shavuot of rabbinical school, all I can remember are glimpses. Like the slide shows that I remember my parents used to project on the dining room wall. Most of my memories of my son's first year of life are like that. They're a punctive story told through images. He didn't sleep through the night until he was well over a year old, so my memories of that first year are spotty. The visuals are points on a line that don't quite add up to a whole.

When I try to call up the slideshow of those Shavuot memories, I see the square of light that used to shine when the carousel was first turned on, and then I see disconnected moments. Click: trying to get my kid to sleep in the portacrib in the closet area of my room at Isabella Freedman. Click: walking with the stroller in the middle of the night to the great hall, because if my kid wasn't going to sleep, then by God I wasn't going to miss Reb Zalman's 4am teaching.

Click: pushing the stroller in circles around the back of that room while I listened to the rebbe teach. He taught about the Torah of our mothers. Click: morning davening, singing in harmony with beloved friends. (Have I ever known a more fervent form of prayer than singing in harmony?) Click: morning davening, leaving the room so I could nurse my son in private on the other side of the wall. Nursing him while still immersed in the sounds of the community singing.

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My son and me: Shavuot, Isabella Freedman, 2010.

My son was six months old then. We had survived colic and postpartum depression. Sleep was still hard to come by. When I went to Isabella Freedman for Shavuot that year, I packed the "bouncy seat," the little inclined chair that played music and vibrated gently. I carried it with me. On the second morning of Shavuot I parked him in that seat so I could try to daven my way wholly through shacharit for the first time since he was born. It was harder than I expected.

By the following Shavuot, I was ordained and in the process of negotiating for what would become my first rabbinic position, serving Congregation Beth Israel, where I still serve. In coming years I would occasionally send congregants to Isabella Freedman to hear Reb Zalman teach, but I didn't feel able to go myself. I didn't return to the Shavuot retreat experience until last year, when I took a delegation from my congregation with me. (This year I will do the same.)

The year I took my infant son to Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, I knew that I would someday tell him that over the first Shavuot of his life I took him to hear my rebbe teach, and to receive a blessing from the teacher of my teachers. I wish I could remember the blessing that Reb Zalman gave him. I was still so sleep-deprived that my brain wasn't forming longterm memories, and I didn't know then that if I didn't write it down immediately it would become lost to me.

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My son and me, a few days ago.

I couldn't have imagined, then, what life would be like now. My son is seven and a half now: tall and lanky, funny and sweet. This past Shabbat we played Trivial Pursuit. The first question he drew was one about which day is considered the day of rest in Judaism, and he crowed with delight. He sings me songs, reads aloud, assembles his stuffed animals into elaborate families. (One is a family of stuffed kittens. The other features both Pokémon and giraffes.)

Parenthood has given me new ways to understand the idea that God is constantly revealing Torah. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that Shavuot is called the day of the receiving of the Torah, not the day of its giving, because God is always giving. Shavuot is when we notice the gift that we receive. Parenthood too is an adventure of always-receiving, though I'm not always mindful of the Torah that's coming through. I forget, lose track, and get caught up in ordinary life's minutiae.

And then every now and again I wake up again to the reminder that I can learn from the Torah of every human being I meet, including and especially the tall funny cuddly seven-year-old human being who is in my care and keeping. I'm grateful for what he teaches me about finding God in the presence of change. One of our tradition's names for God is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." Parenthood is an amazing reminder that in change, we glimpse God.

 


Intensive care

A few weeks ago I received a couple of photo albums in the mail from my parents. One of them contained photographs from the first months of my life, beginning with the weeks I spent at what they then called "the neonatal unit." (Today the standard name for such a ward is NICU, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. When I was born, the hospital at which I was born didn't have a NICU, so they rushed me to Santa Rosa. Today most hospitals have at least some capacity for neonatal care.)

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That's me, about a month old, in an incubator at the neonatal unit at what was then known as Santa Rosa Children's Hospital -- now called The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. I spent forty days and forty nights there before I was well enough to go home. The number feels symbolic to me, since in the rabbinic understanding, that's a period of time that represents maturation, fruition, and change.

While visiting Texas with my son, I had the opportunity to visit Santa Rosa again with my parents and my son: not only to see the current neonatal unit (which I had seen once before), but also to visit the even newer NICU that they're building now.

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Because of hospital regulations, my son couldn't go into the NICU, but he had the opportunity to use a stethoscope to listen to the heart of the baby mannequin they use in training, and to learn a little bit about the kind of care they provide to babies who are born too soon.

The whole visit was extraordinary, though there were two parts that were especially special for me. One was having the opportunity to walk through the NICU and say silent prayers for the babies who are being cared-for there. Sister Michele O'Brien told me that they are able now to operate on babies whose hearts are the size of a quarter. Dr. George Powers, who led us on our tour, showed us the equipment they use now and explained how it differs from what they had at their disposal when I came into the world.

The other thing that was special for me was visiting the hospital chapel with my son. When one first walks into the Children's Hospital, the chapel is the first thing one sees, which is intentional: a reminder that spiritual life and care are at the heart of what they do. It's a beautiful chapel, unsurprisingly, and we spent a few moments sitting there in contemplation.

There's a little metal "tree" in the back of the chapel. People are invited to write prayers on colored paper hearts and to hang them on the tree, and when the tree fills up, the hearts are taken out into the surrounding grounds and buried there, because -- in Sister Michele's words -- the place where the hospital stands is holy ground.

My son took a heart and carefully wrote "Thank You God for this," and then he paused. "Mom, can you write 'hospital'?"

I wrote "hospital," and he hung the heart on the tree. 

Thank You God for this hospital indeed. 

 

With gratitude for everyone at the Children's Hospital of San Antonio and the extraordinary work they do to provide care for families in need. 


Winter prayer among the trees

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"This is where I like to explore," my son tells me. To an adult eye, this is the smallish band of trees and underbrush between our condo development and the condo development down the road, but to him these are The Woods.

I remember exploring the woods across the street from my house with my friends who lived down the block, when I was a kid, and I am grateful that he has a place like this where his imagination can soar.

"Thank you for showing this to me," I reply, as I follow him.

 

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"This is a place where we can talk to God," he offers.

"Thank You God for the beautiful snow," I say, feeling tickled that this is still something he and I can do. I know that someday he will outgrow the desire to let me overhear his conversations with God, but that hasn't happened yet.

"This is the special place where I feel God's spirit," he tells me. "When you cross through here, you put your hands like this." He brings his hands together in prayer. I'm not sure where he learned that posture, but I am not about to argue with him. Here in his special place, he is the guide and I am the student.

 

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"Thank You God for the woods that you made and for the snow on the trees and for this place where we can talk to You," he says, and then emerges from the sacred grove. "You try," he tells me.

I cross into the place where he was standing and I emulate his posture. "Thank You God for this beautiful snow, and for the trees, and for my wise son who teaches me things every day. Amen."

He beams at me. "Thanks, Mom," he says. "Let's go explore some more."

So we do.


Light in the darkness

NertamidAt the end of Shabbat, my son and I walked into the sanctuary of one of the synagogues in the bigger town south of here for a county-wide havdalah.

He immediately noticed the ner tamid -- the eternal light -- hanging on its chain in front of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept. 

(He compared it to something in an iPad game, because he is an ordinary seven-year-old boy, and animation is one of his frames of reference. This ner tamid is made of white glass shot through with lines of red, which made him think of digital fire. I couldn't find a picture of that particular ner tamid, so I'm illustrating this post with a different one. They come in many styles, and all are beautiful.)

"We have one of those at our synagogue too," I told him. "But ours is made of colored stained glass. Remember?"

"Oh yeah," he said. "I know what you're talking about."

"Every synagogue has one," I said. "It's supposed to always be on, all the time." And then I thought to ask him, "Why do you think that is?"

I don't know what I thought he would say. I was primed to give him a standard answer for why the ner tamid is there -- that it represents God's loving presence which is always with us. (To an adult, I might have also added that it represents the ancestral fire that Torah teaches was to be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.)

I should have known that he would have an answer of his own.

"To light our way through the darkness of our fears," he said confidently.

Now, maybe I primed him for that, the previous morning. We'd talked about people's hopes and fears upon the inauguration of a new President, and how he might hear something about those at the havdalah event on Saturday night.

But even if my mention of hopes and fears planted a seed for him, he made the leap from there to the ner tamid all on his own. He saw intuitively how our fears can feel like darkness, and how divine presence can be a beacon. It was obvious to him that the purpose of the ner tamid is to help us find our way when life feels dark.

"You just taught me something," I said to him. "Thank you."

"I did?" He seemed excited at the prospect. "Will you write it down?"

My child knows me well. "I will," I promised him.

And now I have.


Our spiritual work is our life as it is

Here-and-now_0"I would be more spiritual if my circumstances were more perfect."

That's the "first illusion" cited by Ward Bauman in "Letting God be God," an article in Presence about lessons learned from Meister Eckhart.  (And wow, is it a familiar illusion to me!) Bauman writes:

Meister Eckhart is emphatic that our spiritual work begins where we are right now, because God is in our circumstances as they are....

Eckhart goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to spiritual work. The sense that there might be perfect circumstances that would allow us to be more spiritual is simply an illusion. We cannot escape our circumstances for some better or more spiritual condition. Our spirituality is never dependent upon the exterior conditions but rather upon the inner condition of our heart....

Our spiritual work is our life as it is.

I read the article while sitting with my sick kid who was curled up on the couch watching cartoons and found it surprisingly relevant. I know that Meister Eckhart was a Christian monastic. Rearing children was not part of his life's work or his spiritual practice. But his point that "our spiritual work is our life as it is" can be a deep teaching about spiritual life and parenthood.

There's a temptation to imagine that if I hadn't been home with my sick kid, I might have done something lofty and "spiritual" with my day. But I know that in truth, spiritual elevation arises in the attention and intention I bring to whatever is at hand. That's true whether I'm leading my community in prayer, or checking my son's temperature for the umpteenth time today.

The struggle to remember that spiritual life is "our life as it is" (not as we imagine it could or should be) isn't limited only to those who are rearing young children. Anything can feed the illusion that if only my circumstances were more ideal I would lead a "more spiritual" life. If only I had the perfect job, or if only my relationships were in better order, or if only life were different.

"If only I could afford to hire a cleaning service, I would spend more time praying" -- so goes the fantasy, anyway. But the real work is what my Hasidic forebears call avodah b'gashmiut, "service in / through corporeality." Can I find God's presence even in cleaning my house or tending my kid? Can I remember that spiritual life is always and only ever right here, right now ? 

The place to encounter God's presence is this place. The time to open to God's presence is this time. Not the imagined place-and-time when all the obligations will be taken-care-of, when all the tangles will be untied, when all the obstacles will be surmounted. The "obstacles" themselves are opportunities to search for meaning, to open to something greater than myself.

As this week's Torah portion reminds us, God can be in this very place! It was true for Jacob who dreamed of a ladder linking heaven and earth, and it is true for me in my living room with the LEGOs and the in-ear thermometer and the kids' Motrin. My circumstances will never be perfect, and neither will I. The work of spiritual life is finding holiness in the here and now.


Reflections on the anniversary of becoming a mom

4166882213_c88ecdf42d_zUntil I became a parent, I didn't think much about how every person's birthday can (or at least might) also mark a day of transition for the woman who brought that person into the world. I didn't think about how my birthday is a kind of anniversary for my mother. Year after year, my birthday must be for her a reminder of the day in late March when I decided I was ready to enter the world some ten weeks ahead of schedule.

Each year on my son's birthday I remember what it was like to drive to the hospital on the day after Thanksgiving. I remember how it felt to be attached to the pitocin drip that told my body it was time to begin labor, and to move through labor (with expert assistance from nursing staff, doula, and obstetrician). I remember closing my eyes and singing we are opening up in sweet surrender silently to myself when it was time to push.

I remember holding an impossibly tiny newborn on my chest, snugged in a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer. I remember the clarity of mind that accompanied that moment -- the realization that my life had changed in ways I knew I couldn't yet imagine. I remember eating pizza, that night -- we bought several, after he was born, and distributed them giddily to the nursing staff on duty -- and how good it tasted after the work of labor. I remember thinking okay, now what?

I didn't know then that the valley of the shadow of postpartum depression awaited me. I didn't know then that I would write one poem a week during my son's first year of life -- the poems that now make up Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013). I re-read that collection now and feel a strange combination of recognition and unfamiliarity. Life with a seven year old bears almost no resemblance to what I chronicled then. But I am endlessly grateful for the adventure of parenthood. I'm endlessly grateful for the soul that is in my keeping, this beautiful and thoughtful and goofy and funny human being who I am privileged to parent.

IMG_3754Becoming a parent has changed my relationship with God. I have been blessed to learn deep compassion and empathy in other ways too, not only through the vehicle of parenthood. There are others beyond my son to whom I extend my heart and my care. But I feel a unique responsibility for and to my son, because I grew him from component cells. Because I brought him into this world.

I take the love and compassion and anticipatory grief I feel for my child (who is beautiful, and perfect, and deserving of care, and who I know will experience losses over his life, as we all do) and I magnify it by the number of souls who have ever lived and will ever live, and I glimpse of what God must feel. Ha-rachaman: the Merciful One, the Enwombed One, the One in Whose Compassionate Womb all of creation is nurtured!

And the pride and joy and satisfaction I find in my child (who is kind and thoughtful and surprising) magnified by the number of souls who have ever lived and will ever live... Contemplating that, I have renewed empathy for the cosmic Parent Who weeps with us when we are hurt, and rejoices with us when we are glad, and wants us to grow into all that we can become, as I want my child to grow into everything that he can become. 

Today, as I wish my son a happy seventh birthday, I wish myself a happy seventh anniversary of motherhood. May I live up to the challenge of rearing him to be simultaneously strong and gentle, thoughtful and empathetic, creative and rooted: a citizen of the wide world who knows where he comes from, whose deep roots enable him to spread his wings as he becomes whoever he yearns to be.

 


Letters to God from a little boy

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At the end of the summer, not this past summer but the one before, I led davenen at my synagogue with Rabbi David Evan Markus. It was such a spectacular Shabbat morning that we decided to set up chairs outside, beside the little wall that extends beyond our building. When we turned east for the bar'chu, the people who were sitting right next to the wall turned and faced the wall in prayer and suddenly several of us made the exact same mental leap: the wall became our mini-kotel. (I wrote about it at the time.) When the Days of Awe rolled around, I tried an experiment: on Yom Kippur I invited congregants to write kvitlach, notes to God expressing whatever they most needed to say, and to tuck them into the holes in that wall as pilgrims tuck notes into the cracks between the stones at the Kotel in Jerusalem.

So many people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for that practice that I resolved to do it again. This year once again, at the close of Yom Kippur morning services, I invited those who are comfortable writing on chag to write notes to God saying whatever they most needed to say and put them in the wall, and I invited those who do not write on holidays to walk out to the wall and place their hands on the wall and take a few moments for silent prayer. And people did so, and I was glad. When the day came to its close, I went outside to collect the notes in order to burn them as I had promised that I would do... and my son, who is going on seven, followed me outside to see what I was doing. I explained to him what the grown-ups had done, and to my surprise, he got upset. "How come I didn't get to write one?"

Then he brightened. "Hey, can I write one now?" I said yes, of course. He took a pad of paper and a pencil and carefully wrote, in his round first-grade handwriting, three separate notes to God. One of them said "Thank You God for the words that we speak." (I told him I think that's a beautiful prayer.) Another was an apology. And the third he kept to himself, and I don't know what it said. Together we rolled them up, and went outside into the moonlight, and tucked them into the holes in the wall. "I don't want you to burn them yet," he said. "I want them to stay there for a few days, because I just put them there, and maybe God hasn't received them yet." I said okay, and we left them there -- scraps of wadded-up paper, holy messages gleaming as white as his Yom Kippur shirt against the velvety darkness of the night.


Halaila hazeh (on this night)

After pyjamas, tooth brushing, and reading a book (which lately means him reading Press Here to me), we turn off the lights. Beneath the glowing stars on the ceiling we say prayers and sing our bedtime songs. This always includes the one-line shema, sung to the melody my mother taught me (which I now know to be by Sulzer.) This week I've started singing the first two of the Four Questions at bedtime, too.

Last year I sang the first question to him every night for a month and by Pesach he was able to belt it out proudly. This year I suggested he could learn the first two, and at first he balked. "I don't know," he said. "What if I can't do it?" I assured him that if he isn't comfortable singing them by Pesach, he won't have to. Grudgingly he admitted that I could sing them to him, but insisted he wouldn't sing along.

That was a few days ago. Then, one night as I began singing "Mah nishtanah," he joined in. To my surprise, he sang both of the questions with me, giggling all the way. When we were done I told him I was proud of him. He said he'd sing the questions to himself until he fell asleep. Then we sang the angel song. These days he usually chooses Shir Yaakov's melody over Carlebach's, though I love them both.

Then he said "Wait, before 'Goodnight You Moonlight Ladies' can I pray for one thing?"

"Of course," I said, startled.

"Thank You God for all the things You put in the world that make us feel better when we're not so happy," he said earnestly, and my heart grew three sizes at his spontaneous offering of prayer and his comfort with speaking not just about God but to God.  "Amen," I said. "That's a beautiful prayer." (And I wondered what brought that on, though by then it was already well past official bedtime, so I didn't ask.)

Then I sang him our variation on James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" (that's the aforementioned "moonlight ladies" lullaby, which we've been singing to him pretty much since the week he was born) and kissed him goodnight. Sure enough, when I walked by his room on my way upstairs, I heard him singing the Four Questions to himself. "Halaila hazeh, halaila hazeh..." On this night, on this night...

On this night, I am proud of my kid. On this night, I am humbled by my kid. On this night, I am so grateful for my kid.