Saturday, April 23, 2011

Jewish Parenting Through the Lens of the Liturgy - 2

Traditionally, morning prayers open with a list of 14 benedictions, originally said as people began their day - there was a prayer for unwrapping oneself from one's covers, for putting on one's shoes, for tying the belt around one's coat. Eventually, the list found its way into the prayerbook and was recited together, whether at home or in the synagogue, after all those preparations had already been completed. As I have read these benedictions, I have been regularly impressed with lessons they can teach us as parents, and in this blog I will be reflecting on each of the benedictions, one a day, for the next few weeks (holidays permitting).
The Second Benediction - The Yin and the Yang
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני בצלמו
Praised are You, Adonai, our God and Sovereign of the Universe, who made me in Your image.

I have for a long time understood this benediction from a parenting point of view as turning our focus on each of our children as they are, not as we would wish them to be. Whether we have one or ten, some kids are just as we would have wished, others aren't. Some want to follow in our footsteps, others have no interest in our life's work. Some remind us of beloved relatives, others of relatives we would rather forget. We project so much onto our children, from the moment of birth (whom does the infant remind us of?), that sometimes we forget that we are dealing not with a reflection of someone else's character or dreams or goals but with an unfolding gift from God, created in the divine image, with dreams and goals of their own. If we are made in God's image, so too are our children - and our job is not to create them into our image but to encourage the God-given talents they possess so that they may blossom into their own rendition of the divine image.

That's been my understanding for many years. Today I have another understanding to add.

A careful reading of the Hebrew in Torah will remind us that there are two basic names for God, found in our sacred text and in our liturgy: Adonai and Elohim (rendered eloheynu - our God - in prayer). The rabbis of our tradition puzzled over these two names, deciding that like any name, these terms have come to teach us something about the God they describe. The entire first chapter of Torah refers to God as Elohim. It isn't until after the beginning of chapter two, when the first week of creation is finished and we turn to the more detailed story of the creation of Adam and Eve, that the name Adonai appears. Why this distinction, the rabbis ask. And of course they have an explanation.

God has two overriding qualities: the quality of justice and the quality of mercy. In the first chapter of Torah, the world is created in a rather removed way: God say "Let there be..." and there was. Creation happens with words, not by interaction with the creation. Everything is orderly. Each day has a purpose. And God is Elohim. So this then is the expression of God as Judge, and meter-out of order and logic.

Comes chapter two, and God - Adonai this time - gathers earth from the four corners of the world and shapes a person. Shapes a person. Hands-on. Breathes the breath of life into the person's nostrils. Breathes into the person's nostrils. This is an involved God, and a God that is dealing in an on-going way with people, those creatures with the free will chip. And so the name of God is Adonai, an expression of the quality of mercy, since without mercy, those people would not long survive. Remember that the first limit God imposes is that Adam and Eve not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And the first thing they do is eat the fruit. The threatened punishment? Death. But of course we know that the punishment is mitigated, and the forebears of humankind suffer only expulsion (and we can use "only" in relation only to death - there is nothing pleasant about expulsion). In order for God to maintain a relationship with God's creation, God must be a God of mercy as well as a God of justice.

The rabbis relate a midrash asking why both qualities were needed at creation, and they reply: In order for the world to remain in existence, there must be mercy, but a world with only mercy and no justice is a world of chaos.

And this midrash brings us to the second understanding of the benediction thanking God for having created us in the divine image. What does it mean for us as parents to be Godlike? To maintain both qualities, of justice and of mercy. This observation dovetails nicely with yesterday's post, but I need to expand the notion a bit.

What does it mean to be a parent of justice? It's not just about sharing and figuring out who gets the last piece of cake. It's about rules and the maintenance of rules. It's about expectations: clean your room, brush your teeth, say please and thank you. In those families where it is a custom, saying the Sh'ma before going to sleep. Teaching children obligations and limits and then expecting those obligations and rules to be remembered and observed. Developing a Torah of your own family and holding it sacred. For every parent that believes that children should be free to do as they choose, go to sleep when they like, have Twinkies for breakfast, there are legions of parents who will attest to the fact that children need structure. They need to know what's expected of them, because then they know that someone loves them enough to help them grow up to be responsible adults.

So then, what does it mean to be a parent of mercy? It means listening to your child. It means that when a child says "no," there are two roads in front of them: they can be listened to and perhaps be accommodated, or we can insist on the behavior we required and at best continue to beat down a child's natural independence, or at worst, watch a melt-down. I remember a little girl once who didn't want to wear a dress her mother had bought her. The interchange escalated with blinding speed - "wear it!" "no!" Finally, someone asked the child why she didn't want to wear it. (After all, was this only a fashion statement?) Turns out there was something in the design of the dress that was scratching the child. A quick repair by her mom made the dress acceptable.

Do we listen to our children? Do we ask why they are upset, or is it just too expedient to expect them to follow our directive? Some rules must be followed - bedtime, tooth-brushing, simple manners - but other directives may be perceived as being arbitrary (and as a mother I can say honestly that some directives really are arbitrary), and our quality of mercy must rise so that we can hear our children's complaints and questions. We may end up still insisting on compliance, but at least the child has been heard, and that is an important building block of the child's self-esteem. As I observed yesterday, taking the time to really hear your child takes time and patience, neither of which are usually in great supply when parenting, but they are critical to the task at hand.

Two ways, then, that we as parents can demonstrate to God our gratitude for having been created in the divine image: we can celebrate each child for their reflection of the divine, however that reflection appears, and we can be Godlike ourselves in our relationship with our children, reflecting both justice and mercy as elements of our love for them.

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