My adorable toddler has a disturbing new habit.
It goes like this: Sylvie’s playing with another kid at the park. Suddenly she grabs the kid’s hair, shrieks in excitement, and pulls. The kid’s mom and I run over and pry her hands off (harder than you’d think!), mom kneels to console crying kid, I apologize profusely. And there’s Sylvie, grinning uneasily.
I know she doesn’t mean to cause pain; she’s just excited. But on some basic human level, it feels odd to see someone smile while hurting someone else. So when this first started happening I was pretty concerned. I’m still new to this whole mothering thing. Was this a developmental stage, or the beginning of a real problem?
So I looked it up: thank goodness, just a stage. In fact, one doctor goes so far as to arrange playdates for his little patients who like to pull hair and bite. (Apparently they mutually attack each other, realize it sucks, and stop forever.)
Reading these words, my whole body relaxed. But it got me thinking about how as parents, so often we only get part of the picture, and how hard it is to stay calm when we don’t have all the information. We encounter a fever in the middle of the night, or a missed developmental milestone, or an attack in the middle of a playdate, and we don’t know if it’s nothing at all, or something that will change the course of our lives.
Sometimes a doctor or a book can set our minds at ease. But in parenting as in life, sometimes there is nothing to do but wait and see, and learn to live with that uncertainty and anxiety.
Last week’s Torah portion told the traumatic story of God commanding Abraham to offer up his son, Isaac. This week’s portion begins with the death of Isaac’s mother, Sarah. Although there’s no explicit connection between the two events in the Torah, the rabbis take this juxtaposition and run with it, coming up with some pretty wild midrashim to connect the two stories.
My favorite midrash involves Satan (yes, he exists in rabbinic legend!). Upset by Abraham’s loyalty to God, Satan shows Sarah a vision of her husband holding the knife over their son. Worse, he stops the vision before Isaac’s rescue, so Sarah assumes her husband went through with the act. Shocked and grieved, her soul flies out of her body and she dies.
I love to read Torah stories as real-life problems written on a mythic scale. These extreme versions of reality can teach us something about the challenges we encounter in our own lives. So although thankfully my problem is much smaller than Sarah’s, I definitely relate to her in getting some potentially troubling information and assuming the worst outcome. How can I learn to live with those moments of uncertainty when I don’t know what’s coming next?
My friend had a great suggestion for what to say as I deflect Sylvie from attack mode. Firmly but gently: “I’m going to stop you from pulling kids’ hair until you can stop yourself.” I love that phrasing; it says that I trust and expect her to learn to control her behavior, but until then I am there to help guide her.
When I think about this midrash about Sarah, I think part of the tragedy is her inability to stop herself from assuming the worst. I wish I could visit her in that moment of despair and tell her, just wait. It will be OK. Stay with the uncertainty.
And though I can’t change Sarah’s story, mine is still being written. So I think the next time I can’t see what’s around the corner, when my mind wants to jump to the worst possible outcome, I’m going to try saying this to myself, gently, and with love:
“I’m going to stop you from worrying until you can stop yourself.”
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.