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Jan 31 2014

Torah MOMentary: What is the Point of All These Rules?

By at 9:41 am

girl watching tv

This post is part of our Torah commentary series through the perspective of a new mom. This Shabbat we read Parashat Terumah. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

After binging on Internet reading last Wednesday (thanks in no small part to the polar vortex that kept me and my kids inside far longer than is healthy or recommended), I spiraled down the rabbit hole and beseeched my Facebook friends to tell me if I was letting my kids watch too much TV.

Thirty-six comments later, and I had been reassured that basically, I was within the “acceptable” zone. After the fourth or fifth Curious George episode, I shut the TV off and took the kids to the basement to do some puzzles. I brought my phone. After a half hour of being semi-attentive to them, I realized I wasn’t being even remotely mindful, and spent a few ill-advised minutes panicking about their emotional well-being.

The next morning my husband suggested that we start drizzling the girls’ pancakes (and everything they eat, really) with flax oil. Later that afternoon, my mother intimated that perhaps it’s time to get serious about the potty training. Then I got a call from school that one of my twins had bitten the other one (because we are forever in and out of the biting stage, a Groundhog’s Day of biting, if you will). Sometime around exasperation-o’clock, I read this Forbes.com article about the “crippling” (CRIPPLING!) behaviors that we, as parents, are guilty of. And then after all of that, I read this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, and wanted to cry.

There are too many rules.

The short of it: We’re in the book of Exodus. Moses has just received the Ten Commandments from God, and now God is instructing Moses to create a mishkan, a tabernacle, where the Israelites can bring gifts and where God can find a space to dwell “among them.”

Sounds nice. But what follows is a series of rules so precise and particular, down to the kind of wood—acacia! Two and a half cubits long!—that anyone who has felt of late that perhaps there are too many rules might just want to run away, back into exile, far, far away from all of pronouncements about the way we’re supposed to be doing things and the suggestions that we’re probably doing everything wrong.

What I struggle with is that I agree with a lot of the rules, at least on an intellectual level, but I cannot, no matter how hard I try, comply with all of them. Simultaneously, I cannot, no matter how hard I try, kick the guilt about failing my kids in some small way, basically every day. I don’t think kids should spend a lot of time glued to the screen. I think they are far happier and calmer when I’m engaged with them then when I’m half-there, consumed by my iPhone. They probably do need more fiber and flax and omega-3s in their diet. It would be nice if I didn’t have to change 15,000 poop-filled diapers a day–and my girls are old enough to use the potty. No one should bite. Kale isn’t that bad. I should throw away the humidifier; my marriage needs more attention; that paint should have been VOC-free; the girls need to be given more choice but I should follow through on consequences; I rescue too easily; I praise too quickly; I often don’t practice what I preach.

But I did some reading about this week’s parsha, and here’s something we can learn from all of these rules. They exist for a reason. God commands the Israelites to construct the tabernacle because God wants them to build a physical space within which God may dwell, within which the people may actualize their relationship with God, really feel it. The mishkan is a place where they can get close, where they can reconnect, if you will, after a long and painful separation. The rules are a means to a really warm and cozy end.

God was looking for a way to connect to the Israelites. Even if you struggle to relate to the lessons of Torah or ideas of God, my guess is that you can relate to the desire to connect to your children. Who hasn’t taken the wild ride of ups and downs during a day spent indoors, yelling, wagging fingers and fruitlessly trying to enforce rules one minute, and then grabbing chubby bodies for a hug the next? Every night I speed down the bedtime turnpike with all routines and rituals in place because I’m exhausted and need the parenting portion of my day to end. And then I fall onto the couch and find that I’m missing my kids, longing for their sticky hand in my palm, wanting more connection.

Sometimes I yell at my kids. It’s awful. They hate it and I hate it. Sometimes I cry in front my kids. I let them watch more TV far than I ever expected to. They eat a lot of cookies. I fetch them five different dinners. I try not to yell at the dog so that they won’t yell at the dog. It often feels like the mishkan my husband and I are building is constantly crumbling and being rebuilt. We are forever laying the foundation of our family life and redrawing the blueprints. I obsess about things that probably don’t matter, and disregard things that I’m sure do. But still, much as this constant analysis troubles me (and it really troubles me) the rules and the methods and the obsessions and the reading have a function. I’m just looking for ways to strengthen and deepen my relationship with my children, to love them better. I bet you are, too. If rules—some rules, not all rules, and not all the time—can help us do that, can help us build that, bring ‘em on.

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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