Among the mind-blowing things I have learned from my first two years of motherhood is what it means to care about someone else’s existence as much as my own, to the point where their pain literally becomes mine.
It’s not that I didn’t care about anyone before…just that I had more boundaries. Of course when someone is suffering–someone I love or just know or even someone on the news or in a movie–I feel terrible for them. I cry. I ache for them. When my daughter is hurting, though, I find that it literally hurts me too–emotionally rather than physically, but it hurts.
It’s not just me, of course. This reaching beyond the bounds of self is a central part of the amazing spiritual journey of being a parent. Buddhist teachings about compassion sometimes suggest trying to view everyone, even one’s enemies, with a mother’s unconditional love. So it seems like a side benefit of parenting is that we get major training in that compassion practice, simply by loving our kids. (If only that magically made us better at the really hard part, which is transferring that love onto people we struggle with!)
As profound as it is, this parental superpower has its dangers too. Because feeling deep empathy is a beautiful thing, but even empathy needs its limits. After all, if we allow ourselves to become totally overwhelmed by our children’s suffering, how can we be strong enough to help them? If we care for their emotional or physical needs to the exclusion of our own, we’ll eventually wear ourselves down to the point where we can’t be fully present as parents.
It’s not the easiest portion for a modern person to get into. The blessings are nice, but then you get to the curses, which are pretty creepy. Plus, a quick look at the world around us makes the reward-and-punishment model of spirituality hard to buy into.
One of the big threats in B’hukotai is that if you don’t let the land rest from farming every seventh year, it will eventually take its rest time forcibly–in a much more traumatic way. In the worst-case scenario, people get kicked off the land and exiled from their homes, while the land finally lies fallow.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent terrifying article in the New York Times about the melting of the polar ice caps. As a parent, I am heartbroken at the thought of leaving our grandchildren to deal with this glacier-melting, sea-level-rising, city-drowning planet.
Reading this portion alongside the news, it seems strangely, frighteningly resonant with those scientists’ predictions: if we devour the earth’s resources relentlessly, the earth will take back those resources. And I wonder: could B’hukotai be an ancient Jewish description of what we now call sustainability?
Besides doing my own small part each day to try to live responsibly, I can’t stop those melting glaciers. I can’t change the rising sea level. But giving in to despair is not really an option either, at least not a healthy one. So what can I do?
Here’s my answer this week, inspired by B’hukotai. I can examine these patterns of sustainability on the smallest, most intimate level–the level of my own life, my own physical and emotional resources. We all know parenthood is demanding and challenging. But we’re in it for the long haul. So…can I parent more sustainably? How can I incorporate rest and self-care into my own daily life to avoid my own personal melting glacier down the road?
I hope the scientists can come up with solutions alongside the warnings. I hope we as a species can figure out ways to provide for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. But this year, I try to take B’hukotai not as warning, but as inspiration–to work towards sustainability in my own life, physically and emotionally.
Because as parents of young children, we are like the holy land: we are home. We provide shelter and food and love. We are where it all begins.
But as the Torah points out in this portion, even the holy land needs to rest.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.