“I dreamed my whole life,” my 5-year-old said suddenly.
“What?” I asked sleepily, as we snuggled before bedtime. “I dreamed my whole life when I was in your tummy,” my son explained. “When a baby is in its mommy’s tummy, it dreams everything that’s going to happen to it in its life. And then it happens.”
I listened silently, struck by the strange beauty of this idea. It made me think of the ancient Jewish legend that teaches that a baby learns the entire Torah while it grows in its mother’s womb. According to this legend, when the baby is born, an angel touches it above its upper lip, and the baby forgets all of the Torah that it learned in utero.
The legend is curious, especially for a people that’s obsessed with the idea of knowledge and its accumulation. It suggests that all learning is really re-learning; that when we perceive that something new has been revealed to us, we’re really assimilating knowledge for which the neural and experiential pathways have already been laid.
Our ancestors were comfortable with the theology of revelation–the idea that there are deep truths about realities beyond our understanding, and that we can be privy to those truths if we know how to receive the information. In the Torah, God speaks, and the people listen and learn (well, some of the time). Generations of rabbis have explored the concept of ongoing revelation–the idea that God continues to reveal truths to us, through textual interpretation and through our own capacity for insight.
Revelation can be a tricky concept for us modern Jews, though–and it can be an especially difficult issue for parents of young children. Even if we do believe in the possibility of experiencing the sublime, when we would have time to do so? I have two kids and a job, and my Google calendar doesn’t have a lot of open slots for spiritual enlightenment.
What we often lose sight of is the fact that for parents, revelation is part and parcel of what we do and experience every day. The sheer act of being a parent engenders revelation on a multiplicity of levels.
Parenthood enables us to relate to the world in new ways, to be more keenly aware of the promise and peril inherent in human life. Parenthood also teaches us new things about ourselves, our own characteristics, our own capacities–our capacity to love, our capacity for patience, our heretofore unknown capacity for getting ten errands done in the space of an hour when we’re on our own and don’t have little ones to schlep in and out of the car.
Revelation is “not in the heavens,” it’s in our own experiences, in the myriad ways in which being a parent transforms us and changes how we relate to the world.
The idea of revelation is something that we can share with our children as well. I’m not advocating sitting your kindergartner down for a study session on theology–but there are many ways in which parents can teach their children to be open to the kinds of experiences that allow us to engage more deeply with the world and with ourselves.
When it comes to the experience of awe, children are naturals. Kids are wellsprings of wonder, as evidenced by their capacity to gaze in fascination at a rock, or to turn a pedestrian chore into an opportunity for make-believe play. The idea of revelation challenges us to acknowledge the power of our children’s fascinations and reveries. Talk to your children about what they experience.
What do they find captivating about that shiny rock? What shapes do they see in the clouds? Joining our children in their experience of awe gives them the message that the things they think are magical really are–and enriches our capacity to see wonder in the world.
Speaking of wonder, it’s hard for children to indulge their capacity for imagination and spirituality when they’re overworked and over-programmed. It’s pretty hard to “see a world in a grain of sand” when you’re trudging through the mall or Instagramming in the car on your way to soccer practice. Giving your kids a respite from over-structured time by resting and unplugging on Shabbat, or during another special time, is a valuable way to ensure that they have a chance to dream, to imagine, and to notice the beauty of the natural world.
The newborn baby envisioned in the ancient legend has wisdom inscribed in its soul, like that baby, we are hardwired to recognize and appreciate the sparks of the sacred that are all around us. When we slow down, open our eyes, and embrace the possibility of revelation, we allow ourselves and our children to live life more deeply, more gratefully, and more joyfully.