This post is part of our Torah commentary series. This past Shabbat we read Parashat Ha’azinu. (Apologies for the delay, we were busy dipping apples in honey.) To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.
For me, being a mother is the spiritual equivalent of looking into one of those magnifying mirrors that points out every pore and flaw. I am forced to face myself, not as how I’d like to be, but as I am.
This year, as the Ten Days of Awe descend, I am realizing this part of parenthood is a great preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. After all, during this time we are supposed to examine ourselves and take stock of who we are on the deepest level. We are supposed to consider our failings of the past year, the ways we could have been better, the parts of ourselves we don’t like to see. And as a parent, all those things are in my face pretty much every day.
It goes both ways. As a mama, I get to see the best parts of myself every day. Taking care of my kids, I feel how my heart has opened and grown strong through parenthood. I feel the tremendous power of love passing through me, and I watch myself stretch to meet their needs without complaint.
But as the mother of a toddler, I also come face to face with the worst parts of myself every day. The moments when I see just how angry, impatient, self-centered, exasperated, complaining, and self-pitying I can be. When Sylvie dumps her spaghetti on the floor, or tries to use her baby brother as a step stool, and I just cannot rise above my initial response. In other words: When I let a 2-year-old, behaving in a perfectly developmentally appropriate manner, provoke my inner fury.
I was surprised and relieved to read in this Torah week’s portion, Ha’azinu, that God seems to have a similar problem “parenting” the Children of Israel.
The entire portion of Ha’azinu is a poem that Moses recites to the Children of Israel, telling them how much God loves them, but also how ticked off God is about their transgressions. God rages against the Israelites’ idolatry and ungratefulness, and threatens to punish them with famine, plague, and “fanged beasts,” before calming down and deciding to bless them after all.
Why would the Torah describe God this way, like an exasperated parent who can’t take it anymore? Wouldn’t we want a deity who’s above this sort of response, one who models the perfect parenting we’re taught in how-to books–doling out consequences instead of punishments, firm but infinitely loving, and always above the temptation to let mere toddlers (or, in this case, mere humans) provoke an emotional reaction with their actions?
To be fair, the Torah is from the ancient Near East, where they probably had some different ideas about parenting; “spare the rod, spoil the child” comes straight from the book of Proverbs. So maybe the Torah’s world had no problem with an angry parent–maybe God actually was modeling good parenting in this portion by current standards.
But reading as a mother, I have another theory. Maybe God’s behavior towards the Children of Israel isn’t perfect after all. Maybe that’s exactly why we need to read it–so we can learn to be compassionate towards our own epic parenting fails.
Maybe this Yom Kippur is as much about forgiving ourselves as forgiving others.
After all, by the end of Ha’azinu, God has recovered from that terrible anger and returned to a place of compassion. It’s as if God lost control for a moment and then regained it–something that happens hundreds of times in the course of a day parenting young children. And if this happens to God, the Omnipotent, who are we to think it wouldn’t happen to us?
So in this New Year, I thank you, my children, my teachers. Not just for being who you are, but for showing me who I am. For teaching me how to love, and how to grow, and what I still need to work on. For giving me a crash course in how to be a better human.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.