I love nothing quite so much as a good resolution. Don’t get me wrong; like so many other Americans, I rarely keep my resolutions for longer than a week or two. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the injection of renewal, liberation, and hope that I get on January 1.
As I began contemplating my resolutions for this year, my mind immediately settled on the Jewish Mother Project. What will I tackle in 2016? Will I finally start saying the blessings before meals? Will this be the year that I actually learn how to roast a chicken, the ultimate Jewish mother food? What about Hebrew? Will I actually stick to my Pimsleur lessons? It was amazing to notice how quickly my mind could come up with a list of tasks—things to do—that will make me a better Jewish mother.
Even so, I was still worried that I might be missing something, a ritual or blessing or recipe that is central to Jewish motherhood. I picked up my current favorite parenting book “Jewish Spiritual Parenting” by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November. Surely I could get some ideas from them.
Although the authors do make a number of concrete, useful suggestions such as saying the sh’ma at night (I felt very proud of our little family when I read that—we’ve been doing that since the night our older daughter was born over seven years ago), that wasn’t the primary message I got from the book. The authors open with the question of whether or not Jews are required to believe in God (spoiler alert: no, we’re not, but it may useful to think about the wide range of ways in which Jews understand God) and end the book with chapters on chesed (loving kindness) and simcha (joy).
As I kept reading, I was repeatedly struck by the realization that although my actions are crucial to my role as a Jewish mother—what I do, and don’t do, matters—they aren’t the foundation I’m looking for. I think that’s where I’ve gotten a little turned around this past fall. I was starting from a place of what I should be doing, rather than exploring the core values I wanted to focus on and expand upon in my life and parenting.
Jewish teachings and traditions offer a range of values and virtues from which to choose from, but there is one that immediately jumped out at me as central to everything: chesed, or lovingkindness. As Kipnes and November remind us in their book, we are taught that “the Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed…clothing the naked and burying the dead.”
Kindness and compassion are particularly compelling to me for a few different reasons. Not only are they central to Jewish life and practice, but research has found that compassion (including self-compassion) is a highly effective response to virtually any challenge we may face in parenting (and life). We’re more likely to make the changes we want in life—from yelling less to sticking to a diet—if we’re compassionate to ourselves in response to our missteps and failures.
On a more personal level, my daughters are the reason why I started the Jewish Mother Project. When I take a moment to step outside of my own addled mind and realize that this project is as much about my daughters as it is about me–I find that whole l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) thing quite compelling–I can get a little more clarity about what really matters.
Yes, I want my daughters to learn the language of Judaism, the prayers, songs, the practices, and the rituals. As much as I may want to be the one to teach all of that to them, I never will be. Fortunately, I have a wonderful community, including my friends and family, our synagogue and day school, to help me out. But if those won’t be my Jewish Mother legacy, what will be?
Only time will tell, but I hope it will be kindness.
I hope my daughters will grow up with strong Jewish identities and the same love of Judaism that their father and I have. But even more than that, I hope they grow up understanding the power of compassion to change themselves and the world.
In that vein, the Jewish Mother Project is going to take a bit of a left turn. Rather than focusing on random practices I think will make me a better Jewish mother, I want to take a deep dive into a variety of perspectives on kindness and compassion, and how I can make it more of an intentional, explicit part of my Jewish life and parenting. Don’t worry; I’m not going to get all theoretical on you; I’m going to talk about how to take these crucial ideas and put them into action on a daily basis.
As the Talmud reminds us, the highest form of wisdom is kindness. On that note, I wish you all a new year filled with kindness and compassion, and I look forward to sharing this exploration with all of you.