This post is the first installment in our series The Jewish Mother Project.
I cannot name all of the months in the Jewish year, but I can tell you that we are currently in the month of Elul. I’ve known for awhile now that these last weeks of summer are a time of reflection and teshuvah (a word that is often translated as repentance, but I prefer the idea of return—returning to our best selves, our highest values, or our relationship with God) as we prepare for the High Holidays, but I’ve never done anything about it before.
I decided to tackle Elul for my first Jewish Mother Project. I know from experience that while I am quite skilled at beating myself up for my shortcomings (real or imagined), the work of teshuvah—of taking an honest inventory of the ways in which I have missed the mark and how I might begin to do better—is no easy task. I needed help. Fortunately, Judaism has no shortage of advice for what to do when you don’t know what else to do.
The first opportunity came in the form of an email from my rabbi about a local workshop on teshuva. I’m a big fan of workshops and lectures (especially if they relieve me of my bedtime responsibilities), so off I went. As I entered the large room filled with chairs, I noticed that now-familiar internal twitch I get every time I participate in a Jewish communal event: I am an imposter. They all know more than me. I don’t belong here. By now I’m familiar enough with this unhelpful refrain to just let it go, but I do wonder when, if ever, it will go away on its own.
I’m glad I went, and I’m glad I stayed. In the workshop I heard a metaphor from Rabbi David Lapin that gave me just what I needed to start the work of returning. Imagine you are flying a plane and you notice that the altimeter is saying that you’re a bit too high or a bit too low. You know better than to try to adjust or berate the altimeter—it’s just reporting your altitude; it can’t change it. You have to go to the plane’s central controls to do that.
According to Lapin, we all have altimeters in our lives that give us constant feedback about how we are doing. These include our physical health, emotional well-being, relationships, and spirituality. Yet we often confuse these instruments with the controls. When something goes awry in one of these areas, we focus on an external fix, which is the equivalent of fiddling with the altimeter.
I immediately thought of my relationship with my daughters. I have learned the hard way, time and again, that the quality and tone of our interactions is often more reflective of my current state than it is of theirs. When I have been sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly, and connecting with the important people in my life, I am more likely to be calm, patient, and often humorous in response to their poor choices or annoying behavior. But when I’m tired or hungry or stressed, I am easily irritated and quick to snap at them in ways that escalate the situation rather than diffuse it. (Yes, I realize that it takes two to tango, but I also realize that I am the grown-up in this situation, and most of their unhelpful behavior is developmentally appropriate for their young ages. Furthermore, I can only change my own behavior, so I might as well focus my attention where it can actually make a difference.)
It is easy for me to fall into a spiral of shame and blame in the aftermath of an unpleasant interaction with my kids. I’m a crappy mother. I should have been calmer and kinder, more patient and understanding. It’s my job to get this right, and I just got it wrong.
The altimeter analogy put a different, and very helpful, twist on all of this for me. A sharp tone or an unnecessary power struggle with the girls doesn’t mean that I’m a bad mother. It’s just another source of information; perhaps we’re flying a bit too high or too low, a little too fast or a little too slow. But it’s only helpful if I choose to see those interactions as an opportunity for teshuvah.
The next question is, of course, how do I actually do better? How do I remember to read my instruments rather than just getting frustrated with them? That’s what the practices of Elul are all about, including a daily reading of Psalm 27. For those of you haven’t read it, this Psalm is, well, very biblical. There’s lots of talk about God and evil and armies and war and woes and foes, and none of it resonated with me. I read it several times, but other than feeling slightly smug for actually opening our Tanakh (which has gathered dust on the shelf for years), I honestly didn’t get much out of it.
Fortunately, our rabbi had recently sent out an email about the month of Elul, which included a link to an interpretive translation of Psalm 27 by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg. This version speaks of awareness, balance, patience, wisdom, and compassion. I can relate to these ideas, even if I’m not always able to practice them. I have read this psalm each day since, and the opening line, “Awareness is sunlight in the mind,” has become a new parenting mantra for me.
I don’t have to have all the answers; I don’t have to get it all right. But each time I slow down, check my instruments, and focus on awareness and compassion, I end up headed in the right direction.