Parashat Shemini: Hush, and Love Your Children

For Congregation Ner Shalom, April 20, 2012

It was a quiet week at Ner Shalom, my home shul. The kids shuffled in and out of Hebrew School. Yael and a half dozen others took branches and yarn and worked on their Omer-counting sticks. Another clean dozen came and read Yiddish poems on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Mitch and Robin climbed up into the attic above the back classrooms and fluffed around in the cotton candy insulation to see what we might make of that space. Our administrator Vicki's husband Robert has been on the mend, and in fact the whole family was able to attend a Civil War reenactment this weekend where they habitually play southerners and Robert's stroke alas did nothing to change that but, as my mother would say to just such a puzzling fact, "to each his own."

I flew to Pittsburgh and back in the last 55 hours. As always, I did the Mensa quiz on the plane and then as always, when I couldn't figure out the answer to question 6, dismissed the whole Mensa business as the basest sort of snobbism.

Earlier in the week I worked on my office a little - having staked out some real estate right up there in the mezzanine, where I hope you'll come visit me. A considerable portion of my library is now installed on the shelves: Aramaic and Yiddish, music and mysticism, and all of my I-never-went-to-rabbinical-school cheat texts within easy reach.

I also spent some quiet time working on a grant proposal this week. Seems the Jewish Community Federation wants to fund our Celebrations Program for another year. So I got a chance to spend some quality time with Mary Ann Malinak, who is the mother of this program for kids with special needs and their families. We're in, I think, our fifth year of operations now. I write this proposal every year, and there are things I always talk about in it. How the families who come have been shushed out of every other Jewish environment they've ever been in. How the Celebrations kids enjoy the food and the music and the gifts our Hebrew school kids make for them and just seeing each other.

But this year I also wrote about some changes that are happening in Celebrations that I think you might want to know about as well. Although many of the kids don't look their age, they are getting older, and a lot of them aren't quite kids anymore. Alex is now 17 and Sarah is 17 and Zac is 19. They're much older and bigger than the other kids in the Hebrew school, and while we used to really enjoy how the Celebrations community was part of the fabric of our school, it's more awkward now; the Celebrations kids stick out in a new way. They are undoubtedly aware that they're surrounded by children. Meanwhile their parents are struggling with mounting challenges as their kids continue to face new health issues or new behavior changes, each one more difficult than the last; and as they start running out of schools to send their kids to; and as they delve more deeply into the question of what their children's adult lives will be like, both in the immediate future and when they are no longer around to care for them or advocate for them.

This is what's going on for our Celebrations families these days. It's more of the same and it's all new. And the anxiety of it can be overwhelming.

Of course all parents live in some degree of anxiety about the children they're unleashing on the world. I know this, I feel it. Even though in my family I am not officially a parent but something else for which there is no decent kinship term so we make do mostly with "uncle," still, I live with this anxiety. Okay, this terror. Because you can't predict. You don't know who they are going to be. I think about a certain eleven-year-old overnight birthday party happening right now as we speak which began with laser tag - kids running around with rifles! - and concludes tomorrow morning with a breakfast which, by the birthday boy's request, will include if not centerpiece bacon and sausage. Who is this person? Who is this oddly familiar half-sized stranger? How did this happen? I know that the Celebrations parents would give an awful lot to have a day where their child-rearing burdens were this trivial. But anxiety. Well, anxiety has a way of expanding to fill the available space, and parental anxiety especially. You just look at your kids and you wonder: how did this happen?

I imagine Aharon the high priest might have asked himself the same thing in this week's Torah portion. It's Parashat Shemini, one of my favorites from among my least favorite Torah portions. Somewhere, sandwiched between priestly instructions and lists of animals we can't eat in a sandwich or at an eleven-year-old's birthday party*1* comes the story of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, who go unbidden and unprepared into the Holy of Holies. We don't know exactly what they did - firepans, incense. But it was, apparently, not how Dad would have done it.

Isn't that always the way? You can't make your children be who you want them to be. And for this question, it doesn't even matter if you don't have children. You have brain children. Your ideas and intentions andplans. These are your children.

As Wordsworth said, "The child is the father of the man." Meaning that we give birth to the lives we have. Our lives are our children. And like children, they don't always go the way we intend. They sometimes refuse to do what we ask them to do or what we think they should do. Sometimes all we can do is sit back and look at these children of ours: our plans, our dreams, our paintings and poems and ingenious schemes. Did those come out of me? How did I end up here? What is this strangely familiar life?

Sometimes all you can do is sit back and look and marvel.

Now I confess the Aharon story has a terrible outcome. Nadav and Avihu offer their "strange fire" unbidden, and the fire consumes them and they die. Moshe says something cryptic and outrageously uncomforting about God being sanctified by those who draw near and in response what does Aharon say? Nothing.

וידם אהרן
Vayidom Aharon.
And Aharon hushed.

If we read this story literally, we'd have to question what his silence means, what enormity of pain choked his words. But if we think of our own ideas that didn't work, that gave way to the next idea; the turns of event that didn't pan out but maybe paved a path, then maybe we can understand. The truth is that we lose, we let go of, some piece of our old dreams every day. Because the reality of our lives is always different than the dream. Maybe today is not that different from what you'd intended yesterday, but it is very different from what you imagined for yourself 20 years ago. Maybe unrecognizable, like the difference between an adult portrait and a baby picture.

Our lives are full of constant attempts at strange fire, new fire, and sometimes they produces a reyach nichoah, a pleasing aroma, and they stick. And sometimes those attempts go up in smoke. And sometimes all we can do, as the parent of our lives, is pause for a moment and hush. But what is this hush?

In Psalm 131 we find the same hushing word:

אם–לא שויתי ודוממתי נפשי כגמל עלי אמו כגמל עלי נפשי
Im lo shiviti v'domamti nafshi k'gamul aley imo kagamul alay nafshi.
Haven't I made my spirit equanimous and quiet
like a toddler in its mother's embrace?
So is my spirit within mine.

Aharon's hush is like the way one quiets a tiny child, the hush after the big, loud wail. Aharon carries and quiets his spirit like one would a child.

Perhaps this is a takeaway from this otherwise dreadful story. That there is a quiet that is available to us even as we see our plans go awry or our previous intentions consumed. We have given birth to these lives of ours. And sometimes they get away from us. But they are our children and it is our lifelong job to love them. No matter how demanding or willful or noisy they've become. In the face of the twists and turns and tuml of our lives, these lives that some days run circles around us like over-sugared children, we can - we must - take a moment to breathe - hush - to quiet our souls and hold them like we would an infant.

Your life is not what you expected. It's never what you expected.*2* But love it as you would a child. Keep teaching it, keep guiding it, and keep learning from it.

Give it a try right now. Just hush. Hush. Look at your life as it is now. Drop your judgments about it and just look at it. See it as your child. What kind of kid is it? Sweet? Challenging? Playful? Pained? Wayward? Willful? In trouble? Whatever kind of child it is, it is your child. Feel your love for it. It's a good kid. And you? You are a fine, fine parent.

And that's the news from Ner Shalom, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children - including these lives we've made - are, well, pretty fabulous.



I'm grateful to Mary Ann Malinak, Reb Shifrah Tobacman and Mitch Genser for their helpful insights this week.

*1*  For those who are deeply concerned, turkey bacon and turkey sausage were ultimately served, since the actual request was non-specific on that front, and the birthday boy hasn't had enough of the other stuff to really know the difference.
*2*  Mitch Genser said to me this week, "Where you are supposed to be is exactly where you are right now." I'm still thinking that over, to figure out if I think it's so. But in any event where you are right now is certainly worthy of your love.