Raising my “threenager” (though she won’t be three until September, I’m pretty sure this term applies), I am constantly straddling the line between coercion and freedom of choice. In some circumstances it’s totally acceptable for my daughter to have the final say. Does it really make a difference if she wears the purple socks or the rainbow socks to shul? No, not as long as she’s wearing socks.
Of course there are times when Mommy has to put her foot down. As parents, we have to have our bottom lines. I’ve made peace with this, and I don’t mind standing firm on an issue that’s for my child’s own good. Rather, it’s the persuasion game that I don’t care for. We each develop our own bag of tricks (and threats) to use in cases when you need your child to do something you know she doesn’t want to do. I can tell myself a thousand times that I have her best interests at heart, but I often end up feeling guilty when I’ve tricked or threatened my toddler into following the rules.
Our Torah portion this week, parshat Yitro, paints a familiar picture of God as the parent. The text begins with the Israelites arriving at Mount Sinai and the preparations for the presenting and accepting of the commandments. As a side note, this event is sometimes called a “theophany,” which is a term of Greek origin to describe a manifestation of God. Following this momentous event, the Israelites are able to move on in their journey in the desert, now in possession of the laws meant to help them build a healthy society.
Chapter 19, verses 7-8 read: “Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’ And Moses brought back the people’s word to the Lord.” It sounds simple enough; Moses as the messenger shares God’s word with the people and they agree to follow it. But hidden in this simple encounter lies an unusual occurrence: the people all answered as one. Is it possible that the hundreds of thousands of Israelites standing at the bottom of the mountain all opened their mouths at the same time without arguing and agreed, together as a people? That seems more than a bit unusual.
The Talmud explains this phenomenon as God compelling them to answer by lifting the mountain over their heads, threatening to crush them with it unless they accept the Torah. That sounds to me like anything but free will. Another tradition likens this moment to God suspending the mountain not as a threat to crush the people, but to create a huppah, a wedding canopy, so that God and the Israelite nation are joined together in the covenant. While these two interpretations of God’s intent are polar opposites, it makes complete sense that an event of this magnitude would mix both joy and fear, the extremes which are illustrated.
Let us extend this idea further. Being a part of the Jewish community and living a Jewish life means that we have moments of intense joy and intense sadness. With as many life cycle events and holidays as we have, it comes with the territory. In either case these moments compel us to stick together and to speak as one. Furthermore, you may want to follow a strict Pesach kashrut practice, but decide on a less traditional Shabbat observance if that works for your family. If we’re always building, learning, and growing together as a people, the color of your socks – so to speak – is up to you.