On a day when a sacred place is desecrated, we must rebuild our world as a sanctuary.
Maintaining intimacy in a marriage after having children can be challenging, and we’re not the first couple to face that challenge. It isn’t for lack of trying, but with two kids (one of whom slept in a Pack ‘N Play in our room for 12 months) plus my own early bedtime to try to compensate for the kids’ early wake-ups, it can be very difficult to find adult time to reconnect with one another. We often find that if we can steal away for a midweek lunch or happy hour on a Friday that we’re much more likely to be better partners in parenting and in life.
When we build relationships, whether with a life partner or with friends and family, we arrive at a mutually agreed upon set of guidelines. These “guidelines” may remain unspoken, but in a healthy relationship there’s at least a presumed give and take. No one likes to feel as though they are being taken advantage of or giving more than they are receiving in a relationship.
The Torah we read this week comes from Parshat Mishpatim. Parshat Mishpatim is based on the notion that actions inspire other actions. The text begins with laws dealing with Hebrew workers and the if/then sequence determining how long a worker stays with his or her owner and what obligations the owner has to the workers based on their own family status. The text continues to discuss laws dealing with accidental versus intentional harm caused to others, followed by the repercussions of stealing, and then ending with the covenant that God makes with the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. Each of these laws is based on a reaction for an initial act, a balance in the relationship.
Chapter 21, verses 10-11 teach “If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.” In other words, in a partnership, both partners are entitled to food (nourishment), clothing (comfort and warmth) and intimacy. These three building blocks maintain a relationship by encouraging growth, trust, and commitment.
The Torah this week reminds us that when we don’t take time to connect with each other, we “go free” from that partnership. We unbind ourselves from one another, which is the opposite of what a relationship should do. Whether it means taking time for a lunch date or even just a phone call where you don’t try to multi-task, the important relationships in our lives demand that we dedicate time to them to make them – and us – stronger.
Last year as Shiri rounded the corner of three-and-a-half, we realized we were in for trouble. She’s a wonderful, energetic, and fairly typical kid, which means big emotions, a strong will, and a pretty strong desire for autonomy. Any one of these qualities is a lot to handle in an emerging human who doesn’t quite yet possess the ability to self soothe or hear the word “no.” Now put them all together, and Duncan and I were exhausted and at a loss as to how to reign in this behavior.
After a particularly stressful week when we felt like all of the boundaries and rules we thought we had set were at best ineffective and at worst causing more harm than good, we sought outside help. We discussed the situation with her preschool teachers. Their suggestion? Create a list of expectations together as a family and mount them on the wall.
It was brilliant advice, and it was helpful to hear it from another source even if I’d thought of it myself a hundred times before putting it into practice. The Torah this week offers the same brilliant advice. This week we read Parshat Yitro, perhaps one of the most famous portions in the entire Torah. The central piece of the portion is the giving of the Ten Commandments by God to Moshe and the people Israel. We now have a set of laws to live by, a guide to being a people living outside the confines of slavery.
Parshat Yitro comes as the Israelites are still adjusting to their newfound freedom. Their attitudes and behaviors aren’t that far from a very strong-willed three-year-old. There are outbursts at perceived injustices, complaints at the choices that don’t seem to cater to their needs, and a whole lot of whining. God invites them to unify under ten simple rules on which to build their society, and the expectations were set and mounted for all to see. And it’s not really about the number. Ten might seem like a lot of rules or barely enough, depending on how you look at it. The one overall theme is about taking responsibility for our actions.
Perhaps the personal struggle I mentioned brings back memories of raising your own children or reminds you of a challenging moment as a teacher or friend. The bottom line is sometimes we need to be told to make good choices . . . and a visual aid never hurts.
Fun fact: When Duncan and I get called to the Torah for an aliyah, Duncan lets me start the blessing a split second before him so that he can match my key and we don’t sound terrible. That is to say, I do not think of myself as a singer. I can chant with the best of them and lead services with gusto, but when it comes to carrying a tune or leading something with a complex melody, I am just not comfortable. I am grateful to Cantor Bitton and Ilene Safyan for fulfilling that role for me when I lead services (and believe me, you should be as well). Honestly, I don’t even like to sing in the shower. For most of my life, I was told I was plagued with the “Tarnoff tone,” and like those women on my mom’s side of the family, I believed we all couldn’t carry a tune.
Nevertheless, music is a big part of my life. I’m married to an avid singer, and we named our daughter Shiri (“my song”) in tribute to my father’s love of music. I was determined that no matter how her voice sounded, we would not plague her with thoughts that she couldn’t sing. Shiri loves to sing. Everything we do or say gets put into a song. Quiet play is almost always punctuated by quiet singing to herself, and, when appropriate, she has no trouble singing out loud and singing out strong.
This idea, while familiar to fans of Sesame Street or the Carpenters, actually has its roots in the Torah. Parshat Beshalach, which we read this week, is notable for showing the power of song. We find the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians go after them, but God intervenes and saves them. The Israelites continue through moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them as well as moments marking the occasional temper tantrum at God because the journey through the desert isn’t perfect. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards.
In the middle of all of this we read the “Song of the Sea.” In this moment the Israelites are overwhelmed with emotion. They have just left slavery and are not quite free yet. They see the waters ahead of them, the Egyptians behind them, and the instinct is to sing. You can almost picture this song, tears running down their faces, freedom in their grasp. And singing. Moses didn’t worry about how his voice sounded in this moment, he simply sang. Miriam took the timbrel and danced her heart out. Imagine what a free flowing release of music this was.
Thanks to my musical husband, Duncan, I’ve since learned that I can sing, I just need to focus on singing in my own key when I’m leading and backing off a little to find the key when I’m singing with others. We read the words of Parshat Beshalach and are reminded that we aren’t supposed to leave the singing to just professional vocalists. Music is a part of life, and singing is our individual expression of that. So as the song says, “Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing.”
When Shiri was nine months old we made the trek via car from Dallas, Texas to Portland, Oregon. Those five days left Duncan and me with frazzled nerves, to say the least. We’d wake up every morning praying for an easy day in the car, and what usually got us through was singing the same three songs and reading the same book over and over again. By the end of the trip, we were confident we knew Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by heart. (Feel free to stop me in the hall – I’m happy to recite it for you on demand.)
When I was younger I remember my mother saying she felt like a broken record, repeating herself over and over again to relay the simplest of instructions. As a mom myself, I totally get it now. Repetition can be annoying, but it’s necessary, from the comfort of a well-worn (played) CD to practicing a new skill to having to hear the same reminder more than once.
Adults can find comfort in repetition too, which is why this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, is so relevant to our lives and Jewish tradition today. The Israelites are a traveling people, and in Parshat Bo the Israelites are steps away from leaving Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to allow the Israelites to leave, and each of the three refusals brings with it one of the three final plagues. The narrative continues with the procedures for leaving Egypt, including putting lamb’s blood on the doorpost and packing up.
Parshat Bo ends with the commandment to tell the story of Pesach year after year for generations to come. It’s about repetition. A fledgling nation needs to hear the story of their birth over and over in order to remember it, internalize it, and cherish it just like our children need the comfort of the same song, same story, and same routine to find their compass. We repeat these stories to commit them to memory, thus creating a communal history and story that guides us into the future.