Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky
The latest accusation of “You’re SO mean!” was whined at me when my new 2015-16 Screen-Time Rules – written in fun colour markers – was pinned to the board in my kitchen. To my surprise, however, even with little or no homework these last few weeks, the girls have been compliant and cooperative. (You think it’s the markers? ) I have not had to negotiate the “one more video, one more episode, 5 more minutes,” before they take their showers, get ready for bed or do anything else that I, the meanest mother, require of them in the few hours they are home each weekday. I’ll admit I was a little scared of what the fallout would be, which is why it took me so long to make the list. How much fighting and policing and negotiating would be required each night to be consistent and firm and supportive and creative, especially when I’m tired and overwhelmed, and they’re “bored?” It seems though that, so far, the biggest effort was making the time to sit down, (take out the markers) and put the rules on paper so that they were clear for myself (and my husband) as well as for the children.
In this week’s parashah, the Levites, under instruction from Moses, enumerate eleven forbidden actions or behaviours the perpetrators of which will be “accursed.” These include making a graven image, degrading your parents, “moving” the boundary of the land (and thereby stealing), causing a blind person to go astray, perverting the judgement of a convert, orphan or widow, who may not know better or have an advocate, having “inappropriate relationships” with certain extended family members and animals, and taking a bribe to kill an innocent person. The final verse of this section states: “Accursed is the one who will not uphold the words of the Torah, to perform them. And the entire people say, Amen.”
The question that arises from this is what differentiates these behaviours from the rest of God’s commandments that they need to be itemized explicitly, especially since the final verse covers all the commandments of the Torah, and therefore, these as well. The rabbis explained that these behaviours are usually performed in private and the consequences, therefore, will not be exacted by human judges. Rather, only God and your own conscience will know that you have sinned. By listing these specific commandments, the Torah reminds us that appropriate behaviour is expected even when no one can see you, and that consequences will arise, even if they are not immediate or obvious.
By making my expectations for using devices clear and concrete, my children cannot justify (to me or to themselves) hiding in their rooms watching endless episodes of Netflix or YouTube videos, trying to avoid detection or hoping their mother’s mood (either relaxed or exhausted) will give them a free pass. They cannot argue with me or their own conscience that they didn’t know what else to do, that they’ll finish their homework later, or that they don’t “feel like” doing X, Y or Z, and, therefore, it’s ok for them to disappear into a screen. My list of rules suggests relaxing activities – my favourite is “talking to your mother,” – for when they have exceeded their screen time and completed their personal chores. The appropriate behaviours are explicit – if not in black and white but in pink, purple, blue and turquoise. The Torah teaches us that God (and our mothers) expect compliance even when no one else is watching, that we behave for our own moral benefit, as well as that of society, and that our conscientious spirit will suffer unknown consequences if we are not attuned to its whispering.
The parashah continues with a short list of the ways we will be blessed if we perform all of God’s commandments, and a very very long list of all the many, many ways we will be cursed if we do not. For example, we are taught: “All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you listen to the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb…” And conversely, “But it will be that if you do not listen to the voice of the Lord, your God, to keep, to perform all His commandments and all His decrees that I command you today, then all the curses will come upon you and over take you. Accursed shall you be in the city and accursed shall you be in the field… Accursed shall be the fruit of your womb…” The text goes on for over 50 verses recounting all the horrible ways – illness, poverty, war – in which God will curse you should you not perform His commandments.
Unfortunately, this section of text has been the source of many crises of faith. Understood literally, every terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing that happens to you is a consequence for not fulfilling God’s commandments to His satisfaction. When you’re living your life in the best moral, ethical, legal, kind, respectful and spiritual way you know how, and tragedy upon tragedy, hardship upon hardship continue to befall you – it is common to ask why is this happening and even more common to discard your religious practice and your faith in God completely, especially if you feel you are fulfilling your side of the covenant and God is not.
But what if we are not meant to understand the text literally? What if the Torah is teaching and showing the extent to which God cares? What if God is (also) the meanest parent? This is the lesson, I believe, we all remember learning. Most of us can think of a time when our parents had rules for us that are friends did not have, when others were “so lucky” because they did not have the same limits and boundaries imposed upon them as we suffered. And we can all remember maturing (hopefully) to acknowledge that (some of) these rules were in place not because our parents strived to make our lives difficult, but because they loved and cared for us. And now, similarly, do we impose rules and guidelines and expectations on our own children – not because we have the power to, and not because we’re scorekeepers, tallying positive and negative behaviour and adding rewards or punishments – but because we love our children, we want to protect them and most importantly, we want to teach them how to be “good people.”
The Torah is teaching us that there are many, many terrible things that can happen in this world, yet we have a responsibility always to behave morally and respectably, and that God always cares very very much about how we behave. We may think He is mean, that His consequences are harsh, but He is interested in our growth and development, not in punishing us. His concern is teaching not suffering.
At the very beginning of Parashat Ki Tavo we are commanded to bring “the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land” to the Kohen who will offer it up as a sacrifice to God, as an expression of gratitude for all God has done, taking us out of Egypt and giving us the land of Israel. I find it striking that in the parashah in which we are told of all the horrible tragedies that will befall us should we not perform God’s commandments, we are first commanded to be grateful. Some days this can be a hard pill to swallow. My children would certainly roll their eyes if I told them they should be grateful they have the devices for which I made rules. Nonetheless, we learn that gratitude puts hardship in perspective. And gratitude precedes retribution. Before we focus on how we are suffering, we must think about all that we have.
One day – far off in the future – our children may thank us for being the meanest. (But maybe not.) And telling them that in being the meanest parent we are emulating God who cares for His people as much as we care for our children, probably won’t make much of an impression either. The Torah shows us, however, that explicit expectations and consequences, which on the surface may seem scary and overwhelming, are in fact the best way to care for our most precious treasures. And even in our most difficult times, when we are truly suffering, before we take our prerogative to complain, first we must learn to say thank-you. Most days, I am proud to be the meanest mother.
Discussion Questions for the Shabbat Table:
In this Parashah, the Torah recounts all the consequences that will befall His people if they do not follow his commandments:
- Why are rules – another word for commandments – important?
- What happens when there are no consequences for disobeying the rules?
- How do you feel when your parents give you rules that your friends do not have?
- How do you feel when your friend’s house has the same rules as your own?
We also learn in this Parashah the importance of saying thank-you and being grateful for all we’ve been given:
- What are you grateful for?
- Why is it hard to think of what you are grateful for when you’re upset?
- Why do you think that the most important time to remember what you are grateful for is when you’re upset?