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Beshallah 5783 - Learning from Baby Shalom

Friday, February 3, 2023 - 13 Sh'vat, 5783

The Rabbis taught that Rabbi Yosei HaGelili taught: At the time that the Jewish people ascended from the sea, they resolved to sing a song of gratitude to God. And how did they recite it? If a baby was lying on his mother’s lap or an infant was nursing from his mother’s breasts, once they saw the Divine Presence, the baby straightened his neck and the infant dropped the breast from his mouth, and they recited: “This is my God, and I will glorify God (Exodus 15:2) - Zeh eli v’anveihu.” As it is stated in Psalms, “Out of the mouths of babies and sucklings You have founded strength” (Psalms 8:3).

~Talmud Bavli Sotah 30b-31a

As the Israelites pass through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, escaping their Egyptian oppressors, they sing the song we sing every morning to remind us of God’s saving power. Az yashir Moshe uv’nei Yisrael… According to the Midrash in Masekhet Sotah, the original song was inspired by the fetuses, babies, and toddlers among the people Israel. Just as we gain wonder from the little ones among us, the Israelites gained wonder from their little ones’ wonder! 

In the past year, through pregnancy and early motherhood, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined about life in this world and the Presence of God from caring for Shalom. The Rabbis of the Talmud, too, sensed that great power of learning from our youngest Jews. This morning, I would like to share just some of the reflections I have had twelve weeks into this adventure of parenting, especially reflections on texts I have shared previously here in this room.

Anyone who has spent time learning with me knows that my favorite book of Tanakh is Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) - there’s a season for everything, a time for every purpose under the sun - a time to be born, a time to die, a time to embrace, a time to refrain from embracing, and so on and so forth. While I have always appreciated Kohelet’s psychology, I now have a new practical understanding. While Shalom was a perfect angel his first two weeks, the next six weeks after that were tough. We were not used to the volume of Shalom’s screams, the explosion of spit-up, and the lack of sleep that comes with new parenting. Then, a few weeks ago, Shalom’s sleep schedule evened out, he started to communicate his emotions a little more clearly, and he became fascinated with every new sight and sound. He began to smile and to test the limits of his movement, and we became more attuned to his moods and needs. Just like Shalom’s challenging phase, this delightful phase may pass into territory that Rabbi Feivel and I will never think to expect. 

In her parenting book, The Sh!t No One Tells You, Dawn Dais explains that knowledge of something different to come:

When something is going fine with your kid (no snot, lots of sleep, giggles aplenty), grab on to those moments and store them in your heart and mind under Good Times [...] Do all this with the very real knowledge that this moment is only temporary, and that this bliss will not last [...]. Eventually something will happen to shift the tides. [...] I’m here to warn you, don’t ever, ever say or even think the phrase ‘I GOT this.’ Ever.

For now, I’m enjoying Shalom’s phase of delight and our phase of feeling like we somewhat know how to take care of our son.

In another bit of wisdom from Kohelet, parenthood has been a reminder that “nothing is new under the sun.” Everything we are experiencing with Shalom has been experienced before. During this time, friends, family, and health professionals have come out of the woodwork with stories that help us to feel supported. While “that’s just what babies do” was a terrifying refrain to hear for the first few weeks, at this point, it’s starting to become more and more of a comfort. Even when there may not be a solution, we are not alone in our experiences.

Even with all of the similarities I have been able to find with other parents and other babies, I am constantly fascinated by the uniqueness of my particular child. I am reminded of a Mishnah I’ve taught here several times:

When a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to one another. But the supreme King of Kings, the Holy Blessed One, stamped all people with the seal of Adam, the first person, and not one of them is the same as another (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

So, too, I cannot expect that Shalom will start talking at the same time as anyone else’s baby or will fall asleep with the same tricks as anyone else’s baby. In order to survive this parenting experience, I have had to embrace expecting the unexpected. Every story and word of advice I hear, I have to take with a grain of salt, not because it might be wrong, but because it might not apply to Shalom, my specific child.

With a child who loves to be held, screams bloody murder every time he’s hungry, and doesn’t take regular naps, I have also started to think differently about time. I can no longer go to the grocery store whenever I want, type or cook with two hands at any hour a day, or expect that I will get anywhere close to on time. I have started shifting my perspective about what used to be my Talmudic mantra for time management: “Anyone who pushes time, time pushes her, and anyone who allows time to push her, time stands for her” (Eruvin 13b). Every moment becomes precious; whatever I choose to do at a particular time needs to be intentional. When I have time to practice yoga for even fifteen minutes, I embrace gratitude; and when Shalom demands to be held, I remind myself that I will only have a child who enjoys cuddles for so long, and I lean in.

While I have always known about the sacred nature of the human body, I have never before cheered at the sound of a burp or a fart. I have never before been so comfortable with and aware of bodily fluids. A decade ago, while learning the third chapter of Masekhet B’rakhot, I was bored with the pages of text about how far one could stand for the Amidah from different types of waste. I did not understand why I should care about whether I could say the Sh’ma in the presence of certain bodily fluids. Why, my friends and I wondered, was any of this included in one of our holiest texts? Now, as I weigh which prayers to say and texts to study while caring for this living, breathing, pooping machine, I marvel at the intricacies of the human body and its waste. A dirty diaper means a happy, healthy child, and with that, happy, healthy parents. The blessing we say after using the toilet makes all the more sense. Those holes and crevices, n’kavim n’kavim halulim halulim, are sacred enough that if any one of them were not working properly, we would not be able to stand in front of God; this child would not be able to grow and learn properly without those simple bodily functions. We are each made in the image of God, holes, fluids, and all.

As I write this currently, I am only able to type with two hands because Shalom is on his changing table, smiling and laughing at the black-and-white mobile rotating above him. He embodies that wonder that the babies must have felt while crossing the Sea of Reeds, with shiny water and lots of different people all around them. More than anything else, this experience of parenting has brought out a new sense of wonder in God’s Creation. As Shalom explores the intricacies of different patterns, sounds, colors, and textures, I gain a new appreciation for the complexity of this world God has Created. When Shalom demands cuddles, I am reminded of my human need for touch and comfort, as well. From Shalom and the babies crossing the Sea of Reeds, I learn the marvel of the moment, of shared experience, and of our unique, beautiful human bodies. And I pray that Shalom can continue enjoying the world around him with half the wonder he experiences now. 

Mi khamokha ba’eilim Adonai. Mi kamokha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh! Who is like you among the gods, Adonai, who is like you, wondrous in holiness, awesome and praiseworthy, working wonders!

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784