Thursday, February 24, 2005

Ki Tisa

The morning of erev Rosh Hashanah of my second year of rabbinical school, I realized around 11 o’clock that I had no challot. Hoping that I would manage to make it down the mountain into Los Angles in time to buy some before the bakeries closed for the holiday, I decided to go the shorter way, down the canyon roads into LA. It’s actually a much prettier drive, so I was enjoying the ride as I followed the road past a curve, with the mountain going up beside me to my right, and dropping off into the San Fernando Valley past the other lane to my left.
The first moment when my car skidded, I thought I was just going too fast on Mulholland Drive, which is very curvy, although I’m not prone to that, especially not on mountain roads. But then when I started fishtailing on a perfectly dry road, I realized something was wrong with my car. Still, I wasn’t particularly worried until I saw the car oncoming the other way, and realized that I would have to get control of the car very quickly if I was to avoid hitting the other car.
The problem was that my steering wheel had stopped responding. I could turn it, but nothing happened. I felt only a few seconds of relief when I realized the other car had stopped in time to avoid me. Then I realized that I had somehow turned the car enough that it was going to go head first down the mountain. I had only enough time to think, I’m going to die, I hope it doesn’t hurt, as my car went over the side. I watched as I went over the side. I dropped only a hundred yards or so when I hit a tree head on, and this turned the car enough to the side that when it flipped over, it went over around the side, and not head over tail, and so that after a few rolls, it eventually came to a stop halfway down the mountain, caught on some scrub.
I found, to my amazement, that I was still alive, and conscious, and that the car had stopped. The windshield wipers had somehow come on. As I tuned them off, I was glad that I had been wearing my seatbelt. And then I thought, I’d better get out of the car, what if the weight of the car pulls it off the bush and it keeps falling the rest of the way. So I tried to open the door. It wouldn’t open - it turns out that rolling the car had bent the frame so that the front doors had been pushed behind the frame and stuck shut. So I thought for a minute and rolled down the window. I was very glad they were manual windows. I got the window open, and wiggled out, hoping that the car wouldn’t choose that moment to fall further. It didn’t.
Then I realized that I still had to get back up to the road. I looked up the side of the mountain, and thought. Well. I guess I‘d better get started, it’s along walk home. As I pulled myself up tree by scrub to the road, I saw that the woman I had narrowly avoided hitting was sitting by the side of the road with a cell phone. I walked over and asked her if I could use her phone. Yaaaah!!! She yelled. I almost collapsed on the spot. What!!???
She said, I saw your car go over and I thought you were dead. I was calling an ambulance. Apparently she didn’t expect to see me, and I had startled her.
The ambulance never did show up, but a fire truck came with a paramedic, who took my blood pressure and gave me a cursory once over to make sure I didn’t need to be hospitalized. Since I couldn’t reach anyone on erev Rosh Hashanah (by this time it was a good bit later) the firemen gallantly offered to take me home, even though technically they weren’t supposed to, since I was on their way. If I’d been say, five, I would have been more pleased about the ride in the fire truck, but as it was, I was grateful enough.
When I got back to the campus of the seminary (which was where I was living at the time) I went and pretty much collapsed on one of my neighbors. When, later on, people heard about my little escapade there was a lot of “Wow, did you feel like the hand of God was with you?” and I have to admit, I answered rather snappishly that if God had had anything to do with it, at least God could have had the courtesy to prevent my wheel bearing from snapping, rather than sending me careening down a mountain.
But nevertheless, one of the things that I began doing after that day was to start saying the blessing every morning, “asher yatzar et ha’adam b’chochma” traditionally the blessing one says after going to the bathroom, that thanks God for creating our bodies exactly as they are, for if one hole was open where it ought not to be, or one hole closed where it should be open, we wouldn’t be able to survive even a moment.
Now you would think, that an experience like that would make an indelible mark on a person. Maybe change them forever. And that brings me to today’s Torah portion.

It is as astonishing to many of the rabbis as it is to us that so soon after the incredible miracles, and the grandeur of the Sinai revelation, Israel would create a golden calf. The language of many commentators reflects the absolute astonishment that we feel when we read this section of the Torah.
Our portion this week tells us: (Shmot 32:1):

“Arise and make for us elohim that they will go before us, since this man Moshe who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

But the Torah makes pretty clear that such a thing is imaginable. The great commentator Nehama Leibowitz points out that “If you look in the first book of Kings (chapter 18) where the story of Elijah’s duel with the false prophets on Mt. Carmel is described, we find a parallel to the story of the Golden calf…The Israelites who had seen fire descending from heaven in answer to the prophet’s prayer and who had fervently proclaimed; “The Lord He is God” (the declaration made by the Jewish people at the most solemn moment of the year at the termination of Yom Kippur), those same individuals repudiated [God’s] message [the next day], persecuted the true prophets, broke down their altars and reverted to their previous idolatry. Elijah, the hero of Mt Carmel was forced to flee for his life to Mt. Sinai and hide in the desert.”

Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed refers to the ‘inevitability of gradualness’ which must distinguish any lasting transformation in human character. He says that the reason that the children of Israel had to wander forty years in the desert is for this very reason: He says, “It is not in the nature of humans, reared in slavery, in bricks and straw and the like, to wash their hands of their dirt and suddenly rise up and fight with the giants of Canaan. God in His wisdom contrived that the wander in the wilderness until they had become schooled in courage, since it is well known that physical hardships toughen and the converse produce faintheartedness. A new generation was born which had not been accustomed to slavery and degradation.”

Of course, this explanation begs the question of what slavery was –was not slavery hard labor, as described in the Torah? And if it was hard labor, shouldn’t it have produced the courage that Maimonides claims for physical toughness?
Rather, I want to suggest that it’s not physical toughness and courage that are the problem. In fact, courage is the least of it. The problem is one of miracles. Judaism has never been religion big on miracles, and partly this is the reason why: sudden crisis doesn’t really change people.
There are lots of stories about the deathbed conversion and the sudden change of heart ascribed to miracles in other religions, but Judaism doesn’t really get very interested in miracles. Or at least not in the kind of thing that we usually think of as miracles.
If you look at the blessing that we say in the morning just before we read the Shma, you may notice something a little strange. This blessing, which praises God as adon haniflaot – lord of wonders- doesn’t follow this description with say, the “God who tore the sea apart,” or “the god who caused the burning bush,” but rather, it says, “Lord of wonders, who day after day renews creation.” Judaism doesn’t deny that there are miracles, it does however, want to remind us that miracles are not those things which upend the order of creation: miracles are usually much more prosaic. They happen every day, every moment. The are the miracles of new life, of the earth revolving on its axis, the fact that we’re exactly the right distance from the sun to support life, neither too close and hot to the sun, nor too far and distant.
I want to have a bit of sympathy for the Israelites. As Maimonides reminds us, they had been slaves in Egypt and were unaccustomed to freedom. And the problem with that isn’t that they weren’t brave enough. Rather the problem is a problem of habit. Way back at the beginning of the book of Shmot, Maimonides explains the phrase of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart that “When the Torah recounts the first five plagues, it does not say that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart - only that it was hardened, meaning that he did it himself.” Each repetition of Pharaoh's persistent obstinacy made it less likely that he would eventually listen to the word of God. That is, we are creatures of habit. The first time we do something unethical, our conscience bothers us, but each time we repeat it, our conscience grows quieter and fainter, until it ceases to speak. The reverse is true as well. It’s difficult to do the right thing the first time. But each time we repeat it, it becomes easier and easier, until it becomes habit. The Israelites were like pharaoh in that way, as we all are: they were accustomed to behaving a certain way, and a few miracles aren’t enough to change that habit.
That brings me back to the story I began with. I think I mentioned that as a result of the car accident, I was moved to begin saying the asher yatzar blessing every morning. And I did, very regularly, at least for a few months. And then I missed a day. I was late that morning getting up, maybe, and had to hurry to minyan, and catch up to where everyone was. And then maybe another morning, and another. And after a while, I wasn’t really any more regular about it, than I had been beforehand. I mean, it’s a great blessing, and I still said it at the other usual times, but I wasn’t so meditative about it in the morning. It stopped being a moment for me that I stopped to think about how fortunate I was in surviving what could have been a really terrible accident instead of just a totaled car. I didn’t feel lucky to have survived every morning. I stopped having the persistent feeling that I was really dead, and just didn’t realize it yet. The fading of awe is in many ways a blessing. Who wants to have all the worst moments of their lives always fresh in their minds even if it also means that the best moments are, too?
And the rabbis recognized this about human nature. “Miracles, however awe-inspiring cannot change human nature. The can only temporarily shake the human soul out of its every day concepts, but they cannot effect a lasting transformation.” (Nehama Leibowitz). The rabbis realized that we are all embedded in our daily habits, and that those habits create us. That’s why Judaism emphasizes behavior and not so much belief. As Jews, we are obligated to accept the yoke of heaven and the yoke of mitzvot: the rabbis understand that to be what the sh’ma is: (We first accept God’s sovereignty by saying the paragraph that begins Shema yisrael adonai elohainu adonai echad, and then we follow it with the paragraph which begins with v’haya im sh’moa, which the rabbis understand as our accepting the yoke, the obligation of mitzvot). We repeat this every day to remind ourselves of our obligations. Even just getting so far as saying the shma twice a day is a dedication to task that we don’t all make. But it’s the beginning of molding our behavior, it’s a first step. The next step is actually adding mitzvot. We often feel that we ought to feel something when we do mitzvot. We ought to get some kind of feel good reward, or at least draw a salary. But that’s not how it works. You have to develop the habits first. They have to become part of you. It’s when you have added enough pieces that the system as a whole begins to take root in you that there’s a spiritual payoff. Sometimes. As my rav Elliott Dorff says, even professional players don’t hit a home run every time.
The Israelites are only human. Raised in slavery, they are slaves no longer to pharaoh, but they remain enslaved to themselves. They haven’t yet shaken off the habits of their desires, the chains of their minds. To paraphrase George Clinton of Funkadelic, “Free your mind and your tush will follow.” Today, I don’t recite asher yatzar because of the feeling I have at surviving the accident pushes me to do it. It took an assertion of my will to begin again saying this blessing every morning: instead, I say the blessing to remind me that I should feel grateful, whether I do or not. And often in invoking the words that at one point were so full of feelings, I can arouse those feelings again, and experience the awe of the commonplace. Not that God put out Her hand and swept me up in a miracle counter to nature, but the miracle of human safety devices, a one-piece frame, and thanks that olam noheg k’minhago – the world goes according to natural law – the everyday miracles of habit, like putting on a seatbelt.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Mommy Madness and Slacker Mom

These articles from Newsweek don't go quite far enough. We're now living in a world that has rolled back many of the gains tht feminists made in the 70's. Women are now, once again, responsible for being June Cleaver but more so. We no longer have the guts to call our society and government to account for inventing new ways to keep us in the kitchen and the home, and then set those working at home against those working out of the home by confusing us about whom to blame. Why aren't more dads working shorter hours and doing more child care? Why isn't there decent day care; and why do working hourse keep getting longer and longer? Why don't we all have decent health care, so that we don't hve to work insane hours to make sure that our families won't be on the street if one of us gets even a somewhat serious illness? It's not a mystery. And it's not true that women want to go back to the home. Women are returning to the home because our government is chipping away at us, until we realize we really can't do everything. And so we end up blaming ourselves for choices that were made for us.
Subject: Newsweek: Mommy Madness, part I

Judith Warner, Author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety"

Back in the days when I was a Good Mommy, I tried to do everything right. I breast-fed and co-slept, and responded to each and every cry with anxious alacrity. I awoke with my daughter at 6:30 AM and, eschewing TV, curled up on the couch with a stack of books that I could recite in my sleep. I did this, in fact, many times, jerking myself back awake as the clock rounded 6:45 and the words of Curious George started to merge with my dreams. Was I crazy? No—I was a committed mother, eager to do right by my child and well-versed in the child care teachings of the day. I was proud of the fact that I could get in three full hours of high-intensity parenting before I left for work; prouder still that, when I came home in the evening, I could count on at least three more similarly intense hours to follow. It didn't matter that, in my day job as a stringer for this magazine, I was often falling asleep at my desk. Nor that I'd lost the ability to write a coherent sentence. My brain might have been fried, but my baby's was thriving. I'd seen the proof of that everywhere—in the NEWSWEEKlies and the New York Times, on TV, even in the official statements that issued forth from the White House, where First Lady Hillary Clinton herself had endorsed "singing, playing games, reading, storytelling, just talking and listening" as the best ways to enhance a child's development.All around me, the expert advice on baby care, whether it came from the What to Expect booksor the legions of "specialists" hawking videos, computer software, smart baby toys or audiotapes to advance brain development, was unanimous: Read! Talk! Sing! And so I talked and I read and I sang and made up stories and did funny voices and narrated car rides ... until one day, when my daughter was about four, I realized that I had turned into a human television set, so filled with 24-hour children's programming that I had no thoughts left of my own.And when I started listeningto the sounds of the Mommy chatter all around me in the playgrounds and playgroups of Washington, D.C.—the shouts of "Good job!," the interventions and facilitations ("What that lady is saying is, she would really prefer you not empty your bucket of sand over her little boy's head. Is that okay with you, honey?")—I realized that I was hardly alone.Once my daughters began school, I was surrounded, it seemed, by women who had surrendered their better selves—and their sanity—to motherhood. Women who pulled all-nighters hand-painting paper plates for a class party. Who obsessed over the most minute details of playground politics. Who—like myself—appeared to be sleep-walking through life in a state of quiet panic.Some of the mothers appeared to have lost nearly all sense of themselves as adult women. They dressed in kids' clothes—overall shorts and go-anywhere sandals. They ate kids' foods. They were so depleted by the affection and care they lavished upon their small children that they had no energy left, not just for sex, but for feeling like a sexual being. "That part of my life is completely dead," a working mother of two told me. "I don't even miss it. It feels like it belongs to another life. Like I was another person."It all reminded me a lot of Betty Friedan's 1963 classic, The Feminine Mystique. The diffuse dissatisfaction. The angst, hidden behind all the obsession with trivia, and the push to be perfect. The way so many women constantly looked over their shoulders to make sure that no one was outdoing them in the performance of good Mommyhood. And the tendency—every bit as pronounced among my peers as it had been for the women Friedan interviewed—to blame themselves for their problems. There was something new, too: the tendency many women had to feel threatened by other women and to judge them harshly—nowhere more evident than on Urbanbaby and other, similarly "supportive" web sites. Can I take my 17-month-old to the Winnie the Pooh movie?, one mom queried recently. "WAY tooooo young," came one response.I read that 70 percent of American moms say they find motherhood today "incredibly stressful." Thirty percent of mothers of young children reportedly suffer from depression. Nine hundred and nine women in Texas recently told researchers they find taking care of their kids about as much fun as cleaning their house, slightly less pleasurable than cooking, and a whole lot less enjoyable than watching TV.And I wondered: Why do so many otherwise competent and self-aware women lose themselves when they become mothers? Why do so many of us feel so out of control? And—the biggest question of all—why has this generation of mothers, arguably the most liberated and privileged group of women America has ever seen, driven themselves crazy in the quest for perfect mommy-dom?I started speaking with women from all over the country, about 150 in all. And I found that the craziness I saw in my own city was nothing less than a nationwide epidemic. Women from Idaho to Oklahoma City to the suburbs of Boston—in middle and upper middle class enclaves where there was time and money to spend—told me of lives spent shuttling back and forth to more and more absurd-seeming, high-pressured, time-demanding, utterly exhausting kids' activities. I heard of whole towns turning out for a spot in the right ballet class; of communities where the competition for the best camps, the best coaches and the best piano teachers rivaled that for admission to the best private schools and colleges. Women told me of their exhaustion and depression, and of their frustrations with the "uselessness" of their husbands. They said they wished their lives could change. But they had no idea of how to make that happen. I began to record their impressions and reflections, and wove them into a book, which I named, in honor of the sentiment that seemed to animate so many of us, Perfect Madness.I think of "us" as the first post-baby boom generation, girls born between 1958 and the early 1970s, who came of age politically in the Carter, Reagan and Bush I years. We are, in many ways, a blessed group. Most of the major battles of the women's movement were fought—and won—in our early childhood. Unlike the baby boomers before us, who protested and marched and shouted their way from college into adulthood, we were a strikingly apolitical group, way more caught up in our own self-perfection as we came of age, than in working to create a more perfect world. Good daughters of the Reagan Revolution, we disdained social activism and cultivated our own gardens with a kind of muscle-bound, tightly wound, über-achieving, all-encompassing, never-failing self-control that passed, in the 1980s, for female empowerment. We saw ourselves as winners. We'd been bred, from the earliest age, for competition. Our schools had given us co-ed gym and wood-working shop, and had told us never to let the boys drown out our voices in class. Often enough, we'd done better than they had in school. Even in science and math. And our passage into adulthood was marked by growing numbers of women in the professions. We believed that we could climb as high as we wanted to go, and would grow into the adults we dreamed we could be. Other outcomes—like the chance that children wouldn't quite fit into this picture—never even entered our minds.Why should they have? Back then, when our sense of our potential as women was being formed, there was a general feeling of optimism. Even the most traditional women's magazines throughout the 1980s taught that the future for up-and-coming mothers was bright: The new generation of fathers would help. Good babysitting could be found. Work and motherhood could be balanced. It was all a question of intelligent "juggling." And of not falling prey to the trap of self-sacrifice and perfectionism that had driven so many mothers crazy in the past.But something happened then, as the 1990s advanced, and the Girls Who Could Have Done Anything grew up into women who found, as the millennium turned, that they couldn't quite ... get it together, or get beyond the stuck feeling that had somehow lodged in their minds.Life happened. We became mothers. and found, when we set out to "balance" our lives—and in particular to balance some semblance of the girls and women we had been against the mothers we'd become—that there was no way to make this most basic of "balancing acts" work. Life was hard. It was stressful. It was expensive. Jobs—and children—were demanding. And the ambitious form of motherhood most of us wanted to practice was utterly incompatible with any kind of outside work, or friendship, or life, generally.One woman I interviewed was literally struck dumb as she tried to articulate the quandary she was in. She wasn't a woman who normally lacked for words. She was a newspaper editor, with a husband whose steady income allowed her many choices. In the hope of finding "balance," she'd chosen to work part-time and at night in order to spend as much time as possible with her nine-year-old daughter. But somehow, nothing had worked out as planned. Working nights meant that she was tired all the time, and cranky, and stressed. And forever annoyed with her husband. And now her daughter was after her to get a day job. It seemed that having Mom around most of the time wasn't all it was cracked up to be, particularly if Mom was forever on the edge.The woman waved her hands in circles, helplessly. "What I'm trying to figure out—" she paused. "What I'm trying to remember ... Is how I ended up raising this princess ... How I got into ... How to get out of ... this, this, this, this mess."Most of us in this generation grew up believing that we had fantastic, unlimited, freedom of choice. Yet as mothers many women face "choices" on the order of: You can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate child care. Or: You can stay at home with your baby and live in a state of virtual, crazy-making isolation because you can't afford a nanny, because there is no such thing as part-time day care, and because your husband doesn't come home until 8:30 at night. These are choices that don't feel like choices at all. They are the harsh realities of family life in a culture that has no structures in place to allow women—and men—to balance work and child-rearing. But most women in our generation don't think to look beyond themselves at the constraints that keep them from being able to make real choices as mothers. It almost never occurs to them that they can use the muscle of their superb education or their collective voice to change or rearrange their social support system. They simply don't have the political reflex—or the vocabulary—to think of things in this way. They've been bred to be independent and self-sufficient. To rely on their own initiative and "personal responsibility." To privatize their problems. And so, they don't get fired up about our country's lack of affordable, top-quality child care. (In many parts of the country, decent child care costs more than state college tuition, and the quality of the care that most families can afford is abysmal.) Nor about the fact that middle class life is now so damn expensive that in most families both parents must work gruelingly long hours just to make ends meet. (With fathers averaging 51 hours per week and mothers clocking in at an average of 41, the U.S. workweek is now the longest in the world.) Nor about the fact that in many districts the public schools are so bad that you can't, if you want your child to be reasonably well-educated, sit back and simply let the teachers do their jobs, and must instead supplement the school day with a panoply of expensive and inconvenient "activities" so that your kid will have some exposure to music, art and sports.Instead of blaming society, moms today tend to blame themselves. They say they've chosen poorly. And so they take on the Herculean task of being absolutely everything to their children, simply because no one else is doing anything at all to help them. Because if they don't perform magical acts of perfect Mommy ministrations, their kids might fall through the cracks and end up as losers in our hard-driving winner-take-all society.This has to change.We now have a situation where well-off women can choose how to live their lives—either outsourcing child care at a sufficiently high level of quality to permit them to work with relative peace of mind or staying at home. But no one else, really, has anything. Many, many women would like to stay home with their children and can't afford to do so. Many, many others would like to be able to work part-time but can't afford or find the way to do so. Many others would like to be able to maintain their full-time careers without either being devoured by their jobs or losing ground, and they can't do that. And there is no hope at all for any of these women on the horizon.Some of us may feel empowered by the challenge of taking it all on, being the best, as Tea Leoni's "Spanglish" character did on her uphill morning run, but really, this perfectionism is not empowerment. It's more like what some psychologists call "learned helplessness"—an instinctive giving-up in the face of difficulty that people do when they think they have no real power. At base, it's a kind of despair. A lack of faith that change can come to the outside world. A lack of belief in our political culture or our institutions.It really needs to change.For while many women can and do manage to accept (or at least adjust to) this situation for themselves, there's a twinge of real sadness that comes out when they talk about their daughters. As a forty-something mother living and working part-time in Washington, D.C. (and spending a disproportionate amount of her time managing the details of her daughter's—and her husband's—life), mused one evening to me, "I look at my daughter and I just want to know: what happened? Because look at us: it's 2002 and nothing's changed. My mother expected my life to be very different from hers, but now it's a lot more like hers than I expected, and from here I don't see where it will be different for my daughter. I don't want her to carry this crushing burden that's in our heads ... [But] what can make things different?"

For real change to happen, we don't need more politicians sounding off about "family values." Neither do we need to pat the backs of working mothers, or "reward" moms who stay at home, or "valorize" motherhood, generally, by acknowledging that it's "the toughest job in the world." We need solutions—politically palatable, economically feasible, home-grown American solutions—that can, collectively, give mothers and families a break.We need incentives like tax subsidies to encourage corporations to adopt family-friendly policies.We need government-mandated child care standards and quality controls that can remove the fear and dread many working mothers feel when they leave their children with others.We need flexible, affordable, locally available, high-quality part-time day care so that stay-at-home moms can get a life of their own. This shouldn't, these days, be such a pipe dream. After all, in his State of the Union message, President Bush reaffirmed his support of (which, one assumes, includes support of funding for) "faith-based and community groups." I lived in France before moving to Washington, and there, my elder daughter attended two wonderful, affordable, top-quality part-time pre-schools, which were essentially meant to give stay-at-home moms a helping hand. One was run by a neighborhood co-op and the other by a Catholic organization. Government subsidies kept tuition rates low. A sliding scale of fees brought some diversity. Government standards meant that the staffers were all trained in the proper care of young children. My then 18-month-old daughter painted and heard stories and ate cookies for the sum total in fees of about $150 a month. (This solution may be French—but do we have to bash it?)We need new initiatives to make it possible for mothers to work part-time (something most mothers say they want to do) by creating vouchers or bigger tax credits to make child care more affordable, by making health insurance available and affordable for part-time workers and by generally making life less expensive and stressful for middle-class families so that mothers (and fathers) could work less without risking their children's financial future. Or even, if they felt the need, could stay home with their children for a while.In general, we need to alleviate the economic pressures that currently make so many families' lives so high-pressured, through progressive tax policies that would transfer our nation's wealth back to the middle class. So that mothers and fathers could stop running like lunatics, and start spending real quality—and quantity—time with their children. And so that motherhood could stop being the awful burden it is for so many women today and instead become something more like a joy.

Message: 2
Subject: Newsweek: Mommy Madness, Part II

Women today mother in the excessive, control-freakish way that they do in part because they are psychologically conditioned to do so. But they also do it because, to a large extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility—for children, for families, for anyone, really—and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they can't, humanly, take everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts.I see this all the time. It never seems to stop. So that, as I write this, I have an image fresh in my mind: the face of a friend, the mother of a first-grader, who I ran into one morning right before Christmas.She was in the midst of organizing a class party. This meant shopping. Color-coordinating paper goods. Piecework, pre-gluing of arts-and-crafts projects. Uniformity of felt textures. Of buttons and beads. There were the phone calls, too. From other parents. With criticism and "constructive" comments that had her up at night, playing over conversations in her mind. "I can't take it anymore," she said to me. "I hate everyone and everything. I am going insane."I looked at her face, saw her eyes fill with tears, and in that instant saw the faces of dozens of women I'd met—and, of course, I saw myself.And I was reminded of the words of a French doctor I'd once seen. I'd come to him about headaches. They were violent. They were constant. And they would prove, over the next few years, to be chronic. He wrote me a prescription for a painkiller. But he looked skeptical as to whether it would really do me much good. "If you keep banging your head against the wall," he said, "you're going to have headaches." I have thought of these words so many times since then. I have seen so many mothers banging their heads against a wall. And treating their pain—the chronic headache of their lives—with sleeping pills and antidepressants and anxiety meds and a more and more potent, more and more vicious self-and-other-attacking form of anxious perfectionism. And I hope that somehow we will all find a way to stop. Because we are not doing ourselves any good. We are not doing our children—particularly our daughters—any good. We're not doing our marriages any good. And we're doing nothing at all for our society.We are simply beating ourselves black and blue. So let's take a breather. Throw out the schedules, turn off the cell phone, cancel the tutors (fire the OT!). Let's spend some real quality time with our families, just talking, hanging out, not doing anything for once. And let ourselves be.© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Message: 3 Date: Mon, 14 Feb 2005 01:40:07 -0000
Subject: Newsweek: Slacker mom
By Peg Tyre
Newsweek Feb. 13 - You won't catch Muffy Mead-Ferro at a toddler fitness class. When it comes to enriching after-school activities, she's not ferrying her kids to traveling soccer or French lessons either. She lets them amuse themselves in a mud puddle in the backyard instead. This Salt Lake City mother of two says she isn't feeling a shard of guilt about her choices. "We've raised the bar too high on parenting," she says, "And squeezed out all the fun. Someone has to say, `Stop the Madness'." Last spring, Mead-Ferro published her manifesto, "Confessions of a Slacker Mom," which called on women everywhere to park the mini-van, bow out of the childrearing sweepstake and lighten up. With Confessions of a Slacker Wife (due out from DaCapo in April) she's trying to bring some downtime to domestic life, too.The problem, as Mead-Ferro sees it, is that too many well-heeled, well-educated and otherwise sensible women are driving themselves and each other crazy. After years of competing in the work force, they're mistakenly bringing the same zeal to child rearing and housekeeping as they did to their jobs. Domestic standards popularized by women's magazines and Madison Avenue, she argues, have gotten too high. It's not enough to keep crumbs off the kitchen counters, these days you have to keep the counters bacteria free. "And you can't just make a lemon pie like June Cleaver," she says. "These days you have to use Meyer lemons."Mead-Ferro began searching for a better way seven years ago when she began her own family and found that her work life (she was a successful advertising copywriter) didn't jibe with the idealized home life she thought she wanted. Instead of recreating herself as Supermom and Domestic Goddess, Mead-Ferro opted to become a woman like her own late mother, who raised three kids while running the haying machine and branding cattle on the family's sprawling cattle ranch in Wyoming. "The floors weren't spotless. Dinner wasn't fancy," she says. "My mother just didn't have the time, the focus or the inclination to put on that kind of show."Mead-Ferro decided to keep her job and, ignoring all conventional wisdom, simply lowered her standards. She chucked out the books on intensive parenting along with the anti-bacterial soap. She hired babysitters and used local day care. She chose her kids' pre-school based on which one was closer to her house. She refused to buy electronic toys—even the ones touted as "educational." As her children Belle, now 7 and Joe, now 5, get older, she isn't offering them a smorgasbord of activities but is letting them discover ways to keep themselves entertained. She whittled down the time she spends on housework and has given her kids chores. She also began reclaiming time for herself—what she calls the ultimate Supermom taboo. "A lot of woman call it selfish unless you're constantly putting your kids' needs first," she says. "But I think that's just bogus." Her children are thriving. Will denying them traveling soccer foreclose on their chances of getting an athletic scholarship to a prestigious college someday? Maybe, she concedes. But she's schooling them for a broader kind of success. She wants her kids to tolerate frustration and setbacks, to be self-reliant and conscious of the needs of others, and above all to grow up to think for themselves. "Maybe they'll initially feel deprived," she says, but it's a risk she's willing to take. If it turns out that she's right, then maybe a slacker mom will be the best kind of mom to have, after all.© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Friday, February 11, 2005


The opening verse of this week's portion, tetzaveh, commands:
ë åÀàÇúÌÈä úÌÀöÇåÌÆä àÆúÎáÌÀðÅé éÄùÀÉøÈàÅì åÀéÄ÷ÀçåÌ àÅìÆéêÈ ùÑÆîÆï æÇéÄú æÈêÀ ëÌÈúÄéú ìÇîÌÈàåÉø ìÀäÇÍòÂìÉú ðÅø úÌÈîÄÍéã:
Shmot 27:20
And you shall command the people of Israel, that they bring you pure beaten oil olive for the light, for the lamp to burn always.
The midrash (beresheit rabbah 36:1) connects this opening line of the portion with a verse from Jeremiah (11:16) The Lord named you, A green olive tree, fair, full of beautiful fruit.
æÇéÄú øÇÍòÂðÈï éÀôÅä ôÀøÄéÎúÉàÇø ÷ÈøÈà éÀäÉåÈä ùÑÀîÅêÀ
The Sfat Emet comments, Israel is an olive tree, whose fruit brings forth oil for light, but do you know how difficult it is to get oil from the olive? It must be crushed, with great labor. And for the Temple, only the purest presing will do.
It's not easy to create light. Even just for oil to burn, it must be touched by flame. Proverbs (6:23) states, For the commandment is a candle, and Torah is light, and the way to life is the rebuke that disciplines.
ëÌÄé ðÅø îÄöÀåÈä åÀúåÉøÈä àåÉø åÀãÆøÆêÀ çÇéÌÄéí úÌÍåÉëÀçåÉú îåÌñÈÍø:
The rabbis of the talmud often refer to rabbincal scholars and students as öåøáà îøáðï , öåÉøÅá means "on fire" or "scorched". So when the rabbis refer to their colleagues as öåøáà îøáðï, they are saying that they are on fire from their teachers. living amongst people who make Torah the center of their lives lights the scholars on fire like a flame touching oil.
The talmud says, (ta'anit 4a) If a young scholar boils, it is because the Torah inflames him, as the Torah says, Is not my word like fire? said the Lord.(Jeremiah 23)
äàé öåøáà îøáðï ãøúç Î àåøééúà äåà ã÷à îøúçà ìéä, ùðàîø )éøîéäå ë"â( äìåà ëä ãáøé ëàù ðàí ä'.
öåÉøÅá is when we make of ourselves a candle from our passion for God. The Talmud also adds to this, (Chagigah 27a) that the Scholars, their whole body is fire, for the Torah writes: Is not My word like as fire? says the Lord
úìîéãé çëîéí, ùëì âåôï àù, ãëúéá )éøîéäå ë"â( äìåà ëä ãáøé ëàù ðàí ä' Î
God's word is fire that we take within us to make of ourselves an eternally burning light. The Sufi mystic al-kalabadhi describes the phenomenon of cleaving to God in terms the rabbis understand well, "He is burnt who feels the fire, but who is the fire, how shall he be burnt?"
Like the talmud, the al-kalabadhi reminds us that love, passion, is not a calm emotion. It makes our entire being into a burning flame, a flame that is able to join with the flame of the Great Love. In directing our passion to only the Great Beloved Friend, we fulfil the verse that appears later in our portion:
Shemot 29: 41. You will offer a sweet scent, an offering by fire to the Lord.
42. This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord; where I will meet you, to speak there to you.
úÌÇÍòÂùÆÉäÎìÌÈäÌ ìÀøÅéçÇ ðÄéçÉçÇ àÄùÌÑÆä ìÇÍéäåÉÈÍä: îá òÉìÇú úÌÈîÄéã ìÀãÉøÉúÅéëÆí ôÌÆúÇç àÍÉäÆìÎîåÉòÅã ìÄôÀðÅé éÀäåÉÈä àÂùÑÆø àÄåÌÈòÅã ìÈëÆí ùÑÈîÌÈä ìÀãÇáÌÅø àÅìÆéêÈ ùÑÈÍí
Close your eyes for a moment (I know that's dangerous this time of night, but just for a moment). Imagine in front of you what I'm describing: The oil pressed from the olive tree of Israel, the olives pressed by the weight of passionate love for God, flowing pure and golden, and lit by the candle of commandment and the light of Torah. The flame shines on the golden flow of oil as it burns; we leap up bright, pure and holy, ready to join with the great hot flame of our Beloved Friend.
Who is the fire, how shall he be burnt? Rather, we are not burnt, but become part of the great Light, an offering made by fire, made of fire, to God, an offering of one's deepest passion. It is a continual burnt offering to God... and so God says to us, "I will meet you, to speak to you there."
Open your eyes now. Here before you burns the candle of mitzvah: the candles of shabbat. Shabbat is our love song for God. It is the moment of the week in which we have the opportunity to be öåøá, on fire for God. We start shabbat with a flame, and end it with a torch, a three-wicked candle of havdalah. The rest of the week, it 's often difficult to live as thought God were our great passion, our Beloved Friend. But on shabat, there is nothing else to do. We are obligated to stop everything else, and simply burn, a holy flame, to leap up in joy and join the great pure flame of God's love. And if we are able to do this, then as our portion tells us, we will "be a continual burnt offering throughout [our] generations... where [God} will meet [us] there."
May we all be inspired by the flames of Shabat, to make God our great love. May we live shabbat with passion, purity and holiness.