Excerpt from Blessings and Baby Steps
Sleepless Nights: Transience and Memory
Other than labor, the most difficult part of raising children for me has been sleep deprivation. I love to sleep and need a great deal of rest to function and enjoy life. In college, while my classmates pulled all-nighters, I avoided taking morning classes and routinely slept ten to twelve hours a night. My children did not inherit their mother’s love of sleep. My son did not sleep through the night consistently until he was four years old, and at eighteen months my daughter still didn’t sleep more than a few hours in a row. (Expecting and new parents: don’t worry. I’m sure your kids will be much better than mine!)
When my son was an infant, congregants and other parents of older children told me: “Enjoy this time; it goes by fast.” I wondered what they were talking about. For me, time had ground to a screeching halt. Each day felt like an eternity. I wondered when time would speed up or what secret these other parents knew that I was missing.
A tale is told about King Solomon, the builder of the First Temple, who was known for his wisdom and who was often sad. He turned to his trusted servant and said: “Benaiah, there is a certain ring I want you to bring me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot, which gives you six months to find it.”
“If it exists anywhere on earth, Your Majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I’ll find it and bring it to you. But what makes the ring so special?”
“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.”
Spring passed and then summer, and Benaiah still had no idea where to find the ring. Early in the morning on the eve of Sukkot, he went for a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by an old merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet.
“Have you, by any chance, heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the brokenhearted forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.
The merchant took a plain gold ring from the carpet and engraved something on it. When Benaiah read the inscription, he smiled.
That night, the entire city welcomed the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.
“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?”
To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small ring and declared, “Here it is, Your Majesty!” The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimmel, zayin, yud, which are the initials for the words “Gam zeh ya’avor” (This, too, shall pass).
At the hospital, along with identification bracelets, perhaps nurses should give out bracelets to new parents saying Gam zeh ya’avor. In Israel today there is a common expression: “Ad lachatunah zeh ya’avor” (“Before the wedding, this will pass). In countless moments of frustration, my husband (who grew up in Israel) and I reassured each other with this expression. When one of the kids threw a temper tantrum or spilled food all over the floor, whichever one of us still had our composure would turn to the other and say: “Ad lachatunah zeh ya’avor.” Each stage of a child’s development has challenges that we wish would pass quickly.
Yet from the chubby baby face and toothless smile to the innocent glee of the child on the playground, each stage has treasures that we wish would never end. Remembering that this, too, will pass can help us cherish the good times and persevere through difficulties. Whereas God is eternal, the rest of us are limited by time. Children change so rapidly that a baby becomes a toddler in just one year. As a result, parenthood makes us more acutely aware of time’s passage, the transience of life, and our helplessness before it. Children assure us immortality by allowing our values to continue into future generations—yet kids simultaneously make us more cognizant of our mortality.
The awareness of time’s passage explains why fathers and especially mothers often cry inexplicably at moments of joy. I felt the tears well up when I submitted the preschool application for my daughter, and my mother-in-law, Maya, cried profusely at the wedding of her youngest son. When sixteen-yearold Shawn Johnson won the gold medal on the balance beam in the 2008 Olympics, she was smiling from ear to ear while her mother in the stands sobbed in her father’s arms. Rabbi Perry Netter admitted crying intermittently for days after the birth of his first child and realized that these tears came from an awareness of his own mortality. When a child is born, suddenly there is someone in the world before whose death the parent wishes to die. This acute consciousness of time is not only a cause for sadness but also a source of poignancy. The moments glitter with more brilliance because we know they are fleeting.
In celebration of Sukkot, Jews are commanded to build and decorate a sukkah in remembrance of the huts in which the Israelites dwelled during their forty-year trek through the desert to the Promised Land. Eating in the sukkah is a delightful way to share time with family and friends. At the end of the holiday, the sukkah must be dismantled: in order to be kosher, a sukkah must be a temporary structure. Each year, my son loves the sukkah and is upset when we have to take it down. But the truth is that one of the reasons we cherish the sukkah is because it doesn’t last. If we kept it up all year, we would come to ignore it. Fittingly, the story of Solomon’s ring takes place on Sukkot. Like the sukkah, life seems even more precious because it’s temporary.
We normally think of mortality as a curse, but perhaps it is also a blessing. Rabbi Harold Kushner noted the disastrous consequences that would come from human immortality. He wrote:
If people lived forever and never died, one of two things would have to happen. Either the world would become impossibly crowded, or else people would avoid having children to avoid that crowding. Humanity would be deprived of that sense of a fresh start, that potential for something new under the sun, which the birth of a child represents. In a world where people lived forever, we probably never would have been born.12
Immortality would present spiritual challenges as well. The novel Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, explores what would happen if people lived forever. Members of the Tuck family become immortal by drinking from a hidden spring that contains magical waters. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster discovers the spring, the Tuck family kidnaps her and tries to persuade her not to drink from it because they have found immortality to be a curse. Angus Tuck, the father, rows Winnie out to the middle of the lake and says:
Know what that is all around us, Winnie? Life, moving, growing, changing, never the same two minutes together….You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road. I want to grow again and change. And if that means I got to move on at the end of it, then I want that, too. Listen, Winnie, it’s something you don’t find out how you feel until afterwards….13
Tuck encourages Winnie not to fear death, only life unlived. Along with the challenge of mortality, God gives us the gift of memory. J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, said, “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” Perhaps that’s why we constantly take photos and videos of our kids. It’s our way of cheating time by storing memories for later. In the Bible, God always remembers the patriarchs and the matriarchs and God’s covenant with the people of Israel. God commands the Israelites to remember when they were slaves in Egypt, the Sabbath, and their oppression by Amalek. God urges them to recollect both painful and joyous times. When we recall the past, we emulate this quality of God as Zocher (the One who remembers).
For me, time has not sped up since those first days after the birth of my children. It feels like a long time since I became a mom. (I scarcely remember what life was like before kids!) I think what the older parents were trying to tell me was not that time goes quickly but gam zeh ya’avor, that time passes and their children’s first years are now past. Like a magic ring, our awareness of transience makes us sad when we are happy and happy when we are sad. Remembering this truth, we can find comfort in the difficulties and treasure the joys a little longer by holding them in our hearts.
Eventually, kids eat, sleep, and even poop without assistance. Roly-poly babies turn into sleek, long-legged kids who run nonstop, and then pimply teenagers driving around town.
What doesn’t pass are the memories.
What doesn’t elapse is the love for your children, which is transmitted from generation to generation.
What doesn’t expire is the sacred heritage of values and practices that is passed down with adaptations through the centuries.
These things are eternal. Even after the wedding, this will never pass.
From Blessings and Baby Steps: The Spiritual Path of Parenting
By Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Copyright © 2011 Behrman House
Reproduction without attribution prohibited.