Excerpt from Blessings and Baby Steps

Sleep Training: Mercy and Judgment


My kids have always been terrible sleepers. When they were small, sleep deprivation removed the joy from my life. I held out for as long as I could, diligently waking up with my kids every few hours at night.

After many months (and even years) of utter exhaustion, I was desperate and sought help. A friend recommended a sleep therapist who talked me through the process. She had had trouble with her children’s sleep patterns and developed her practice to help other weary parents. I figured if she could do it, so could I.

Sleep training teaches parents to let children learn to fall asleep on their own while parents check in on the little ones regularly to remind the children they are loved. This approach was a nightmare for me. My children’s crying, even for brief intervals, was heart wrenching. I was as upset as they were.

Sleep training entails a delicate balance between reassuring the child and letting go. The trick involves timing. We tried sleep training Hannah at five months, but she wasn’t ready. To this day, I regret that decision. We tried again at eighteen months and were successful. The challenge is to gauge when the baby is mature enough to learn this skill and to support the child through this difficult process.

In Jewish tradition, God is often described as having two main characteristics—rachamim (compassion) and din (judgment or justice). This duality is reflected in the description of God’s thirteen attributes in Exodus: “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in kindness and truth, bestowing kindness on thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and pardoning, not pardoning...” (Exodus 34:6-7).

This curious passage describes God as forgiving and then immediately contradicts that vision by saying that God doesn’t pardon but rather holds offenders accountable. This view of God illustrates the opposing qualities of rachamim and din. The rabbis explain that, at certain times, God demonstrates one attribute over the other. For example, at the splitting of the Red Sea, God executed justice when drowning the Egyptian army who were chasing the Israelite slaves. By contrast, on Mount Sinai God appeared as “full of mercy” when giving the Torah to the Jewish people (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Bachodesh, 5). These two attributes are seen as fighting within God; sometimes din overwhelms rachamim and vice versa. When asking for forgiveness on the High Holidays, Jews pray that God’s compassion will overcome anger.

According to the rabbis, these dual attributes of God are also reflected in the twonames for God: Adonai, which represents compassion, and Elohim, which connotes justice. This duality is also mirrored in two names for the Jewish people: Yehudim (those who thank God) and Yisraelim (those who wrestle with God).28

Parents also struggle with these two qualities, for example, when sleep training or disciplining a child. During sleep training, part of me was desperate for my child to learn to sleep, while the other part wanted to rush in and soothe my crying baby, to pick her up and kiss her, even if my actions meant I would never sleep again. My innate tendency is toward rachamim with my children; I hate reprimanding them. I discipline them when necessary, but it doesn’t come as naturally to me as offering snuggles, hugs, and kisses. My husband is better at din (although he’s often a softie, too). Each of us strives to maintain a balance between providing comfort and structure.

Excess of either attribute can be destructive. I learned this lesson in an unusual way—a reality television show. In a program called Wife Swap, two families switch mothers for ten days. The program typically selects families that are diametrically opposed. For example, a rich wife from the city who has several nannies, a cook, and a cleaning service trades places with a poor mother from the country who has many obligations, including caring for the kids and chopping wood, without any help. For the first five days, each wife must obey the expectations of the household she is visiting. Afterward, she can change the rules to suit her own needs. Typically, each woman is miserable in this new situation, which is entirely different from the life to which she is accustomed. Likewise, the husband and kids are upset when familiar patterns in their households are disrupted.

Yet by the end of the show, each family matures as a result of the ordeal: the husband of the wood-chopping wife learned to appreciate her more after being with a woman who refused to help around the house, and he decided to assist his wife in the future. Likewise, the rich wife learned to spend more time with her children rather than letting the nannies be the primary caregivers.

This show illustrates the dangers of excessive rachamim or din in a family. Often a wife from a permissive household swaps with an extremely disciplinedhome. One set of parents only wanted their kids to be happy and, as a way to avoid arguments, didn’t believe in saying “no.” The other couple ran their house like a military base with rigid schedules, rules, and tasks to instill obedience. In both families, the children were troubled. In the permissive home, the teens were having wild parties with sex and drugs in the basement and lacked respect for the parents; in the strict household, the children felt enslaved and consequently resented the parents.

All parents wrestle with the opposite traits of din and rachamim. In the parenting models popular a few generations ago, these attributes were assigned by gender. The mother represented compassion while the father was in charge of discipline. When her children misbehaved, my grandmother would invoke the well-known refrain: “Just wait until your father gets home.” This division of labor provided a seeming balance between din and rachamim, but this system was problematic in many ways. Typically, the children would come to fear the father and feel distant from him, whereas they loved the mother but did not respect her. Neither parent could have a full, multidimensional relationship with the children because they were stuck playing narrow, predetermined roles. This duality also created tension between the parents.

Gender-based division is addressed in ancient sources. The commandment to respect one’s parents appears three times in the Bible, each worded slightly differently. In Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16, the fifth commandment reads: “Honor your father and your mother,” whereas in Leviticus 19:3, God says: “One should revere one’s mother and his father.” (In this verse, the Hebrew verb for revere can also mean “fear.”) The rabbis explained that these terms indicate two different types of respect. Honoring parents involves taking care of their physical needs, while revering them involves respecting their authority—such as not sitting in their seat or contradicting their words (Talmud Kiddushin 31b–32a). Honor and reverence seem to be the mirror images of compassion and justice. Treating one’s children with din will lead to fear while treating them with rachamim prompts honor. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b–31a) and the Mekhilta de Rabi Ishmael (Bachodesh 8) both explain that a child generally fears the father more than the mother and honors the mother more than the father, and therefore the command to honor mentions the father first and the command to revere mentions the mother first.

These texts strive to rectify any gender-based imbalance, as the Mekhilta says: “Where something is lacking, scripture seeks to complete it.”

Nowadays more people believe that every parent, regardless of gender, should be able to demonstrate both attributes. Sometimes, rachamim is the right response; other situations call for din. (When children get sick, they need affection; when they run into the street, they need reprimanding.) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the job of the prophet as “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Perhaps, the same can be said of parents. Our sacred task requires both the ability to soothe and the ability to scold. This equilibrium not only is required for parenting but is part and parcel of becoming a responsible adult. In rabbinical school, when I worked as an intern at Beit T’Shuvah, I met with one woman (whom I’ll call Dina) who was very hard on herself and used alcohol to numb the pain of self-criticism. Whenever she excelled professionally, she would get nervous, think badly o herself, and eventually sabotage her success. She had experienced trauma as a child, and she never thought she was good enough.

In counseling Dina, I spoke to her about the paradigm of din and rachamim. I affirmed her impulse to push herself toward achievement but also reminded her that she needed to be more forgiving of her imperfections in order to reach a healthy balance. I told her that because God is merciful, she too should treat herself with compassion. We brainstormed how she could show herself greater kindness.

I also counseled a woman (whom I’ll call Rina) who represented the other extreme. She was very loving toward herself. She had rachamim down pat. “I’m not perfect,” she’d say. “I’m a bad girl, so what do you expect from me?!” She was entirely content with her mistakes, but she wasn’t honest. She manipulated other people, cheated, and stole. Rina didn’t feel the need to take responsibility for her actions.

In our sessions, I also spoke with Rina about the two attributes of God. We discussed how to foster more self-discipline to accompany her abundance of self-forgiveness. She needed to hear God’s din within, strengthening her internal voice of conscience. When we strive for a balance between din and rachamim, we emulate these qualities of the divine.

A common saying is that “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” This refrain always struck me as inadequate theology because life presents tragedies with which no one could or should be forced to cope. Nevertheless, I believe that when we face challenges, God is with us. I like the idea that when we are crying, God is weeping, too. Even when God feels distant, God is checking in on us, periodically reassuring us that we are loved. Our divine parent doesn’t misjudge our level of maturity. God gives us resiliency to meet life’s struggles.

I wish I could say that, thanks to sleep training, my kids are now terrific sleepers. They’re not. But they sleep better than in the past, which means that I can begin to enjoy life again. This torturous learning process gave me pause to reflect on myself as a parent and a person. This ordeal helped me add a little din to my rachamim. (I’m sure I’ll need that din when the teenage years come around!)

I discovered that one need not swap lives to attain a fresh perspective. Sometimes all it takes to get a new lease on life is a little sleep.


From Blessings and Baby Steps: The Spiritual Path of Parenthood
By Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Copyright © 2011 Behrman House
Reproduction without attribution prohibited.