Thursday, February 13, 2014

God Becomes a Merciful Parent

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Ki Tisa 2014

Three years ago, when Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mom” came out, my friend Dasee Berkowitz and I wrote a counter-piece about “The Spiritual Life of Parents”. It was an aspirational piece, to say the least. This week, as I was trying to recover from a high-strung parenting miscalculation involving a pinched piece of gum, a clenched fist and a busy school parking lot, I saw that Chua has a new book out. I decided to go back and read what we had written and see if I’ve been able to fulfill some of those aspirations, three years and with a third daughter now in the equation.
I mercifully gave myself a passing grade. But I was also reminded that this week’s Torah portion can be read as God confronting his own Parenthood, with a special recipe for maintaining one’s parenting hidden within:
Ki Tisa: The Sin of the Golden Calf. After the great wedding at Sinai, the Israelites have been adulterous (with a cow, no less). God wants to annul the marriage, offering to Moses that He destroy the Jewish people and restart the project with Moses as the new Abraham. Moses heroically confronts God and reframes the covenant: This is not just a Sinai marriage, he reminds God. It is also a covenant you made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and their offspring. The Jewish project is not an opt-in faith community, but a born-into People, with God as the parent. You can divorce your wife – but you cannot divorce your kids, claims Moses, and God submits. Or as Rabbi Meir puts it in the Talmud: בין כך ובין כך קרויים אתם בנים – “No matter what you do, you are forever called my children” (Kiddushin 36a).
Yet given the tendency of these children to test and anger their parent, given their affinity for rebellion, their ignoring and blocking out their parents pleas, their messiness and their premature desire for autonomy and independence… how will the parent master their emotions, manage love, patience and discipline in the child’s long journey to maturity?
It is here that God reveals to Moses the 13 attributes of Mercy:

And God passed before his face
And called out:
God, God,
Showing-mercy, showing-favor,
Long-suffering in anger,
Abundant in loyalty and faithfulness,
Keeping loyalty to the thousandth generation,
Shouldering iniquity, rebellion and sin,
And clearing - not clearing the guilty –
(rather) calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons and upon sons’ sons, to the third and fourth generation!
וַיַּעֲבֹר ה' עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא:
ה' ה'
אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן
אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם
וְרַב חֶסֶד
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים
נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה
וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה
פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים
עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים.

Reading these passages in recent years, reciting them again and again on Yom Kippur, I’ve come to realize that God is asking Moses – and his descendants – to remind God of who He really is, or who He aspires to be. The Midrash has long since turned this list from a theological plea into an ethical creed: “Just as God is called showing-of-mercy – you too strive to be showing-of-mercy” (see Maimonides Deot 1:6). God’s thirteen attributes are our aspirational list to follow in God’s paths in our encounter with every person (indeed, Moshe Cordovero’s Palm of Deborah goes through each Divine attribute and translates it into a quality in interpersonal relations).
For me, God’s thirteen attributes of mercy are a powerful guide to Parenthood – not just God’s, but my own. I recite them to remind myself to be merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, truthful, abundant in loyalty… The real trick is to figure out which qualities to use at which moment: when “shouldering mistakes and iniquities” is best – and when “not clearing the guilty” is required (in hindsight, the incident with the gum and the clenched fist seems to have been the first). It is an ongoing internal rollercoaster – and it is undoubtedly the most rewarding one at that. And I am at my best when I remember that my struggle to be there for my child in the best way is the same struggle as being in the world in God’s image. I just might sometimes need a Moses to remind me of them.
As Dasee and I wrote in that piece three years ago:
During an average day of parenting we encounter our entire emotional range: from love and compassion to worry, impatience and even anger. Our kids know how to get under our skin - often because they present a mirror of our own behavior.  Viewing our parenting encounters as opportunities for inner growth can turn an emotionally messy day into a source of self-understanding and self-improvement.  This is not just psychologically sound – it is spiritual work in itself. As we use our daily encounters to become better parents, we find ourselves walking in the ways of the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

P.S. If the ending of those verses sounds harsh, know that Rabbinic liturgical tradition cut the list short, dropping the stuff about “calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons,” thus leaving only the “13 Attributes of Mercy”. Even more chutzpadik, in prayer to this day we recite the list only until the word “clearing” ונקה, turning the verses’ question mark into an exclamation point: “Keeping loyalty to the thousandth generation, bearing iniquity, rebellion and sin, and clearing!”
Yet – not to end on too optimistic a note – here’s a different interpretation to those verses:
Calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons” – why? Why should one person have to suffer on account of the sins of another? Perhaps the intent here is that God calls-to-account upon the parents the sins which they performed in educating their children. For the children’s sins are because of the iniquities of the parents – and it is the parents who are held responsible. (Iturei Torah pg. 269)