New Beginnings: Confessions of a First Time Grade 1 Parent

It’s butterfly season again.  Yes, it’s that time of year when butterflies seem to congregate especially in little tummies, and maybe most in those of grade 1 students on the eve of their first day at school.  And for this first time grade 1 parent, the butterflies seem to have found a home in me.

The Torah tells us:

.וְעַתָּה, אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ

(And now, if you will hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all the peoples, for Mine is the entire world! – Shemot 19:5)

And now”, Rashi comments, “If you will accept upon yourselves it will be sweet from here on. From here we learn that all beginnings are difficult.”  Meaning, if it’s sweet from “here on”, it means it was difficult to begin with.

How do we get out of that difficult beginning and get to the sweet?

The first step is to expect and to accept that beginnings are in fact difficult.  Grade 1 is an especially exciting time for students, it’s also an anxiety provoking time.  On the one hand, kids are filled with a sense of pride, donning fresh, new school uniforms and joining the ranks of older kids.  With this special feeling, though comes the sense of responsibility bearing down on their shoulders, not to mention more “serious” time and less “play” time on the horizon.  It’s a time of transition and of adjustment and the sense of the unknown brings out fears and anxieties.  Everything seems new: new teachers, new classroom, new desks, new routines, new friends.  Kids’ comfort zones are seriously challenged.  

These anxieties are natural and expected.  And while teachers assure us that they will be “just fine”, and they will, there are strategies that we can use to reduce and manage those anxieties.  I like to talk to my children about my first days at school, show them pictures of the first time I wore a school uniform.  Playdates, can reduce the fear of social unknowns.  Speaking out fears and anxieties, playing them out, or even having them draw them out can be helpful.

Many times, anxieties can manifest in physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches, or in acting out at home with siblings or parents.  Reassuring children that their feelings are normal is a critical first step.

If things don’t settle, speak to your child’s teachers, they’ll have a greater handle on the situation.  Teachers anticipate our children’s butterflies—and ours—and will consciously work to put everyone at ease.

[For more strategies on dealing with child anxieties I recommend ‘Freeing your child from anxiety’ by Tamar E. Chansky, or your school guidance counsellor]

So why am I anxious?  Why do I, sit here the week my daughter enters grade 1, with butterflies in MY stomach?

As parents, one of our primary goals is to ensure that our children are in healthy academic and social environments and that they are safe.  The transition to grade 1 may feel like a letting go, or an abdication of those responsibilities to others.  And those “others” are, sometimes unfamiliar to us.  What also makes us anxious is how uncomfortable we are with our children’s anxieties.

These feelings are also natural and expected, and this reality needs to be accepted.  That is the first step.  The second, is to take a deep breath and trust.  Trust that we are handing off our precious children to professionals, namely,  trained, experienced and caring teachers who are waiting on the other side of that door.

But, I believe there is something deeper going on here, that will help us get to the next stage of sweetness.

Symbols play an important role in our lives.  Especially this time of year, symbols like the shofar, apples and honey, pomegranates are but a few examples of symbols that help to focus us on Rosh Hashana.  Symbols capture meaning and evoke emotion.  But, there is a danger to symbols that can trap us into missing the entire point.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches: “Rabbi Tzadok said: Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig.” (Avot 4:5)

Our sages are teaching us that turning the Torah into a symbol, namely a crown, is fine.  Turning the Torah into a symbol in order to use it for personal, social or financial gain is an abuse of God’s greatest gift.

There is purpose to God’s greatest gift.  We were granted the Torah as a guide towards selflessness.  

Grade 1 can also be turned into a symbol.  A significant symbol.  If grade 1 turns into a symbol of ME letting go or of MY abdication of responsibilities, then the symbol takes a selfish turn and perhaps this is when anxieties persist.  However, if grade 1 is turned into a symbol of entrance through the gateway of Jewish education, and for us, parents, our obligation and duty to herd our children through those gates, we become filled with emotions of pride, joy and fulfillment.

Beginnings are difficult, that is a fact of life. When approaching our responsibilities selflessly, they may still be difficult at first, but with the right attitude, it will be sweet from here on.

L’chaim to new beginnings and blessings for a sweet new year!

The False Prophet in Us

Swept away by election season drama, the airwaves, print, online and social media are abuzz feeding us the most recent scandal, misspeak, or blunder.  Rather than fueling a conversation on key issues and the candidates’ views on them, we are being bombarded with the character, behaviour and association flaws of candidates.

This is an old story, as old as politics and leadership itself.  While character analysis remains critical, attention to the message has taken a WAY back seat to attention on the messenger.

Why is this?  What does it say about our society?  And is there something to do about it?

We seem to be a generation of skeptics, a generation reluctant to trust, a generation that lacks loyalty.  Some will say this is unique to our generation caused by new realities.  In the age before free agency in sports, players spent their entire career with one team.  In the age before globalization, people moved around less.  In a time before social media, people took membership to community institutions and their commitments and friendships more seriously.

Or perhaps we can say that generations of hustlers, manipulators and swindlers have finally taken their toll on society and we are tired of being fooled.  The consequence? If integrity and honesty slapped us in the face, we would not be able to recognize it.

In this last week’s parasha we are given a stern warning of the so-called false prophet, a person who comes with the razzle and dazzle of miracles, wondrous feats and a silver tongue to lead the Jewish people to other gods. (Devarim 13:2-3)

The Torah recognizes the inevitability of spiritual sharks in our midst, accepts the reality that there are plenty of phonies out there, and really good ones at that. It also gives us counsel on how to recognize and be proactive in seeking authenticity.

First, the Torah tell us, we must use our built-in phony meters and simply not listen to them – לא תשמע אל דברי הנביא ההוא

What ARE we supposed to do?

– אַחֲרֵי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְו‍ֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן.

“Hashem your God shall you follow and Him shall you fear; His commandments shall you observe and to his voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him you shall cleave” (Devarim 13:5)

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the “Netziv”, understands the false prophet as an external spiritual attack on a community in crisis, to which the Torah offers counsel (Haamek Davar, Devarim 13:2-5).  I believe his formula for combating the attacker can also be applied and adapted to the internal false prophet as well.

In this verse, the Torah counsels us with five critical steps towards authenticity:

  1. “Hashem your God shall you follow and Him shall you fear” – Follow Hashem with full faith and confidence;
  2. “His commandments shall you observe” – Look carefully at our actions, and shore up our commitments to  Torah and Mitzvot;
  3. “and to his voice shall you hearken” – Make sure that there are trustworthy messengers of the voice God in our midst, namely teachers of Torah and spiritual guides;
  4. “Him shall you serve” – Those teachers and guides model the service of God;
  5. “and to Him you shall cleave” – Connect to them in order to connect to Hashem;

Today, Rosh Chodesh Elul, we begin a 50 day process asking Hashem every day for one and only one thing – אחת שאלתי,

– שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית ה’ כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם ה’ וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ

Return me to the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze at His sweetness and worship in His house. (Tehilim 27)

How do we get there?

We follow Hashem with faith and confidence, putting our best foot forward.  We take an honest accounting of our behaviour and actions, surrounding ourselves with and connecting to experienced guides, teachers and mentors who role model the behaviours we seek.  Ultimately, arriving at God’s home, the place of our most authentic self, a place of honesty and of integrity.  In Torah language – ישר.

Our parasha stresses a new reality in the service of Hashem upon entrance into the Land of Israel and the building of the Holy Temple, the physical location of authenticity in this world –

(לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כָּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו (דברים יב:ח

When it comes to honesty and integrity in the Beit Hamikdash we are not to do as we please, as we see fit in OUR eyes.  Authenticity is not about the subjective self, rather it’s about striving for our objective self, as the Torah says:

– ‘כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה

That which is right in the eyes of HASHEM (Devarim 12:25)

There is a true self and there is a phony self and what we see with our own eyes may be false.  We must be cognizant that our eyes are susceptible to blinding in the search of truth.  We can be distracted by many magnetic things and by many compelling people.

So we must mute the false prophet within, and set a standards of – ישר.  We are charged to yearn for, inquire, strive, and seek out honesty and integrity.

And this is what the month of Elul is all about, this is what teshuva is all about, namely, the diligent search for honesty and truth in ourselves as we prepare to stand before HaMelech – the King of Kings on Rosh HaShana.

“To dare and to choose”, as Brene Brown – renowned American scholar and bestselling author says, “to show up and to be real, to dare and to choose to be honest and to let our true selves be seen.”

The tragedy of the teshuva process is that while introspection and taking that necessary personal accounting, we often blind ourselves by our faults and delude ourselves into thinking that our faults and missteps are who we really are.  Ultimately, we are filled with so much guilt that we give up on the teshuva process, thereby giving up on our true selves.

As Brown says: “Authenticity is a choice and a practice — having the courage to be vulnerable, and engaging with the world from a place of worthiness rather than a place of shame or ‘never enough’.”

HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt”l, whose 80th yahrzeit is commemorated this week, devoted himself to revealing the true light hidden in the Torah and Torah life.  HaRav Kook, zt”l, writes:

“When we forget the character of our core soul, when we are distracted from looking at the content of the inner life within ourselves, everything becomes confused and doubtful.  But teshuva, which is primary, which illumines darkness immediately, will cause a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul.   Immediately, he will return to God, to the Soul of all souls.” (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)

Teshuva, is the process towards honesty and integrity with ourselves, our families, our community, our nation and our world from a place of worthiness, a return to who we truly are, and ultimately to God.

Yes, we are tired of phonies, so let’s be real.

Chodesh Tov and Shana Tova.