Lessons from a Distracted Parent
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
My brother says, “I don’t need a kippah to remember God. I can be a good Jew without one. It’s not the kippah but my mind that keeps me aware of God.” There are many Jews who seem to agree. They point to those who engage in orthodox Jewish practice such as prayer three times a day, physically separating from their menstruating wives for twelve days a month, frequently pouring into Jewish texts—but they might simply be going through the motions of a devout life. Notwithstanding all their faith, the observances are not reminders of the Divine presence; they don’t really feel connected to God.
And then there are unaffiliated Jews who live a simple, down-to-earth life and pursue lofty ideas all their days. Such people may be feeling spiritual metaphysical delights and out-of-body experiences but the key element—God—may very well be a secondary goal. The first are spiritually numb, the second spiritually sensitive, yet both do not have real spiritual knowledge. Can each individual know God in his or her own way or is there a formula that Judaism prescribes when relating to God?
I have another relative who asks, “Why should I practice anything Jewish when it doesn’t make me feel spiritual?” Jewish observance lacks relevance when the key element—feeling inspired by feeling connected to God—is not felt.
This absence of feeling the spirituality is like asking why should I be a parent when there are all these distractions that take me away from my kids. Perhaps it’s better not to keep my kids. Just because there’s a lack of conscious connection and a lot of distractions does not mean that it is an empty pursuit. As a matter of fact, the whole point of the distractions are to get back to my kids and give them wholesome undivided attention. And so it is with the soul. There is more to connecting with God than conscious awareness of the Divine and feeling inspiration. Parenting is not always feeling the love—sometimes there’s frustration and anger and other times there’s attachment and bliss. I’ve discovered that to connect with my kids, I need to get down to their ground level and get to know them in a way that both us can appreciate. My babies will always be attached to me as babies, but how can I get myself to attach to them in the face of a frequently distracting life? How do you connect with the things that matter most when you have other seemingly more urgent obligations?
Chassidic Chabad ideology teaches us how to inculcate awareness of our Creator and relate to Him in a perceptible, non-abstract way. At the core, understanding anything stems from an internal faculty called daat or intrinsic knowledge. To take a message or a lesson to heart stems from first being pensive and engaging in deep analysis and introspection.
By connecting to sources—the texts and those who study them ardently and assiduously—one can make real conclusions about God. Experiential knowledge can be myopically biased and misleading and so to know God in a real way, you have to put yourself aside and connect to Him on His terms by studying the words that He gave us in the Torah.
The core of all Chassidic Chabad ideology is that in everything physical there is to be obtained a clue to something spiritual. You plant a seed and think it is natural for it to grow with nurture and care. Spiritually, it is not only natural but rather it is a Divine gift that the potential of the Earth is actualized—something that is perhaps easy to take for granted. The physical world provides an array of symbols and metaphors that makes God relatable and real. But in order to accept these symbols as significant and relevant, a novice must first trust that the Torah contains a wisdom that helps to decode these symbols. The worlds of the Torah reveal the thoughts through which God imagined and fashioned the universe. Chassidut teaches about the concepts of Mother, Father, Sister, Daughter all as metaphors for our connection to God. If you want to know God, there are clues in the intense fervor of marriage, in a child’s unconditional adoration and attachment for their parents, in a parent’s familiarity with his or her child’s inner workings, in the warmth and steadfastness of sibling affection. The studying of its text is the medium where artist and spectator meet to exchange ideas about his creation.
To connect and understand something that’s outside your reality, you need humility to realize how much you do not know. My marketing professor once remarked with bedazzlement that upon entering graduate school, the reading material was so overwhelming that it was practically impossible for him to master it all. He observed that perhaps the reason why graduate students embark on such a deep and overwhelming immersion into their discipline is because they realize how much they do not know. This is what is called yirah or awe and submission. In the Tanya, the founder of Chabad philosophy teaches that real knowledge requires submission and that in order to connect to God we must submit to a complete and steady focus on the search for Him:
“One binds his mind with a very firm and strong bond to, and firmly fixes his thought on, the greatness of the Infinite One, without diverting His mind [from Him]. For even one who is wise and understanding of the greatness of the Infinite One, will not—unless he binds his knowledge and fixes his thought with firmness and perseverance—produce in his soul true love and fear, but only vain fancies.” (emphasis mine)
Even a practicing Jew who studies Torah can experience conscious disconnect from God. A religious Jew can also feel like a stranger to God. It is a shameful experience to practice something devoutly and not be connected to the deeper meaning behind it. It is a shameful experience to live as a distracted parent when your kids love and forgiveness for your is their entire world. It is through daat, the inner knowledge that is derived through total submission in the study and contemplation of Torah, that a human being can experience a powerful sense that God is real. It is throught daat, contemplating and integrating how your children feel about you, that you will truly connect with your children.
Our sages teach that a person is poor only if he or she lacks daat (inner knowledge)–he might be truly wealthy but thinking that he is lacking something is what makes him poor. If a person internalizes the message that all he has is nothing then whatever he has is immaterial; his dissatisfaction is what makes him poor. A person can have lots of money in his pocket and still feel immeasurably poor in relation to others. Hence, connecting with an objective reality still requires the daat, inner knowledge. In a similar vein, feeling spiritual has its benefits and tangible value but if that spirituality is not focused on mutual attachment then there is a lot of room for growth. To truly connect to G-d you must get to know Him His way. To truly connect with your kids you need to get to know them their way.
Making God Relevant
You can sense God by looking at the symbols He put into your hands and your own body which He fashioned in His image. Making an effort to be spiritual is great—but that’s not the only thing the connection is all about. It’s also about knowing God and knowing your kids. God is found everywhere but is most apparent in places and circumstances that He has prescribed through His teachings. Walk into a hospital where family members are gathered around their ailing grandfather and feel God. Doulas who assist women in giving birth are known to say that in a birthing setting, despite the shrieking and the misery, one can feel a tremendous sense of Godliness in the air. Watch the sunrise and sense something aflutter as the whole city braces for the new day and feel God awaken the natural world and stir the air. Enter a home where there is a pleasant aura of peace and mutual love and bonding and there is God. Sexuality within the context of marriage (Biblically referred to as “knowledge”) is also Divine. God is found even in this most intimate of settings, resting between the husband and wife as they are joined together as one. One can approach Him even in your interactions with those you love through marriage and parenthood and fraternal love. It is simply a matter of binding one’s mind through knowledge and awareness.
When you explore almost every facet of relating to God, it is an intimate experience comparable to physical intimacy. When both parties show mutual consent and interest, it is an experience of delight, revelry, and one of the most intense ways of bonding with another being.
Yet it is not enough to know God in these living examples because you must reach Him and find Him as He is and not as you imagine or interpret Him to be. If you want to know God’s inner workings and to get to know Him in an intimate way, the only way is through objective study and observation that’s grounded and sourced in God’s very own wisdom as expressed in Torah. You must use the text of the Torah as the benchmark upon which you measure the truthfulness of the spirituality in your own life.
Some Practical Steps
How does one acquire daat? Through listening and being present. That’s why the core of all Judaism is the juxtaposition of two axiomatic statements: Shema Yisrael Hashem Elocheynu Hashem Echad, Hear O Israel The Lord Our God the Lord is One. This is followed immediately by Veahavta, And you will love [God with all your heart and soul and might]. God assures us that after the listening comes the connection, integration, and love. God assures us that after the listening and making the effort to comprehend comes the integration, attachment and love.
I am a diverted parent and wife when my family senses that I am not really hearing them. It is only when I can stop, listen, analyze, and integrate what they are saying into the fiber of my being that I am connecting with my family and making them feel loved.
To connect with family and friends and/or become an attached, undistracted parent, we need to become centered enough to:
- stop and listen to them
- contemplate the meaning of what they are doing
- absorb what is being conveyed
- feel the intense love you have for them
To connect with God, do the same. Stop and listen to his Words, contemplate the meaning of His presence, absorb the purpose of His message, and feel the intense love you have for Him.