Adult B’nei Mitzvah Class of 2014: Jessica Donath


“Parents are the bones on which children cut their teeth,” said Academy Award winning actor and father of four, Sir Peter Ustinov. In today’s haftarah reading, the companion piece to our Torah portion, the prophet Jeremiah tells of much teeth cutting. The prophet describes the relationship between God and the people as broken. God is upset that Israel turned their backs on God and God’s teachings. They strayed from the path God had intended for them and began worshipping idols.

According to commentators, Jeremiah’s words of warning of upcoming tragedies have nothing to do with the Torah portion they are coupled with. But this does not mean that they stand alone. This is the second of three so-called haftarot of affliction that we read in the three weeks leading up to Tisha b’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. They foretell terrible things to come as a result of the people’s disloyalty to God and Torah.
Tisha b’av is the only complete fast day other than Yom Kippur. It is a day of mourning. We memorialize the destruction of the first and second Temple and the resulting exile by sitting on the floor, refraining from showering, and we chant the book of lamentations. In modern times, other catastrophes that befell the Jewish people, such as the Holocaust, are sometimes commemorated as well.

As a parent of an adorable 10-month old, I can sympathize with God’s frustration; and I know how easy it is to give in to it – to focus on the negative things: the lack of sleep, the loss of privacy and spontaneity. When children are little, you feed them every couple of hours, day or night. As they get older, you make sure to take them out of the house so they don’t have to suffer through noise and dirt while you renovate the den to create a playroom for them. And then, when you try to write a d’var Torah for your bat mitzvah, they refuse to nap.

God complains “but my people has exchanged its glory for what can do no good.” And I can’t help but wonder: why is this such a surprise? Yes, like many parents, God did a lot for the children – nurturing them and providing a better future by leading them out of Egypt. And the ungrateful children reacted by abandoning their savior and turning to idols. But if you expect constant praise and gratitude, you should not have children; get a dog instead.

Children need to cut their teeth. They need to test boundaries and explore the world. And for every frustrating moment and sleepless night or day, there are many moments of joy, love, and loyalty. I am fully expecting my own child to stray from the path I envision for him. That’s his job. And while I won’t be happy if my son starts worshipping modern idols such as drugs or money, I will try to refrain from judgment.

Instead of creating an atmosphere of “I told you so!” or “and where are those gods you made for yourself?”, like God says to the children when they are in trouble, I hope I will welcome him home and help fix whatever mess he is in. That’s my job as a parent. As a single father of several hundred thousand children, God has it a lot worse than most of us. In keeping with tradition, Jeremiah’s prophecy ends on a conciliatory note. “Just now you called to me, ‘Father! You are the companion of my youth.’” It looks like God, too, might accept the children again as they make an effort to return.

Tisha b’av also ends in a more uplifting mood. Mourning and sorrow make room for hope and faith. Judaism did not cease to exist with the destruction of the Temple. Whether you are Jewish or not, I’m pretty sure that many of you in this room are still cutting your teeth on God’s bones. I know I am. And after tonight, I will be doing it with renewed vigor and confidence.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

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