Jewish holidays: How not to scare the kids with the imagery
The Jewish holidays between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur are one son's "gray zone" where a mom finds the conundrum of explaining light and consciousness. She contemplates how not to scare kids in exacting meaning from biblical subtext.
Iāve been thinking a lot about color lately. Or more to the point, the presence and absence of light that make up white and black. I think all this consideration of color reflects the fact that Iāve been vacillating somewhere between hope and despair this High Holiday season.
Itās a state of mind that squarely puts me in the middle of the gray zone. Thatās Adamās term for these 10 intermittent days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I clearly remember when he first mentioned the gray zone. It was fifth grade and he had just learned about the Ten Days of Awe ā the days between the High Holidays. He didnāt see anything awesome about being suspended in doubt and self-criticism.
Which leads me to the conundrum at the heart of the gray zone discussions I had with him. How do you explain the High Holidays to kids without scaring the living daylights out of them? Just the images alone send me into black hibernation. No light, no consciousness. Let God add and erase names in the Book of Life without my awareness.
But thatās not exactly good role modeling. If thereās anything that should be deleted itās our understanding of the Sunday School God that dips a feathered quill into ink and enters names as part of some macabre accounting. The God I first became acquainted with had a flowing white beard. When I was a little older, he looked exactly like my Uncle Mac of the booming voice and the rosy cheeks. Uncle Mac was God on earth.
I imagine that most kids cope with God as the ultimate abstraction by pretending that Heās some version of their own Uncle Mac. In this patch of gray that Adam constructed as a little boy, it followed that God is also gray. But itās impossible to see anything through the fog that shrouds Him. Also, note how useless it is to shine headlights in the fog. The light reflects back, illuminating nothing. Maybe thatās the hard-edged perspective of an adult.
I found a lovely childrenās book called "Because Nothing Looks Like God," by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Karen Kushner, that breathes life into some of my grown-up jadedness. God is in the details like a birthday cake, the band-aid that fixes a cut. Ultimately, āGod looks like nothing. And nothing looks like God.ā The authors challenge children to think about how many things we canāt see like the wind, or the sun drying or the joyous moments of a day at the beach. I ād also ask kids to think about what love does and does not look like.
But how do you explain God to a teenager whose earliest memories are singed with images of burning towers? What do you say to your children after youāve been pulled over by airport security for a more thorough search? Youāre part of the danger in this very dangerous world? Or letās turn to the more mundane. You work hard and you study hard and still that A or that role in the play eludes you. Does God have more important matters to attend to than the disappointments in your life?Ā Or is God simply too distracted these days to care about your problems?
āFirst world problems,ā shrugs Adam the now-jaded teenager. Thatās his default position to deal with his disillusionment.
Maybe Iām taking all of this too literally. Children grow into more sophisticated thinkers, leaving a parent like me stuck in the concreteness ofĀ pshat ā the Jewish term for biblical literalism. I envy my teens who, these days, are in the thick ofĀ drash ā extracting meaning from the subtext of a story or a new situation. Maybe my time in the gray zone is best spent listening to my kids explain life to me.
This is also the time of year when we read Leviticus 18 on the afternoon of Yom Kippur ā a verse that many take in asĀ pshatĀ to condemn gay marriage. At first glance it seems odd to be worrying about forbidden unions on a day when the gates of heaven are clanging shut. (More concreteness.) But who knew that the gray zone could be conducive to a personal and loving discussion on sex education with your kids. Who shall live and who shall die can be transformed into a celebration of whom we love. Who will we love better and more thoughtfully in this New Year?
The Baāal Shem Tov, the father of the Hasidic movement in the 18th century, said āthere are many halls in the kingās palace and intricate keys to all the doors. But the master key to Godās house is a broken heart.ā That leads up to one of my favorite sayings in the Talmud: āThere is nothing more whole than a broken heart.ā And thereās no better place to learn that than in the space that Adam, in his little boy wisdom, once dubbed the gray zone.
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