When I ask my family to consider how we can improve ourselves in preparation for the Jewish New Year, my daughter Talia, who is 12, grins and shifts her gaze to Joel. Oh yes! She has an idea or two for her 9-year-old brother. “Maybe it would be a good goal for you to stop putting your foot on this,” she says, indicating the wooden table leg they squabble over on a nightly basis.
I’d just explained the happy coincidence of our family vacation overlapping with the start of the Hebrew month of Elul — a period which Jews traditionally spend in a state of reflection, repentance, and renewal. It would be an opportunity, I thought, for us to craft a kind of Elul Project, with the objective of experiencing a greater sense of “Shalom Bayit.” We could enjoy peace in our family and the mountains of New Mexico, too.
We love each other; we really do. And yet, as a mother, I find myself all too often unleashing a storm of sound and fury. My husband Jeremy remarks that parenthood is not always as he imagined it would be. And my children, like the biblical siblings of Jacob and Esau, of Rachel and Leah, are only occasional allies. Quarrels abound over whose feet get particular territory under the dinner table; over who gets to lead the hike in this direction or that; over who initiated the dispute in the first place.
For our project, we decide to focus on refraining from harsh speech for seven days. But the next night, as the car winds its way up dark, harrowing roads toward our rented vacation home, the occupants of the backseat engage in a bitter war. And Jeremy, who is driving, does not refrain.
An interesting pattern emerges, however. Our busy mornings include battles over water bottles and other minutiae; but in the drowsy late afternoons of a Santa Fe summer, Joel and Talia relax into a rhythm of card games. The minutes tick by without incident. Jeremy steals away to the upstairs office to finish up some work. I inquire of the children: Could their improved behavior bear any relationship to the Elul Project?
“No,” says Talia. “I forgot all about it.” A few days later she says, “I didn’t think of it [Elul] for a moment.”
Jeremy, who can recall umpteenth digits of pi, also can’t seem to keep the Elul Project in mind. For me, the experiment starts to feel amorphous, overwhelming. We can’t adhere to a high standard all day long. Yes, the children play peacefully for long stretches but they are also easily irked by each other, and I by them. We all say things we wish we hadn’t. We all behave in ways we wouldn’t want documented.
After our weeklong experiment, I contact Rabbi Sherre Hirsh, who holds a post as a “spiritual life consultant” to the Canyon Ranch health resorts. She suggests a narrower approach. “Select days with a specific focus,” says the rabbi, who is a mother of four. “Today is a fast from complaining; today is a fast from fighting with your sister. Today is [the day to] set the table before being asked.”
Mid-week of our trip, however, I find my son alone, munching on pita chips in the kitchen. Joel asks, “So what are you going to write about for your column?”
“Maybe about how hard it is to change?”
“I think I’m the only one who changed a little bit,” he says softly. “I can get along with Talia for a much longer time now. And I am going to keep trying, but I need you to remind me.” For just a moment, the desert sun seems to shine even brighter.
Back home in New York City it’s still Elul, and the children announce that they’re done with family projects — though I’m welcome to continue.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder of Be’chol Lashon, who is a mother of two, offers a route forward. She tells me that whenever she feels compelled to criticize or yell at her children, she substitutes the phrase “I love you.” “No but. No and. Just let it sit there,” she says.
That night when Talia shuffles through stacks of forms on my desk, which I’d asked her not to touch, I bark, “Why did you do that?” Then a moment later, I bellow, “I love you!” I inhale. I count to three. I’m silent. “Oh good, I’m so glad,” she says. If there’s sarcasm in her tone, I choose to ignore it.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. Email: email@example.com.