“Be spirited like a tiger…” (Pirkei Avot 5:18)
While an enormous amount of ink has been spilt (or really, writer’s cramp contracted and blog entries logged) in reaction to the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon and its challenge to Western styles of parenting, one area has been woefully neglected. We know all about Amy Chua’s external attitude toward parenting. But what about her internal life as a parent?
As Julie Wiener wrote in these pages recently, “I am troubled by how spiritually empty, joyless and, let’s face it, selfish, Chua’s nonstop and highly competitive push for achievement feels.” As parents of young children, Wiener’s observation resonates with us, but it raises another question: What could a “spiritually full” life for parents look like?
Spirituality for parents?! We often feel like worn-out rags at the end of a day spent with our children (we are respectively the parents of two children each, all under the age of 5). With careers to tend to, marriages to invest in and households to run, who has the time to develop a spiritual life?
In Hebrew, spirituality is best translated as pnimiyut, looking internally. Living a rich internal life can mean different things to different people — from prayer and meditation, to studying or journaling, to the small rituals that infuse a moment with transcendence and awe — but all definitions of spirituality have in common the belief that our inner life is an end in itself, a way to finding meaning and accessing a higher truth.
As people who worked hard to cultivate a robust spiritual life before having kids, we find that our children’s needs trump our spiritual ones. And the spiritual life that we loved had to be put on hold. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. We need a rich spiritual life more than ever, for it is in the rituals and moments of “presence” we cultivate that our lives gain purpose and perspective.
How can parents take the time to create a strong spiritual life when there is hardly time for anything? Reframing spirituality (and parenting for that matter) is a part of the answer: to look at parenting itself as a spiritual practice.
While the day-to-day grind of parenting may seem like a distraction from spiritual pursuits (the former is usually considered chaotic, noisy and messy while the latter is characterized as calm and contemplative), if you define a spiritual life as one that grounds you and helps you refine the highest version of yourself, then parenting fits right in. And here, Jewish tradition gives us a rich vocabulary with which to re-energize both our parenting and our inner lives.
Here are a few tools we’ve discovered in our own journeys toward Jewish spiritual parenting:
Hineni, Being Present: Multitasking is usually the clarion call for a modern parent. We simultaneously tidy up the house, read a book to our child, plan dinner and record the moment for Facebook. In a world of omnipresent mobile devices, it is hard to be simply … present. Yet children have a way of being so fully present that if we simply wait, watch and be present with them, we will discover a new way to be present in our own lives. Hineni — literally, “here I am” — is the phrase the Torah has coined to express an intense “hereness.” As we rush to do something else with our child, we try to remind ourselves of the value of “Hineni.”
Tikkun haMiddot, Refining our Reactions: During an average day of parenting we’ll often encounter our entire emotional range, from love and compassion to worry, impatience and even anger. Our kids know how to get under our skin — often because they present a mirror of our own behavior. Viewing our parenting experiences as opportunities for inner growth can turn an emotionally messy day into a catalyst for self-understanding and self-improvement. This is not just psychologically sound — it is spiritual work in itself. The Midrash teaches us to walk in God’s ways: “Just as God is compassionate, you strive for compassion.” God’s 13 attributes of mercy are powerful guides for parents: merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, truthful, shouldering our (children’s) mistakes and iniquities. As we use our daily encounters to become better parents, we find ourselves walking in the ways of the Divine.
Parenting as Service: One of the central obligations mentioned in the Shema is, “And you shall teach it to your children.” Parenting is, at the end of the day, the performance of service, a mitzvah. In acts of service there might be little immediate gratification, but remembering that we are involved in something greater than ourselves can give us energy, patience and a much-needed sense of transcendence.
The Hebrew word for parent, horeh, shares the same root as two other Hebrew words: moreh (teacher) and Torah (teaching). Our parenting is our best teacher, a Torah in itself. We can push our children to external achievements, and we can bemoan our own spiritual emptiness in the process. Alternatively, we can see that the tool of parenting is in itself a profound Torah teaching that can guide us.
Whatever the makings of a spiritual life are, we believe it is a crucial component of the act of parenting, one that gives us — and our children — the tools towards creating a life of meaning. We’re only at the beginning of figuring out what the convergence of spirituality and parenting means, but we know that we must be as spirited as tigers to keep them intertwined.
Dasee Berkowitz is founder of JLife Consulting and is a frequent contributor to Kveller.com and JTA on topics regarding Jewish parenting, lifecycle rituals and Jewish holidays. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Sag Harbor, L.I. Mishael Zion is the co-author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices.” He is a scholar at the NYU Tikvah Center and studies at YCT Rabbinical School. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, Elana, and two daughters, Zohar and Shai.