Last week we went on a trip upstate with another couple and their toddler. We stayed in a lovely Airbnb in Phoenicia, NY, near Woodstock. The house was all decked out for kiddos — complete with plastic dishes and a closet full of toys and board books. It even had a wooden rocking horse that our friend’s kid dubbed ‘the donkey,’ for reasons we’re not quite sure of.
We spent four days and three nights up there, and it was delightful. We ran around the backyard, splashed in the nearby creek, took a stroll down the main street to the local playground. We grilled corn on the cob and saw two bunnies hop past our porch. Both toddlers scrambled to see the bunnies, who promptly hopped away from the ensuing humans. On the last evening, us grownups opened a bottle of wine and lit a bonfire in the fire-pit. Then we sat around chatting about life and parenting and summer plans.
“People ask me if our kiddo has stranger anxiety,” I laughed, “and I’m, like, what strangers? We haven’t seen strangers in a year.” Everyone nodded, chuckling. It’s been a very weird year to be parents.
Soon, though, my little one will encounter some strangers; he’ll be starting preschool in September. Whereas he has, thus far, been able to rely on Mama and Ima to tell him who is friendly and help navigate social situations, he’ll be with his teacher and the other kids. A whole lot of growing and learning to figure things out is about to commence. It’s kind of wild to think about the fact that he has been with us basically every minute of every day since he was born, minus some hours with his babysitters in recent months. Even those sessions, though, never last more than three hours at a time.
What will he think when meeting a new teacher, new kids, a new space for the first time?
I know that he’ll be fine, but I’m also sure that there will be an adjustment period, and it may not be pretty. These are the things that keep me up at night, despite the exhaustion of pandemic parenting and work-from-home madness.
In this week’s parsha, we meet a stranger in the very first verse — Balak, King of the Moabites. It’s a fairly famous story, and a nice one, too, full of fancy and magic. Balak himself has what you might call stranger anxiety; he’s not happy about the impending arrival of the Israelites in his land. In order to nip the issue in the bud, he sends a magician (Bil’am) and instructs him to go and curse the Israelites. A battle of wits ensues, with God’s angels trying to stop Bil’am from cursing the chosen people, a strange incident with the magician’s donkey and an angel, and the emissaries of the Kind of Moab doing everything in their power to make sure the curse lands where it should.
Spoiler: God wins this one.
Bil’am goes to curse the Israelites, these strange folks who have traversed the desert seeking out a home, and stands atop a cliff looking out at their encampment. Truth be told, he doesn’t even want to curse them — he declares over and over again that he must do as God commands. Still, Balak implores that he try, at least try to take away the power of these invaders. When he opens his mouth, though, the most beautiful words of blessing come out instead.
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” he calls out into the wilderness, “Like palm-groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the water. Their boughs drip with moisture, their roots have abundant water. Their king shall rise above Agag, their kingdom shall be exalted” (Numbers 24:5-7)
He goes on for two more verses, extolling the Israelites as a lion, a wild ox, the king of beasts. Balak is furious, but Bil’am is steadfast in his projections for the future of the tribes of Israel. He can’t help it. Despite Balak’s fear of a new presence, for all that it means, Bil’am sees success in the future. He has to tell the truth about what he sees.
When my baby (who will be two years old next month) goes to playschool this fall, I hope he has the wisdom of Bil’am and is able to put the fears of Balak aside. Certainly, new people in one’s space is nerve-wracking, especially coupled with a new routine and a new space altogether. Hopefully, though, my wife and I will be able to give him the support to see the beauty in the opportunities that lay before him. Their roots have abundant water. They stretch out like palm groves. Reach out, my kiddo, and grab the possibilities.