A few weeks ago, my cousins came to visit us from Boston. It was a joyous day — we hadn’t seen one another for ages due to COVID-19 regulations. We hugged, and caught up, and ate cherry pie. Also, they brought a birthday gift for our little one — magnetic tiles to build with.
Our kiddo is something of an aspiring architect, and the magnetic tiles have become a fast fan favorite in the household. Up until the tiles came along, kiddo had to suffice with Legos and other building materials, all of which require a whole lot more dexterity. The magnet tiles, on the other hand, just stick together. Even as an adult, I can say that these are super fun to build with. The instant gratification borders on intoxicating.
So far, our construction projects have included several parking garages (ever a Brooklynite, our kid is obsessed with finding parking for his cars), a number of tall towers, and some bus stops. For the dolls to wait at, of course.
It’s not all fun and games, though. As the old adage goes, what goes up really must come down. Sometimes it comes down quietly, but sometimes the tall tower or multi-story parking garage comes clattering down and brings waves of frustration and anger with it. Shattered expectations, however unrealistic, are very hard to manage, regardless of age. I get it.
The problem is what you do with those feelings. Our kiddo usually opts to yell, “No, no!” and throwing the offending object — a magnetic tile, a doll, a Lego block. These are solutions that my wife and I aren’t really fans of, but they have led us to ask some interesting questions.
Can we avoid these feelings in the first place? Should we? How can anger or frustration be productive, and what makes us feel them in the first place?
These are the questions that were on my mind as I began to read this week’s parsha, VaEtchanan. As I mentioned last week, the book of Deuteronomy is kind of like a recap of the past few episodes in our tale, and these chapters continue with that theme of recalling. Here, Moses tells us about how we got the ten commandments. “You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark with densest clouds,” he says in Deuteronomy 4:12, adding that “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.”
And what did this disembodied voice say to the Israelites, frozen with awe at the foot of Mount Sinai?
“For your own sake, therefore, be most careful — since you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire — not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman, the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18)
The word careful stands out to me here as a potential idea that may speak to us about feelings like anger or disappointment. A thread to pull on, as it were. In the original commandment, after all, God simply says not to make any graven images. There’s no explanation why back in Exodus, but we can assume that it’s because God wants to make clear that there is one God, and He’s it.
It’s curious to me that in this recapitulation, God expands on this commandment and cautions that we be careful, as though there was some peril involved in sinning. Not just that a graven image would be betrayal, but that it’s dangerous to us in some way. How can it be dangerous to make a “sculptured image in any likeness whatever” or, as Moses goes on to say, to bow down to the “sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host”?
There are certainly many answers to this quandary, but here’s one I’ve been thinking about: Maybe it has to do with managing expectations.
It’s particularly telling that the text goes into such detail when describing the many opportunities to run afoul of the commandment. There’s so much magic in the world, the Bible is telling us, and it’s so easy to be caught up in the excitement. The sun, the moon, all the creatures of the earth — they can all be a source of wonder. Then, when the magic lets you down, as it inevitably will, you’ll be crushed. Be most careful.
When my toddler and I build a parking garage for toy cars together, it’s probably going to come crashing down at some point. When I send pitches to editors at dream publications, I’m probably going to get some rejections. Actually, I can confirm that I definitely will. Or, even more mundane, if we want to get out of the house by a certain hour, that may (will almost certainly) not happen.
Life is full of disappointment. Maybe God is trying to save us the anguish that comes with it.
This last week, my wife and I have been practicing a few ways to mitigate anger with our toddler. First, we say, “Ooofff! That was annoying!” to acknowledge the emotion. Second, “We do something physical to let it out (that’s not throwing things). Maybe that’s pushing a wall or giving Mama and Ima a big hug. Third, we build what fell down again.
This, I think, is the best we can do in a world where disappointment and frustration are unavoidable. It’s better, I think, to have high expectations — to believe in the magic — even if it means crushing sadness. The trick is to be most careful not to idolize the object of our adoration, just to believe in the wonder of possibility. In this way, we may be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. And when it all falls to pieces? Well, then we just say oof! and start all over again.