When I first conceived of this column, I ran it by an editor friend who told me it was a bad idea. “Aren’t there a lot of weekly portions that won’t connect to parenthood?” she asked me, obviously skeptical about how long I could keep this thing going. I admitted that this was a concern, but dismissed it as a challenge that could be surmounted. Surely there would be something in each portion that I could connect to being a mama.
This week, when I went to read the portion (Ki Tetzeh), my heart sank. I heard that editor’s words in my mind. “Oh no,” I thought, “It’s finally happened.” This portion is a hard nut to crack. Once more, it’s a list of laws, but this one is about familial relationships (if you have a “disloyal and defiant son,” for example, you should take him to be stoned to death, according to Deuteronomy 21:20), interpersonal relationships (Deut. 22:13-21 describes what should be done if a man hates his wife and decides to spread lies about the state of her virginity. Spoiler — it doesn’t end well.), and various punishable offenses. Very punishable offenses.
This is also the portion where the Bible describes the practice of dressing in the clothes of a gender not assigned at birth as “an abhorrence.” It’s a grim text, folks.
There is a theme in here that connects to parenthood here, though, and it doesn’t have to do with disciplining a disloyal son or shaming gender-nonconforming folks (neither of which tie into my parenting values in any way). As I read these verses I noticed that most of them seem to be doing the same thing — recognizing that the world is full of hardship and trying to make it less bad. Which is something that I, too, struggle with as a mom.
In Deuteronomy 22:4, the text says that “If [the Israelites] see [their] fellow’s [donkey] or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; [they] must help him raise it.” In other words, bad things happen but we can make them less bad. “Parents shall not be put to death for children,” says Deuteronomy 24:16, “nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” If we ignore the egregious assumption that the death penalty in inevitable, the same principle is at work here.
To be clear, I disagree with basically all of the ways in which the biblical text is trying to mitigate harm. I don’t agree that the death penalty should exist at all, for instance, so putting limits on it as in the verse above isn’t quite enough to me. I do, however, agree with the overall sentiment in the text. It seems to me that the biblical author is wrestling with the fact that the world is full of awful situations and injustices. Bad things can’t be avoided indefinitely, but the text is trying to make the best of it. Not to protect the reader from the grisly side of life, but to show what should be done in each case.
Isn’t that sort of what parenting is, a lot of the time?
I get the New York Times and the Washington Post in my inbox every morning, and wow is the news awful. Really, really bad. The western United States is, quite literally, on fire. The pandemic continues to kill millions of people worldwide. Countries around the world are descending into chaotic violence. Nationalism and hate crimes are on the rise. Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and worse natural disasters than ever before.
And that’s just off the top of my head.
In the midst of all of this, my wife and I are trying to raise a kiddo with hope for the future, despite having little idea about what that future might hold. I often read the news and hope that he never finds out about it at all. How do we deal with all of this, on a personal level, and figure out how to explain it to our little ones in the right way, at the right time?
A while back, a friend said something that has stayed with me, and I think it’s a part of the answer. We were talking about one disaster or another, and I was descending into my usual cynicism, wondering what the point of trying even is anymore. My friend is thoughtful, and she took a moment or so before asking me, “Well, but what do you do if you don’t have hope? Like, what’s your next step?” I had no answer.
The truth is that the world is a mess. Always has been. On a global scale, there are more bad days than good. But if you allow your cynicism to deflate all of your values and motivation, there is truly nowhere to go. If, on the other hand, we look at the horrors and see opportunities for change and action — action that our children can, in one way or another, take part in — there’s hope. There’s also a framework within which to explain the bad stuff.
I think that this is what the biblical author is doing here as well. Although we are worlds apart when it comes to what we’re willing to tolerate and what we mean by change, I think we’d agree on one thing: Hope is born from within the darkness, and that means acknowledging the darkness itself.