A few weeks ago I was at the playground with my kiddo and my wife. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and the place was hopping. If you want to know where the party is on a weekend in Bed-Stuy, I can tell you — it’s at the playgrounds. Kids of all ages raced around the space, calling out to one another and laughing raucously. Toddlers toddled, babies smiled at the sun, and parents chatted idly by the benches. In a distant corner, someone was getting in an outdoor workout, blasting hip-hop on a Bluetooth speaker.
After a winter of solo outings to this same park, my kid is more than a little confused by the whole idea of sharing the swings or waiting in line for the slide. He always looks at me, perplexed, when another kid is climbing the ladder. He points at himself and says, “Ata!” meaning, “Me!” (he’s a little confused about this word).
On this day, his little legs carried him up the stairs to a bridge from one area of the play structure to another. In the very middle of the bridge, he lay down and said, “Mama?” I smiled — this was a wintertime game for us: laying down and looking at the tree branches sway in the breeze. That’s how my little one learned the word “ananim,” for clouds.
On this day, though, I felt self-conscious about lying down on the dirty bridge, with so many other parents around. I’ve always believed that “we’re all washable,” as the great Judy Blume once wrote. If our clothes get dirty, we’ll wash them. Nonetheless, I found myself concerned about how my kiddo’s behavior would reflect on me as a parent.
I could hear the other parents judging me (although they definitely weren’t, they were plenty busy chasing their own kids). “What kind of mother lets her kid lay down on a dirty play structure?” the voices in my head asked. “What kind of mom lays down on a filthy space like that?” they continued.
This exchange between my judgy subconscious and my conscious self came to mind as I read this week’s Torah portion, Emor. Throughout the portion, God is listing actions that the Israelites should (or should not) do in order to be holy, as Moses takes dictation. “He shall not eat anything that died or was torn by beasts, thereby becoming unclean: I am the Lord,” he says in Leviticus 22:8.
The various list items are separated into categories, and each one is sealed by that same explanation: “for I am the Lord.” And let me tell you, the categories are diverse. From various sexual proclivities to the commandment to honor Yom Kippur, the verses run the gamut of holy and unholy actions. How can they all get that same explanation — do this, because if you aren’t holy, I am not holy.
I’ve read this portion a lot of times. Actually, I’ve taught it to three separate Bat Mitzvah students in the last couple of years. But this was the first time that the text made me think of God as a parent to the Israelites, someone who is looking to contain the actions of their offspring to protect them, yes, but also their own image.
“You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Lord,” God says to the Israelites (via Moses) in Leviticus 22:31. The Torah scholar Ibn Ezra says that this means that the commandments should be in their hearts, and that particularly resonated with me. After all, that’s what I want for my little one, too. Not that he should fulfill my commandments as he walks through the world, but that he should take the values we’re teaching him in his heart, wherever he goes. Be faithful to our teachings.
I want this because I want my toddler to grow up to live a life guided by values and morals, but also (if I’m honest), because I don’t want other people to think I’m a bad person. I’m insecure just like anyone else, and I love hearing about how my kiddo is a talented, sweet, genius. I don’t love hearing about his struggles with sharing nearly as much.
The thing I realized that day, and the thing that came back to me as I read this text, is that laying down on that bridge and watching the tree branches tickle the clouds is the value set I’m teaching. So maybe the other parents think we’re getting all filthy — so what? I would prefer for my kid to get dirty while observing the beauty of the trees and sky than to worry about the state of his jeans.
To be clear, I have no judgment for a parent who opts for an opposite approach. The point isn’t that our way is better, it’s that it’s our way, and we have to own it. If I could offer God some advice, as I read the verses of Emor, it’s that all you can do is be true to the guidance you give your kids. Model those choices. Own them. Then trust your kiddos to go out into the world and take what they will. By letting go of that judgment, you have more time to smile at the movement of the clouds across the sky and point to the streetlight flickering on.