When it comes to parenting, I confess to being a slow learner. I should know by know that my almost-seven year old does not respond well, in general, to declarations of causality. Despite this general self-awareness, whether due to stubbornness on my part or just plain fatigue, I still find them tumbling out of my mouth.
She probably hears them as threats, which, I suppose, they really are. It doesn’t seem to matter if I try to soften the blow, as in: “If you don’t do “x” now, there will be consequences later.” She needs to hear, right away, that if she doesn’t get those dolls put away, and her sneakers put on now, that she will not get the orange sticker on the chart to earn the.. chosen reward of the moment.
But in my experience—and with just two children of my own, I confess that this is not a scientific sample—the “if-then” approach just doesn’t work very well. Alternative approaches, such as sharing the decision-making or offering choices bring better results, as well as happier children, and a more sane Ima.
There is also the “natural consequences” approach. When I am willing, and able, it’s often best to let the child’s choice, even if it’s not the “best,” win the moment. As long as it’s safe (and not too costly in terms of replacement items!), allowing the effects of that decision to be experienced turns into a more deeply integrated learning. So, when she wears that long sleeveless dress with party shoes out to play, and finds out that she’s uncomfortably chilly and can’t hang upside down on the swinging bar, it’s unlikely she would make that choice again.
There’s a chunk of this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, that reads like a parenting manual, but much, much more intimidating. Moshe tells the people of Israel if they listen well to Adonay, they will be blessed with six lovely blessings; if they do not, they will be affected by six ugly curses. The text then continues with ninety-eight more curses, each one more calamitous and devastating than the next.
When I chant the verses from the Torah that contain this passage in my shul on Shabbat morning, Deuteronomy 28:15-69, I will actually be sharing it with a member of the congregation, our Torah reading coordinator. Historically, a congregation’s shamash, or its hired reader, would read this aliyah, as others might be reluctant to be associated with such potent pronouncements.
The longer than usual number of verses reflects the tradition that one should never end a Torah (or Haftarah) reading on a negative note. We forge ahead, until we reach a verse that contains a note of nekhamta, or comfort. In this case, the verse offers a concluding statement for the entire Deuteronomic code.
When we read this passage, we will be doing so in a low voice, and in a hurried fashion, still taking care to pronounce the words correctly, but not lingering over them. This section, and a similar passage from Parshat Bekhukotay, found in Leviticus 26:14-43, are termed tokhekha, or chastisement, and are both read in this fashion.
Paradoxically, when one radically alters a familiar practice, it brings attention to it and possibly new awareness. Listeners will strain to catch the words, peer more closely into their text, following along in either the Hebrew, or the English, to catch the words. Ideally, the ritual provides the opportunity to make meaning from the words, and contemplate their awe-full implications.
In a few weeks time, Jews will be invoking God as parent in rising, compelling cadences. Avinu malkeynu, we implore, be gracious to us, respond to our pleas, deal with us in hesed, lovingly. We’ll be capping a month, plus ten days, of reflection, self-examination, and prayer that we frame as the process of teshuvah—returning and renewing.
What are the “natural consequences” of following, or not following, the path of teshuvah? Do we take the time to listen to our voices of authority, from within and from without? What are the consequences for us if we don’t? Do our voices of authority counsel us well, lead us towards a realm of blessing, or keep us derailed and burdened by intolerable consequences?
The month of Elul is a good time to encounter Parshat Ki Tavo. Let us all be blessed with the capacity to make the most of the encounter.