I am my mother, I am my father.
As I write this, I am on a flight from Berlin to New York. I almost missed my flight this morning. I don’t eat airplane food, so before leaving my apartment I had make an elaborate Israeli salad to bring with me on board. Then at the airport, I had to rush to get a COVID test in order to be able to enter the United States. I had to pay for a checked bag because even though I had already paid for one when I booked the ticket, the airline had no record of this purchase. This resulted in my getting into a heated argument with the airline receptionist only 45 minutes before my flight was going to depart. To get through security fast enough to make my flight, I had to cut in front of hundreds of passengers, asking each of them if I may pass (at first I tried to simply walk directly to the front of the line but I got caught and was forced back to the end of the line). They stopped me at security because of a contraption I use to hold books upright so I can eat and read at the same time. They thought it was an explosive device. My Israeli salad and other snacks also arose suspicion, with the security official remarking, in the end, how healthy I eat. Finally, I made it on to the plane with just a few minutes to spare. All’s well that ends well—or was it? In fact, as I went to stow my luggage in the overhead bin, I realized that I was one bag short. My yoga mat, and the cylindrical black bag I keep it in, were missing. Amid the chaos at the security check, I had forgotten it on the conveyor belt. I sat down into my seat. I was already frazzled from the hours-long journey from apartment to plane, furious that I had to pay 70 euros for a bag I already paid 70 euros for, and now dejected that I had lost my yoga mat. If I were a child, I would certainly have cried in this moment, as all children do when they lose their favorite toys. But because I am an adult, I didn’t cry—I couldn’t cry. Instead I just sat in that airplane seat muttering profanities to myself and cursing things and people. The nice thing about being a child is that, when you cry, adults—usually your mother—go to exorbitant measures to try to cheer you up. They bring you a new toy, they hug you, they try to distract you with faces and games, they sing to you, they promise you every sort of wonder to be found under the sun—anything to just get you to stop crying. But when an adult sits in a chair and angrily mutters to himself, nobody comes to his rescue. In fact, nobody says sh*t to him. It is fair to say that, in this moment, this poor adult needs a mother.
Adults do not only need mothers. They also need fathers. I made the mistake of going to bed at 1:30 a.m. last night even though I had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make it to the airport three hours before the flight. Because I was running on such little sleep, I inevitably hit the snooze button on my alarm two times before getting up. And even when I did sit up in bed, I spent another five or 10 minutes just staring into space because I was so tired. I had to eventually propel myself out of bed, knowing that if I waited any longer I would risk missing my flight. The same dynamic occurred the night before. I probably could have stayed up even later cooking, eating, texting, watching YouTube, and doing whatever else it was I was doing, but eventually I realized that this could not go on any longer and that I had better go to bed. Here, a father would have been useful. When a child is on the verge of staying up too late, the father is there to gently send him to bed. When a child needs to get up but is tired or groggy, the father is there to lift him up and escort him out into the day.
Adults, in short, do not have parents. But adults often need a mother and a father just as badly as children need them. To remedy this dilemma, an adult must give birth—not to a son and a daughter but to a mother and a father. The adult must create his or her own parents. His parents already gave birth to him, now it is time for him to give birth to them.
In 1934, Walter Benjamin published an essay on the literature of Franz Kafka to mark the 10th anniversary of the Prague author’s death. Benjamin’s task was to explain the essence of Kafka’s cryptic, beguiling literature. Benjamin’s essay is often just as opaque and indecipherable as are Kafka’s stories. Nevertheless, Benjamin is quite valuable as our jungle guide. If Benjamin is read carefully, the mysteries inherent to Kafka’s prose may begin to quietly unravel. Benjamin repeatedly describes Kafka’s literature as a reversal. In Kafka’s stories, we frequently encounter students. These students eagerly study their books, usually law books. Yet, the ebullience with which these students study is not proportionate to the goal of this studying. They study without purpose and without direction; put another way, they study for the sake of studying. Benjamin remains fascinated by this motif in Kafka. He sees it as a commentary on the study of Jewish scriptures. Traditionally, the Torah and the Talmud were studied vociferously for a clear purpose—namely, to understand Jewish Law, to attain a closer proximity to God, to apply Jewish tradition to one’s life. This was goal-oriented study in which the goal was outside of the studying itself. Benjamin proposes that, in Kafka, “[r]eversal is the direction of the study which transforms existence into script.” Benjamin also writes that “Kafka doesn’t dare attach to this study the promises which tradition has attached to the study of the Torah.”
In order to properly understand Benjamin’s point here, it is helpful to consider when he wrote his Kafka essay. He published it at the very end of 1934 in the Berlin newspaper the Jüdische Rundschau. Hitler had already been in power in Germany for almost two years. From exile in Paris, Benjamin watched as month-by-month, the dark cloud of Nazism and Fascism spread evermore menacingly over his native land. Reversal is the direction of the study which transforms existence into script. What Benjamin wishes to convey here, I think, is that we, as Jews, during this most urgent of moments in world history, need to reverse our relationship to Torah and to God. The time is past in which we could come to God and to Torah like children and expect that studying like good Talmidim would save us. In the climate of Nazi Germany, religion, Benjamin contends, is for children. Life, by contrast, is for adults. The direction of study must be reversed such that, so to speak, we ourselves become God and Torah. We must clutch for ourselves the authority historically reserved for God and religion if we are to survive through these cataclysmic times.
In the haftarah of Bemidbar, we read from the second chapter of Hosea. Hosea was married to a woman named Gomer. Gomer was, to put it mildly, a challenging wife. She fled Hosea’s home and sank down to the bottommost rungs of society, eventually becoming a slave-like concubine to another man. Nevertheless, Hosea continued to love her. He bought her back from slavery and lead her once more into his home, hoping that she would awaken to her better self. Hosea’s act was one of unconditional love. This harrowing domestic experience inspired—or better, became—Hosea’s prophecy. He saw in his relationship with Gomer an analogy between God and Israel. In fact, Hosea believed that God had brought the wayward Gomer to him in order to open Hosea’s eyes to the identical relationship between God and the wayward Israeli people.
In his prophecy, Hosea laments how Israel has disappointed God through idol worship and general disloyalty. Despite Israel’s sins, however, Hosea reminds his audience of God’s unconditional love—that just as he, Hosea, continued to love Gomer despite her outlandish behavior, God will always love Israel no matter how deeply they disobey. As he writes, Hosea adopts a strange literary tactic. He refers to Israel as “the mother.” In verse four, Hosea writes as the mouthpiece of God: “Plead with your mother, plead; For she is not my wife, neither am I her husband.” The medieval rabbi from the South of France, Kimchi, offers a compelling analysis of this verse. Kimchi recognizes that “mother” here refers to the Israelite nation. Yet, the audience of Hosea’s prophecy is also the Israelite nation. Kimchi posits that instructing Israelites to plead with their mother, the Israelite nation, is really Hosea’s effort to get Israelites to plead with each other. I believe we can take Kimchi’s point here even further. The verse can be interpreted to mean that the Israelites must become their own mothers because God, the father or the husband, is unwilling to “mother” them. Ultimately, God, too, plays his role as benevolent father-figure. Arguably, his criticism of the Israelites is a necessary impetus to compel them to change. In verse 16, God complements this hard message with loving kindness. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to explaining how God will still remain “married” to Israel no matter how distant she strays.
In this enigmatic chapter from Hosea, the prophet plays with traditional structures of parent and child, husband and wife. He bases Israel’s geo-religious situation on his own personal domestic relationship with the wayward Gomer. The Israeli people are simultaneously their own mother, God’s wife, and God’s child. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, all swim incestuously together. What we may take away from Hosea is that, as adults, we need to be prepared to continuously morph in and out of all of these roles. We cannot be like children anymore and wait to be comforted and consoled by our parents. But this does not mean we cannot be our own parents. Based on this passage, it seems as though Judaism itself recommends that we need not only be God’s children; we can—we must—also be our own children, both as a community and as individuals.
Self-compassion is both a new and ancient Buddhist practice. It teaches us to treat ourselves with the same gentleness and love we would extend to our closest family members and friends. This teaching has been around for millennia, but it has also become enormously popular in recent years. It counteracts the pressure contemporary society places on us to overachieve, to be perfect, to have high self-esteem. At its core, self-compassion basically asks that we be parents to ourselves—since, as adults, we can no longer have parents the way we had them as children. In those rarest of instances in which children are perfectly and idyllically raised by their parents, they will not need to exercise self-compassion. All of these teachings will have already been built-in to the child’s psyche. He or she will be, as an adult, mother, father, and child, all in one person. But these perfectly-raised children are as rare as perfect golf swings.
There is a yin and a yang to self-empathy. The yin represents the maternal energy, the yang is the fatherly force. As adults, we must cultivate the ability to summon both yin and yang, internal mother and internal father, based on the particular experience we are undergoing. The yin is there to soothe us when we are upset—that is, when we are doing the adult-version of crying. The yin is what I needed to apply to myself when I realized I lost my yoga mat at the security checkpoint. In this moment, I needed comfort, reassurance, and maybe even distraction. In short, I needed my mom. Sometimes, however, comfort and consolation are not what we need, even if we “want” them. When my alarm went off after just four hours of sleep, it would have been comforting and soothing and “motherly” to go back to bed. Yet, while this may have been what I “wanted,” it was not what I needed. What I needed was to get up. I needed the father—the yang. The yang should arise when we require motivation and sustenance. It should be there to gently nudge us forward and to propel us to take action. Critically, though, both yin and yang should be administered lovingly, as parents would speak to their innocent and vulnerable child. Finally, we should endeavor to find a harmonious tension between yin and yang. The character of the adult rarely has a balance between motherly and fatherly energy, such that the adult leans on one force at the expense of the other. Summoning the mother when we need the father, and vice versa, will almost certainly cause us to misstep.
When we sit at our workstations, we rarely have our mother and father there with us. The time we spend working at the computer offers us opportunities to cultivate yin and yang. Often, we sit at the computer in ways which would distress our mothers—we have bad posture, we do not take enough breaks, we are staring at the screen too long. Here, we might take on the role of mother to ourselves, asking how we would bring comfort to our child if we saw him or her sitting like this. The yin, however, would prefer if we never sat at the computer at all and rather lay down instead in our warm, comfortable beds. The ergonomics of a bed might soothe us more than those of a chair ever could. But if we opt for the bed over the desk, we will forego our lifeline of sustenance and protection—that is, we will lose our job. If our coffee break has begun to go on too long, it is time for the yang—the father—to step in and supportively escort us back to work.
Discover more by listening to my weekly podcast, The Schrift, on German literature, meditation, Torah, and cultural critique, available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and on my website, steventobyweinberg.com