About once a year or so a parent will contact me, concerned about a particular text that their child has been assigned at school. This parent doesn’t want their child pained by the text’s ideas, language, or images. (I wonder if parents are aware of the images and ideas to which their kids are exposed on their devices, but I keep that to myself.) I ask the parent, “Would you rather she encounter these issues when she is ‘grown up’ and has graduated, or when she’s in the safe space of a yeshiva environment where she can ask her questions of her teachers, rabbis and morot?” (Since I literally have a doctorate in the use of literature to teach moral decision making, such an argument is right in my wheelhouse.)
But beyond school, it’s equally important to tell our kids of our own pain, of our own sacrifices and struggles: we should do so not to make ourselves look awesome in their eyes (although that’s a nice side benefit), but so that they learn that life can be really difficult — and then they can ask us about it and learn from us. Our parasha of Ekev offers two instances of such telling, which initially look similar, but whose contexts are totally different. And, I would add, they both have the taste of that classic Jewish dish, the guilt-burger.
As Moshe continued his reconstructed history of the people of Israel, he came to the story of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Calf. He told the people of his trip up to Sinai: va-eshev ba-har arba’im yom ve-arba’im layla, “I dwelled on that mountain for 40 days and forty nights,” lechem lo achalti u-mayim lo shatiti, “I ate no bread and drank no water.” Moshe was on the mountain, Rashi reminds us, from the seventh of Sivan till the seventeenth of Tammuz. Moshe’s account of the lack of food may sound harsh, but it may also be a calculated humblebrag: Rabbi Moshe Schrieber in his Chatam Sofer tells us that Moshe didn’t need to eat: he was neheneh me-ziv elyon, “he was sustained by Heaven’s splendor.”
This was the highest point of Moshe’s life and career. He was literally on the level of the angels. And then it all came crashing down on the as he returned to find the people worshiping a Golden Calf and he destroyed the luchot. Rashi explains that God gave Moshe the green light to return to the mountain for the second set of luchot on Rosh Chodesh Elul. He descended 40 days later, on a day that has become the historic day of forgiveness for our people: Yom Kippur. During these 40 days, Moshe again fasted, and deliberately told the people that he did so.
Moshe said, va-etnapal lifnei Hashem ka-rishona, arba’im yom be-arba’im layla, “I threw myself before God like before, I ate no bread and drank no water,” al kol chatachem asher chatatem, “because of all your sins.” Moshe described his second visit to the mountain top in parallel detail, explains Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin in his Oznayim La-Torah, so the people wouldn’t take the second set of luchot for granted: shema tomru, ma be-kach, “lest they say, what’s the big deal?” He therefore described the difficulty of his second set of forty days, fasting to atone for the people’s sins. The Chatam Sofer notes that a fast of atonement is significantly different from a fast of angel-like glory.
Personality psychologist Dan P. McAdams writes that we all create narratives of ourselves which integrate “a reconstructed past, perceived present and anticipated future into a coherent and vitalizing life myth.” Moshe was definitely doing that in this speech, but he did so not for himself: rather, he was telling this story for his “children,” the People of Israel, who were poised on the “adulthood” of entering the Land of Israel. Moshe understood that this was no time to pull punches and coddle them. They needed to learn that life could be painful.
Life can be painful, and it requires hard work and sacrifice. It’s parents who are best positioned to give over such a message to their kids. Protecting them from what we see as painful — be it harsh language, scary images, or even the pain of a vaccination — and not allowing them to ask questions and process their pain — is a dereliction of our parental responsibility.
As we look ahead to the 40 days leading up to Yom Kippur, let’s be the parents we know we need to be.