Carpool Line

As a parent, moments of inspiration can come from unusual places. One might think that you need to go to a mountaintop or to the ocean for inspiration. But for me, all I need to do is sit in carpool line.

In the afternoon, when I pick Jeremy up in carpool line I found a spiritual mentor of sorts. This man is someone I don’t know well, but he’s changed the way I view life.

The person I’m referring to is Daniel, a security guard at the preschool my son attends. Every morning and afternoon, his job is to direct cars in carpool line. His job seems pretty monotonous to me – standing for long stretches of time to direct the people and cars. What’s remarkable is that he does his job with immense joy. He gives high-fives to the kids walking by. He notices everything and he’ll comment to Jeremy, “Oh, I love your Elmo shirt.” When we walked by one morning, Hannah had schmutz on her face, and he wiped it off. Once he told me that my car’s breaks were squeaking and needed to be inspected, and he was right.

Daniel welcomes each person and makes them feel appreciated through these little gestures. Even if you’re having a rough day, there’s one bright spot in your day. The experience of the synagogue as a warm and loving place begins with him. I wonder: where does his joy come from? How is he able to make such an impact on me and on countless others that he encounters every day?

An answer to this question may be found in one of the most unsightly parts of the Torah. This week’s Torah portion addresses a disease called tzara’at. This word is often mistranslated as leprosy but actually refers to a strange disease that can afflict people or even houses. In people, tzara’at turns the skin white, and in houses, tzara’at is a kind of mold. Either way, it’s no fun!

This part of the Torah is seemingly the least relevant to today – as we thankfully no longer have this disease on our bodies or in our homes. This section is perhaps the last place in the Torah you would expect to find spiritual inspiration but is home to one of my favorite teachings.

Leviticus teaches that if a person contracted the disease, he or she should go to the priest, and the text offers specific instructions to the priest on diagnosis. The verse reads:

And the priest is to look at the affliction on the skin of the flesh; if the hair in area has turned white and the look of the affliction is deeper than the skin of his flesh, then it is tzara’at, and the priest is to look at him, he is to pronounce him impure.

This text is repetitious. The priest is supposed “to look at the affliction” and then “to look at him.” Why is the action of looking stated twice?

Rabbi Y. Y. Tronk from Kutno taught that two levels of looking are required. He wrote:

It would appear that we have a hint here that when one looks at a person, one should not only see his shortcomings – where he has been afflicted – but should look at him as a whole, including his strengths. … Thus, although the priest first needs to ‘look at the affliction,’ afterwards, he must ‘look on him’ as a whole.

This teaching urges us to broaden our vision by looking twice at those we encounter.

In this passage, Rabbi Tronk practiced what he preached. He took a second look at a challenging text – peering beneath the surface of the verse to the deeper meaning hidden within it. That’s what the enterprise of Torah is all about.

Likewise, I think the source of Daniel’s joy is the way he sees both the world around him and his role in it. In a narrow definition, his job is to stand there and wave the cars and people by. However, in a broader view, his task is to care for the people whom he encounters, which is what he does. Like the priest, he really looks at those around him – noticing everything from the new shirt to the smudge on Hannah’s face – and acts as an agent of caring, no less than a rabbi or a doctor.

We often ask children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ but perhaps a more important question is ‘How do we want to be when we grow up?’ Whether one is a clergy person, a lawyer, a mail carrier, a parent, or a friend, the ultimate task is actually the same. The job is caring for God’s creatures. The goal is to open our eyes fully to ourselves and each other.

Daniel does not know that I am writing about him – (though I’ll give him a copy). We rarely realize the depth of the impact we have on one another. Each one of us has the power to brighten each other’s day. All we need to do is take a second look.

A common expression is ‘mothers have eyes behind their head.’ On some level, parenthood does give you a second pair of eyes – a new way of approaching the world. With those new eyes, inspiration can come from the most routine and seemingly mundane parts of our day. With a second look, the security guard becomes a mentor. The gross parts of Torah become our guide. And we become much more than we imagined.

On that note, I better go. Carpool line awaits.

Passover Message

At my son's preschool, there are two ways that you can bring your children to class in the morning. You can drop them off in the carpool line through the garage or you can park and walk them to their classroom. Certainly, the carpool line is a more direct route. You don’t have to find a parking space or even get out of the car. The teachers swiftly unbuckle your child from the back seat, and this quick, simple process only takes a few minutes. By contrast, taking your child to the classroom involves finding parking, walking them through the synagogue building, dropping their lunch in their cubby, finding their teacher and classmates out on the playground where you say good bye, and walking back through the building to the car. All told, walking your child to class takes about a half hour longer than carpool line.

For Jeremy’s first year of preschool, I dropped him off each morning in the carpool line, but one day I walked him in to deliver a form to the office. From that day on, Jeremy refused to go through the morning carpool line and always insisted that I take him to the classroom. He noticed that this extended our time together and felt more comfortable with the transition this way.

As I began to walk Jeremy to the classroom regularly, I noticed a few things gradually happen. I started to get to know his teachers better, as I would see them each day. I also became better acquainted with the other parents. We made play dates and schmoozed about camp plans or swim lessons. Jeremy pointed out to me his art projects that hung in the classroom, and I was far more aware of what was happening at school. In Jeremy’s second year of preschool, both he and I had a better experience by choosing the indirect route.

This month, we celebrate the holiday of Passover which marks the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. When the people left Egypt, God took them on an indirect route. Exodus recounts:

And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them
not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near;
for God said, ‘Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they
return to Egypt;’ But God led the people around, through the way of the
wilderness of the Red Sea; and the people of Israel went up armed out of the
land of Egypt.[i]

God’s choice here is surprising. When fleeing slavery, one would want to leave as quickly as possible! (Indeed, Pharaoh and his army soon came chasing after the Israelites with his horsemen and chariots.) Why would God choose a longer escape route?

The rabbis offer many explanations. Some list practical concerns: that if the people had gone on the shorter route, the Philistines might have attacked them. Yet Rashi (an eleventh century commentator) explained that if they had gone a direct way, they would have found it too easy to turn back when they became discouraged, so God purposely lead them in a circuitous path. The Talmud states that sometimes in life, “There is a short way which is long, and a long way, which is short.”[ii]

Again and again as a parent I’ve discovered the truth of this maxim. I’ve found that the more difficult route is often the better choice. For example, making a birthday cake with one’s child is more work than buying a cake from the store, but the memory of baking together will be with the child for the rest of their lives. (I know because my mother and I made our birthday cake together each year when I was young, which is one of my fondest memories.)

This principle is true not only for our children but for us, as parents as well. One of the frustrations of parenthood is that it can slow us down and change our course. Important projects take longer than they did before kids. A graduate degree that might normally take a few years, may take a parent of young children a decade to complete. A book might take longer to write.

Or our destination may be different than we originally thought. A professional may discover that he or she prefers to be a stay at home parent, or someone who assumed s/he’d be a full time parent, may discover that s/he needs to or wants to work. Moms and dads may end up living or working in a different place than we originally envisioned. As parents, our dreams shift. On an indirect route, sometimes we can’t see the path ahead clearly. We may not know where our new road will lead. We may make mistakes or take detours along the way.

Indeed, my shift in how I dropped off my son to school mirrored a change within me to a less direct route in my own life. Before having children, I was a full-time congregational rabbi, but after having my second child, my career no longer followed a linear path as before. Although I was raised in a dual career family and assumed that I would always work, I was surprised how much I enjoyed being home with the kids, and I didn’t know what to make of those feelings. Where would my new path lead?

In reflection, the Exodus text has a few insights to share. It reminds us that our detours may not necessarily be mistakes. If unexpected turns offer new perspective, then they are important steps along the way. The Exodus text encourages us to have faith – even when we can’t see our way ahead clearly. Sometimes, God knows us better than we know ourselves.

The Exodus reminds us that we are bigger than the categories that we try to fit ourselves into. Working parent, stay at home parent, professional, – those boxes are too small to encompass the complexity and beauty of who we are. Life is far more complicated and wondrous than simple labels allow.

The Exodus reminds us that as long as we are open to learning along the path, then no matter how windy, our road will eventually lead us to liberation. Like taking Jeremy to school, what was important was not only the destination but the relationships that were built along the way. As parents, no matter how many frustrations we face, hopefully we meet some good people along the way and make memories that will last a lifetime.

I better stop writing and go pick up Jeremy from school.

Happy Passover!

[i] Exodus 13:17-18.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 53b. See also Rabbi David Lieber, Etz Chayim (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001) p. 399.