Sunny California is living up to its name nowadays. It’s bright and hot outside. As is her custom, Hannah, my strong-spirited two-year-old, insisted on picking out her clothes yesterday morning. Despite the heat, she selected jeans, a sweater, a jacket and bunny slippers! I explained to her that it was too hot for long pants and sleeves, but she refused to wear anything else.
Then came breakfast, and she insisted on pouring the cereal into the bowl herself – which of course made a big mess. Then, she wanted to pack her own lunch – an apple and an orange –even though her nursery school serves lunch. Though adorable, her “do-it-myself” kick was driving me nuts.
This week’s Torah portion tells about a King named Balak, who hired a soothsayer named Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balak took Balaam to the top of a tall mountain so that he could look over the people and curse them from there. Balaam agreed to this plan. However, when he looked out at the people, he was spontaneously inspired to bless them instead, saying: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”[i]
What changed his mind? What did Balaam see that inspired him to bless the people instead of curse them?
The Talmud teaches that Balaam saw that “the doors of the people’s tents didn’t exactly face one another, and therefore exclaimed: ‘Worthy are these that the divine presence should rest upon them!’”[ii] The tents were arranged so that no family could see inside the other’s home. The community was structured so that the dignity of each member was respected.
This teaching struck me as fitting for Independence Day, where we express our gratitude for this “dwelling place” where the dignity of each person is respected. Like Balaam, we praise God for the freedoms we cherish. In hearing these past weeks about the struggles in Iran, I am more acutely aware of the preciousness of the right to vote in free, fair elections, the freedoms of press and assembly and all the liberties that we often take for granted. This respect for human rights makes this country “worthy that the divine presence should rest upon it.”
On a personal level, this teaching reminds me to celebrate the dignity and autonomous spirit in my children as well. Their efforts to do things themselves may drive us crazy sometimes, but these attempts also help them to grow and learn.
Yesterday morning, I could have argued with Hannah and tried to force her to wear more seasonal clothing. Instead, I smiled and sent her to nursery school in the outfit she selected – with a bag containing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals for when she got too hot. This holiday weekend, let’s pause to celebrate the independent spirit of our nation and children.
Happy Independence Day to you and your families!
[i] Numbers 24:5.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud: Baba Batra 60a.