Rabbi Zvi Teichman
One of the most endearing descriptions of our relationship with G-d is expressed in Re’eh.
You are children to Hashem… (דברים יא א)
We are a beloved child to Hashem. His attitude towards us can only be approximated by our fathoming the love of a human loving father to his child and multiplying it endlessly to grasp how much love Hashem harbors for us.
This sentiment though, is placed amidst an injunction to refrain from grieving as the pagans do. Upon the loss of a relative the nations would inflict pain upon themselves by pulling out their hair and mutilating their flesh as a reaction to death.
The phenomenon of self-harm has been much studied. Some suggest that when facing trauma, one feels totally lost and detached from one’s identity. When experiencing overwhelming emotional pain, it crushes our very sense of self and worthiness. To regain some level of control, and awareness of our self, many express it through the infliction of pain which asserts a mastery over self and a sensation that ‘screams out’ they are indeed present and alive.
Often, we become so attached to a person; be it a parent, spouse, child, spiritual leader, or friend, that with the sudden removal of that linchpin in our lives, we feel bereft from life itself. The less self-esteem we possess the more of a sense of non-existence we feel. One who is secure in one’s own identity and role in life will be able to surf the powerful waves of grief without ever losing balance.
G-d’s affirmation of our identity as His child wasn’t merely an expression of encouragement to those who are mourning to trust Him that all that transpires is for the best. It is rather a declaration that each one of us are worthy in His eyes, and never defined solely by the relationship we have with any other individual. We can march forward in life with the awareness we are cherished for who we are and what we each do. One never has to take the reality check of pinching oneself with pain in knowing that we exist.
The Midrash points out that there are three expressions in the verse of how cherished we are in Hashem’s eyes.
You are children of the Lord, your G-d.
For you are a holy people to the Lord, your G-d, and the Lord has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth. (דברים יד א-ב)
The Holy Alshich explains that there is a very defined message in these words.
We are ‘all’, in the plural, בנים, His children, each one of us individually. And although it is true, that we are a collective entity, an עם קדוש, a holy people, nevertheless we must remember, ובך בחר, that G-d ‘has chosen you’, with the emphasis on the singular, to be a סגולה, treasured. The treasures of the King are not valued by the sum of its objects, but rather each item in the holdings of the King is a priceless entity unto itself.
As our children begin a new school year, laden with all its promise and hope, we must seek to emulate this attribute of Hashem, in fortifying our children’s sense of worth, thus enabling them to deal with those moments of challenge and disappointment, and never falter.
I had the privilege several years ago to offer words of encouragement to a wonderful group of extraordinary teachers who teach very special children under the umbrella of Shemesh, a community-wide program in Baltimore that provides the educational support for Jewish children with learning differences to reach their full intellectual, academic, emotional, and social potential in a Jewish setting.
I related that the Chida avers that when the Torah refers to Yaakov as an איש תם, it doesn’t mean ‘wholesome’, but rather a ‘simpleton’, deficient in his intellectual capacity. He was the first ‘special’ student, who overcame his weakness and became the embodiment of Torah among the Patriarchs. (פני דוד)
How did his teachers; Avraham and Yitzchok, Shem and Ever, accomplish this task?
I suggested the answer lay in the description of his activity of learning as a יושב אהלים, literally an abider of tents.
יושב doesn’t mean to just sit, but more specifically to be ‘settled’. Children with processing problems are easily distracted and constantly seeking stimulation. If we can still the waters, we can gain the child’s focus. But how?
The next word is key, אהלים. A tent is a fortress of solitude amidst a wilderness of wildlife and action. If we create embracing environments of warmth, looking the child directly in the eye, conveying validation and appreciation, we will instill the calm the child needs to focus.
Children who struggle with learning issues feel disenfranchised and inferior. In that traumatic state, they too, often disrupt their learning space with a need for a reality check that they exist, which is easily attainable when they stir up a ruckus and get validation in the reaction of a frustrated teacher.
As the child matures and begins to feel valued and validated, he becomes less disruptive, more mindful of his abilities, and appreciative of his special qualities.
We are all special children in both of its intimations. We are ‘learning’ deficient, often incapable of shedding our distractions and not attentive to our lessons. We often feel discouraged and rejected reacting with great frustration.
We must insulate ourselves in a proverbial tent, where we can focus calmly, and without distraction, on the warmth and inspiration of the Torah’s message.
Elul is that time, where we enter a refuge in time, placing a barrier between us and our regular habits in trying to focus on what is being taught, and contemplating our inherent greatness.
One of the earliest allusions to the mission of Elul is encrypted in the encounter between Yisro and Moshe where the Torah describes how: וישאלו — and they inquired, איש לרעהו — each about the other’s, לשלום — welfare, with the first letters in these words spelling out אלול. (שמות יח ז)
The first premise of Elul, to bond with one another in unity of purpose.
The verse then goes on to describe the tent of Moshe that Yisro entered together with him, in his quest for inspiration — ויבאו האהלה, then they came to the tent.
This month of אלול, adding the number of its letters to the value of its letters equal 71, the same numerical value of ויבאו האהלה!
Elul is our fortress of solitude where we calmly pay attention, feeling worthy and capable, restoring our relationship with our adoring Father.