Parents. Mine are long gone, but I still hear their voices. A mix of encouragement and—shall we say—correction. At Rosh Hashanah, when I evaluate my year, I always hear their voices. But how will I choose to pay attention this year?
When my brother and I were ten years old, we had a children’s version of the Shulchan Aruch, a famous 16th century digest of Jewish law. Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author, was a scholar of Talmud and also Kabbalah. He gives detailed lists of mitzvot. And he also sprinkles in little gems about their spiritual meanings.
Our children’s edition said (surprise!): “The most important mitzvah is honour your parents.” But it also explained why. “Your parents are God’s representatives on earth.”
And ten year old me said, “That’s interesting. I wonder what that means.”
Well, I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
So I was excited a few years ago, to find the book Birth of the Living God by Anna Maria Rizzuto. It’s a psychological study of people’s images of God. Rizzuto found that—for many people—their understanding of the Divine reflects their experience with their early caregivers, often their parents.
In a way, Rizzuto makes an obvious point. Our Siddur (prayer book) is full of images like “compassionate heavenly father,” or “the one who provides for all our needs.” Of course, no real parent can be heavenly all the time, or provide for our every need. These are ideal parent images. They amplify the best moments of parenting. And they describe a spiritual relationship in which—maybe—we can find what we missed in childhood.
But what if your parents’ worst mistakes are so present to you that you can’t even imagine an ideal? And you feel haunted by their terrifying larger-than-life presence? A cosmic presence, so to speak? Anna Maria Rizzuto wrote about that, too. How, on the path to healing, some have found a more loving, supportive relationship with God.
Recent Torah and haftorah readings (Parshat Ekev) hint at these two kinds of images of God.
According to Moses, God says, “Here’s your inheritance. But don’t think I’m giving you an inheritance because you’re so good. I mean, compared to everyone else, you’re not the worst, but let me just list a few of the really bad things that stick out in my memory…” (Deut. 9:5-8).
Some of us remember that our parents spoke to us just like this. Maybe we still play this clip in our minds. We know we can never be good enough. But at least we’re not the worst. How do we know? We keep track of all our friends’ faults too!
Now this inner voice isn’t entirely negative. It’s good to have a conscience that says: you can always do better. But it’s also good to hear other inner voices.
According to the prophet Isaiah, God says, “Could a mother ever forget her children? Well, maybe it happens sometimes, but I could never forget you. See, I wrote your name on the palm of my hands” (Isa 49:15-16).
Some of us heard this parental voice, too. If we are lucky, we can play this clip when we need it. We calm ourselves, and tune into a wavelength of peace and well-being. And we say to ourselves: you got this. You are enough exactly as you are, right now. You are loved.
Maybe this is what Rabbi Karo means. When we were children, the voice of our parents was like the voice of God. And we internalized it, for better or for worse. But now that we are adults, we can meet God differently. In intentional, healing ways.
For example, at Rosh Hashanah, I evaluate myself. So, I turn up the volume on the critical parental voice. As I should—that voice is the basis of my conscience. But when that voice gets too loud, it hurts.
Let’s say—for example—I had friend who was ill. And I forgot to check in on her over the summer. When I remember, I think: I’m a monster for neglecting this mitzvah. My friend must think that I’m a monster, too. But, if she thinks that, then she’s a monster, too…
So sometimes I have to tune into the voice of forever love. Set aside the judgments, reach out to that friend, and let her know, “I could never forget you.” And, give her the opportunity to reply, “I could never forget you either. I welcome you back.”
Originally prepared as a dvar Torah at Congregation Beth Israel, Vancouver. More about Isaiah’s maternal theology here.