Parenting By Parsha: Beshalach

Yesterday, our toddler took the magnet in the shape of Moses off the fridge and gave it a hug, tablets, flowing beard and all. Our kiddo is really into hugging these days, offering spontaneous snuggles to my wife and I, but also to the plush fox (Shaul) and llama (Lily) we got from family friends. And, yesterday, to Moses. 

Looking at this week’s portion, Beshalach, I think that Moses deserves more than just a hug. Maybe a “World’s Best Prophet” mug, or even some hearty applause would be in order. After all of his and Aaron’s hard work, this week we start the Torah reading by learning that Pharaoh has finally let the Israelites go. 

And so the greatest saga in the book of Exodus begins. This band of formerly enslaved people walks into the unforgiving desert, carrying the bones of their ancestors and whatever they’re able to throw into a bag. Famously, they have unleavened bread on their backs. As their Northern star, their only source of guidance, they have a pillar of flames and a pillar of smoke, showing them where to go, “that they might travel day and night.” (Exodus 13:21)

I don’t know about you, but if I saw a huge pillar of flames making its way across the desert  I wouldn’t be excited about walking towards it. But that’s what they do. They walk all the way to the banks of the Red Sea, where they turn on Moses, terrified and furious, as Pharaoh’s chariots bear down upon them. But Moses is just a guy (well, ok, he’s a guy who can talk to God). He doesn’t know how to fix this on his own. 

God says, lift your hands to the sky. Believe. Together, with my might and your arms, we can save these people. Trembling (I assume), Moses goes for it — he lifts his arms, and it works. God drives the sea back “with a strong east wind all that night, and turn[s] the sea to dry ground.” (Exodus 14:21) The Israelites pass through, the wind abates, and the waves come crashing down on their pursuers. 

Jews around the world have heard this story again and again. It’s the classic tale of redemption. We share it on Passover, but references to the Exodus also pepper our prayers throughout the year. The weekly kiddush we say to bless the Shabbat wine, for example, states clearly that the Sabbath day is dedicated to the memory of the Exodus (זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם).

What we don’t talk about, and what I’d like to write about, is what happens right after the Exodus: a wild, whooping, dancing, screaming celebration, led by the Prophet Miriam. The Song of the Sea. 

The biblical text doesn’t describe an all-out rave, which is what I’m imagining. The sheer relief, the ecstasy of being free, the unfathomable feeling of accomplishment. How proud they must have been that they managed to keep the faith long enough to see themselves walk to freedom. How could these not translate into dancing, jumping, and shrieking? While the Song of the Sea is a beautiful example of biblical-era poetry, I don’t see the Israelites gathering for a meditative poetry reading after being unshackled, maybe for the first time in memory. This calls for more than finger snapping. 

Yesterday, unrelated to the snuggle-fest with Moses the magnet, our toddler also climbed a ladder at the playground almost on his own. This is a skill that we’ve been working on for a few weeks now, and each time we try, our little one gets closer and closer to understanding the coordination of hands and legs together it takes to get to the top. 

When he got to the top, panting from the effort, he turned to us with a grin and fist-pumped the air, like Superman. Then he put his gloved hands together and clapped. 

“Woohoo!” my wife and I cried, “Great climbing!” The whole family (minus our cat) was thrilled by this achievement. It was a feat of dexterity, and it warranted a major celebration. 

One thing that we’re trying to instill in our toddler is the ability to celebrate accomplishments, regardless of whether anyone else is cheering him on. My wife has been teaching him to clap for himself whenever he’s proud. As our baby turned into a toddler, we noticed an innate sense of pride appearing in his face whenever he learned a new skill—rolling over, sitting up, standing, taking his first steps. Over time, though, we also noted a shift. Suddenly, he’s waiting for our applause, and that’s not the greatest. Sure, my wife and I were there at the playground that day, and it feels good to have the ones you love to clap for you. But our applause and recognition shouldn’t be the source of his self-esteem and pride.

Just like my toddler, I sometimes find myself waiting for applause and recognition. The truth is that I feel better about myself when people like my posts on Facebook or Instagram and write nice things about my work. This is natural, but it can become a problem when I find myself feeling blue once those positive comments and responses fade. I know I’m not alone when I wonder whether my work is worthwhile if I’m doing anything at all. 

Whatever happened to that innate instinct to be proud of myself? That same impulse that had the Israelites bursting into song on the banks of the Red Sea? I want to keep that alive in my kiddo for as long as possible. 

The other day, I was doing dishes and listening to him babble as he built a tower of blocks. When the tower was complete he stood back and said, “Whoa!” Then he clapped for himself, knocked it down, and started all over again.