This summer, we passed signs along the Trans-Canada Highway. These are the ones that mark 10 kilometres, one kilometre at a time, allowing drivers to see if their vehicle’s odometer is properly calibrated. My kids haven’t done much in the way of long-distance car trips, and this was a novelty for them, like seeing horses, cows and fields of canola and flax flowers.
I was driving my kids out of town to social distance and pick berries at a farm on the prairies. In the middle of the day, we took a dip in Lake Manitoba at Delta Beach before driving home. The water was shallow and tepid, the sand dark-looking and the humidex 40. I sat huddled under a towel, trying to keep from roasting in the sun. My kids had a blast. I think this kind of outing will be something they’ll remember for a long time, even as I think of nicer beaches we should have tried, perhaps on a cooler or breezier day.
I was considering this afterwards, “in the rear-view mirror,” as I continued to read my page of Talmud each day. Part of doing Daf Yomi, for me, is seeing how the rabbis compare and discuss things. For instance, one rabbi might indicate the custom or halachah (Jewish law) in his town, while another says, no, that’s not how it’s done … someplace else. Even when the rabbis are living right in the same place, their perception differs in terms of how things go and what is acceptable. It’s all relative. Their efforts to define and shape Jewish law in a new age, after the loss of the Temple, required all kinds of careful legal arguments, and much of it is illustrated with anecdotes and backed up by quotes from Torah.
However, in Eruvin 6b, it’s made clear that one can’t just decide to follow “all the stringent rules” or all the lenient ones. Instead, we must choose one or the other, and demonstrate internal consistency and intellectual integrity. You can’t just follow parts of Beit Hillel or parts of Beit Shammai. A person who just does the strict things laid out by both Hillel and Shammai, who is he? “The fool walks in darkness.” (Ecclesiastes 2:14) The person who always chooses the easy, most lenient path is flat-out “a wicked person.”
Much of daily life revolves around these comparisons and measurements we make. As a parent, I’m often striving for internal consistency, while knowing all the time that much of what is going on in the world doesn’t make sense to me. It certainly isn’t consistent! How do we find helpful rules and guidelines as everything changes around us?
For one thing, we can look back through literature (Talmud) and (Jewish) history to find comparisons and role models, and this helps me at times. I know that, while this particular virus, COVID-19, may be new, many of the challenges we’re facing aren’t. Just as the rabbis used their experiences to compare and measure and create talmudic Jewish guidelines, we must rely on our education and experiences to navigate this time.
When I thought about it, I realized how many of my usual kilometre markers had changed. A “normal” summer for me as a kid involved summer camp and a family vacation, neither of which happened this year for my kids. A “normal” school year, beginning in September, might revolve around school bus rides, tests, grades, holiday gatherings and aiming towards things like bar mitzvah or graduation or other life events.
However, thinking critically doesn’t always mean that we must compare something to a fixed standard, or the way things ought to be or used to be. It might mean that we’re able to take the available evidence, compare things, and make meaning about what’s happening, instead. It may mean drawing conclusions from the available evidence.
Our evidence? This summer, my household has had far more family time. There’s been time for free play and day trips, spontaneous water play in the yard, long dog walks, ice creams, gardening, and even time for reading in the cool basement on very hot days. Despite some car repairs and the loss of much of my freelance work, our finances have actually been OK – because we have nowhere to go! (We haven’t spent money on a big trip to visit our relatives in the United States, for one thing.)
Like nearly everybody else, we’ve skipped big gatherings for school, holidays and birthdays. We’ve charted a different course. And, when I thought back to the markers on our day trip, I realized something. My car, purchased in the United States, measures distance in miles, so I can’t check my odometer on the Trans-Canada! Comparing kilometre markers in a car odometer that works in miles? That’s an apples to oranges comparison. It doesn’t work.
So, the introverts in our house didn’t have camp or anything “normal,” but also didn’t really mind missing the annual big events – no weddings, bar mitzvahs or graduation parties this year. Instead, my kids grew big cucumbers, learned to swim better, dug sandcastles, read many mystery stories out loud during our family “reading group” and practised cursive. Small markers, but still important ones.
Like the rabbis, we parsed out what made the experience meaningful during a difficult time. In the end, miles or kilometres, we made the same trip. Comparisons bring us understanding, order and sometimes even enjoyment, no matter how far we drive or how we measure it. If you’re sad about missing major milestones, it might be time to change the measurements you’re using. No matter what markers you use, you’ll find you still traveled a long ways this summer, metaphorically or literally. It’s all in how you use and view the comparisons.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.