Over a year ago, I wrote an article for the CBC with suggestions for parents on how to stay sane while coping with kids during the pandemic. I did some research, thought about it, and set out some points to follow. Now, all these ideas sound, well, familiar, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them. I mentioned things like making a routine, keeping up with learning and life skills, getting some alone time, exercise and going outside. I included efforts to have intentional fun, and practising gratitude. As I write this, much of Canada is experiencing the third wave. Manitoba, where I live, is now our country’s hot spot. It’s been a long haul for all of us.
I’ve been struggling with what is “new” when, frankly, much has stayed the same. Even as some of us have gotten vaccinated, we still need to stay home. Like everyone, I’ve gone through periods of feeling anxious, as those in charge waver on how best to keep people safe. Then, the most recent war in Israel and the Palestinian Territories erupted … and things seem even scarier.
It’s hard to admit that we have little control as individuals. We choose who to vote for, or to wear a mask, or to social distance. We cannot individually control global pandemics, violence, extremism or antisemitism. That lack of control can be very scary.
I often retreat into absorbing “flow activities” to keep myself well during such difficult times. Often, I’m cooking, sewing, knitting or spinning yarn. I’m reading or taking long walks with the dog and kids. We’re watching geese and goslings on the riverbanks and spotting woodpeckers and warblers. Taking time to see and make new things can be really good for our mental health, and it’s often positive and productive.
I also continue to study my page of Talmud, usually late at night. I recently read Tractate Yoma 35, which discusses, in part, what the high priest would wear in the Temple, as he does his most holy actions of the year, on Yom Kippur. Everything is spelled out in detail. This is done by the rabbis both to explain what used to happen in the Temple and what perhaps might happen again, if the Temple were rebuilt. Even the cost of the priest’s clothing, which must be paid for and owned by the public, is noted.
The high priest acts for the whole community and, at the same time, these rituals have to be performed by him alone, as an individual. It’s an example of where the entire community must support a leader but has no control over that leader’s actions.
In the midst of this careful recounting of how he is to fulfil his duties, it says in Yoma 35b: “Rav Huna bar Yehuda, and some say Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda, taught: after the public service concluded, a priest whose mother made him a priestly tunic may wear it and perform an individual service … provided he transfers it to the possession of the public.”
The rabbis’ discussion indicates that the tunic the high priest’s mother made him must be donated to the Temple after he wears it. If he is attached to it, this might be hard. Also, it might be worth more than what the high priest’s garb should cost. It’s something a dear one made him, and it could be both emotionally and monetarily valuable. Yet, his mom makes it freely, knowing it might only be worn at this one time, and then donated for wider Temple usage.
Bear in mind what this meant. A high priest’s mother wants only the best for her child and, yet, must submit to the whole community who depends on him. So, she procures the right fibre-linen. She might have to process it, or it might come ready for spinning. She spins enough for a garment on her spindle. (There were no spinning wheels or industrial textile factories back then!) She weaves the fabric, and sews it into the tunic according to the given specifications. Then, she gives all that work away simply for the chance to clothe her son for a short time in her own handiwork for his extremely important event, serving on Yom Kippur on behalf of the Jewish people. This lesson is an ancient one – and, yet, many of us have to learn it over and over.
There’s so much we cannot control. Many huge world events are beyond us. We learn to submit to the experience that we cannot bend to our will. In the meanwhile, though, we can do everything in our power for good, as we see it. We can offer our money, creations and time. We can behave properly and follow instructions … and wait.
Many of my activities feel the same way as that mother’s tunic, although I have no high priests at my house. I spend many hours on meals, making clothing, helping kids learn, exercise, etc. Then, I finish my tasks and give it away. This “disappearing” work makes a difference in the universe, but I’m no closer to controlling the entire pandemic, the unrest in Israel, or beyond.
This is one of the hardest lessons I’ve had as a parent and an adult. We must accept where we are because, in some cases, nothing we’re capable of will control the situation or effect change. However, in the meantime, we can be like that high priest’s mother. We can offer up our love, our handiwork, our peaceful efforts and knowledge. We can expect never to see it again, like that gorgeous linen tunic.
Learning to make things and give them away may be the most important gift. The activity itself is the part that calms me down in the face of so much uncertainty. Last night, I used some knit remnants and my sewing machine and made a lightweight sweater for a 9-year-old. This is an ancient Jewish process, but it’s also another brand new sweater. Tomorrow, he may wear it … in the mud puddles and the rain – and that’s OK, too.
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.