If you see me in the grocery store and I don’t recognize you, I’m sorry. I sometimes have a hard time remembering names and faces. Why? Well, it turns out that sleep deprivation can affect this kind of memory. Even though my kids sleep better now, for four-and-a-half years, they didn’t get through the night. Parents who have gone through this may know what I’m talking about. It’s embarrassing and depressing to feel like I’m losing my mind, but it’s lack of sleep! It’s not anything serious; just part of many families’ lives with young kids.
While I’m bemoaning this – I used to keep track of hundreds of students when I taught full-time – I can let you in on a little secret. Newsflash: we’re not perfect. Yup! Shocking, I know. We all have faults, challenges, difficulties and struggles. It’s normal. However, the secular New Year often comes with New Year’s resolutions and, right about now, they are testing people’s commitment everywhere. Only a few weeks ago, all around us, in the media and on the gym treadmills, many of us were committing to “fixing” our faults and making a big change(s). Some of us are, no doubt, already having trouble sticking to them. Don’t get me wrong, change, exercise, new promises – it’s all good.
When we look at the Torah portion for the beginning of the year (Jan. 6, Shemot/Exodus 1:1-6:1), we can enjoy both a good storyline and some thoughts about challenges. This is a portion that covers a lot of ground. The Reform Judaism Torah portion page summarizes it this way:
“The new king of Egypt makes slaves of the Hebrews and orders their male children to be drowned in the Nile River. (1:1-22)
“A Levite woman places her son, Moses, in a basket on the Nile, where he is found by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in Pharaoh’s house. (2:1-10)
“Moses flees to Midian after killing an Egyptian. (2:11-15)
“Moses marries the priest of Midian’s daughter, Zipporah. They have a son named Gershom. (2:16-22)
“G-d calls Moses from a burning bush and commissions him to free the Israelites from Egypt. (3:1-4:17)
“Moses and Aaron request permission from Pharaoh for the Israelites to celebrate a festival in the wilderness. Pharaoh refuses and makes life even harder for the Israelites. (5:1-23)”
Here we are, looking at a portion about our leader, Moses. He’s likely confused about his identity, since he was nursed by his Jewish mother, but raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s house.
Moses is a person who kills someone else in anger and then runs away. He also – according to Rashi’s commentary – has a speech impediment and stutters, so he needs his brother to help him communicate. There’s much here. The short version is that we have a model of a leader with serious faults and challenges – and that’s OK.
Why? Well, the Jewish take on this is that we have to continually work on ourselves. We don’t get to stop learning, seeking forgiveness, or trying to do better. We have to keep on keeping on. So, while a new year (any new year, go ahead and pick one!) might help remind us of this, it’s meant to be a daily exercise. It’s not supposed to be easy, either. The Torah offers us multiple narratives about struggle, challenge, defeat and renewal. It’s up to us to read it and draw conclusions.
In the popular media, there’s a whole self-help genre. This stuff is sometimes helpful and, on occasion, you see that the website, book, podcast or article was a waste of time. Reading it can also make us feel worse and fuel our anxieties. However, the Torah, the rabbis and centuries of Jewish liturgy are part of this self-help tradition – of how to make ourselves into better people. The difference, in my opinion, is the emphasis on perfection. If you get sucked into it, you’ll have yourself believing that your house should be as perfect as the staged ones on HGTV, or that if you just exercised, dieted, exfoliated or botoxed enough, you, too, would look like the “ideal” you.
Judaism may offer an alternate reality. There is no such thing as perfect. We may have struggles or challenges, disabilities or personality flaws. Our Jewish goal, in this context, is to try hard to be better people. We may not be perfect in our work lives. Our bodies may not look like airbrushed super models – and that’s OK. We’re offered a text that includes powerful, important leaders who are just people. People, like Moses, with identity issues, anger management problems, physical challenges and a lack of confidence. There are people who struggle with defiance, disobedience and authority, and all kinds of other folks, too.
I think it’s fair to say that all of us struggle sometimes, and give in to the bad feelings. It’s knowing we’re not where we want to be – personally, professionally, physically or socially. I feel embarrassed every single time that I bump into someone who knows me and I don’t know them or cannot remember their name. Instead of beating myself up about it, I try to smile, say hello and embrace the (sleepless) situation I’ve got, and that might be the key to a good resolution. We can keep working on it, no matter where we are. In this way, Dec. 31 is no different than Jan. 31.
Or, as one of my kids (in Grade 1) says, “I will keep learning more science. I will learn more addition! I will use new, bigger, better tools for art.” In this way, we aren’t committing to feeling badly about where we are. We’re just trying for more, with no start or end date in mind.
Joanne Seiff writes 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. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.