We experienced a remarkably sunny and beautiful spring day this week. It was an unusual day as our twins had a “well-child” physical at the pediatrician’s, something we hadn’t done in several years because of the pandemic. We took the morning off school and work. The appointment was remarkably smooth and quick. There was a park with swings near the medical building, deemed perfect by the kids. The bakery was open on the way home so we got a piece of rich chocolate cake and croissants for a snack.
As I drove my kids to school after lunch, so they could catch the second half of the school day, we all remarked on the amazing weather. There was a tendency then in our discussion to wish away the intense flooding, mud and big snowstorms we’d had in Winnipeg. Flooding and snow have been a huge problem in Manitoba this year, too much of a good thing after three years of drought. We agreed that there was nothing wrong with a good snowstorm, but that the muck we’d lately endured was a drag.
I tried to stop the negative thoughts popping up and ask my kids to please help me just cherish the sunny, warm, new bright green grass moment we’d had. We arrived at school. I walked them across a busy intersection, and drove home.
In the past, our pediatrician trips sometimes might take three hours. It was a combination of complicated medical issues, a wait to be seen, and negotiating the hospital corridors, tests and crowded, expensive parking lots. We used to joke that after returning home with the twins after vaccinations, they got baby Tylenol and we deserved a stiff drink. If you’ve had a history of health challenges, even a “regular” appointment can be stressful and I was exhausted after our relatively smooth experience that morning.
I’ve learned from reading a page of Talmud a day and doing Daf Yomi that my tendency to focus on the details and worry about every eventuality is nothing new. It’s not at all special. The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud explored every detail when they figured out what the laws and issues could be around Jewish life, law and observance. When the text seemed brief, commentators filled in the blanks. We have thousands of years of recorded details and “what ifs” in our tradition. Thinking about every detail and overthinking every eventuality is a Jewish tradition! It’s no wonder that we may have anxiety over getting everything right and wondering about how things will go in advance – it’s literally part of our oral Torah and identity.
Sometimes these details can mean life and death. While it seems dark to drag this thought into such beautiful spring weather, I was struck by how many generations of anti-Jewish hatred have forced us to be on our guard. Many Jewish families carry two passports or have escape plans ready because they remember that their families have had to do it before: to escape the Holocaust, the Farhud, pogroms, banishments, the Inquisition, and beyond. Heck, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews were the definition of the original diaspora, as many were sold into slavery throughout the Roman Empire. Historically, we have good reason to be on edge.
Back at home, after the medical appointment, I was tasked with organizing the first birthday party for our twins in years. Counting up RSVPs resulted again in focusing on the details while reminding myself of the huge gains we’d made. Recovering from what was a traumatic birth experience, with one twin in neo-natal intensive care, is always tough for me to celebrate each year. Despite the big fuss some people make over birthdays, it can be a rotten series of flashbacks for me to manage. I remember the obstetrician’s surprise when he asked how I saw the outcome of my twin pregnancy, which was a struggle. I explained that my goal was to live through it, as that was what Jewish law valued most, the life of the mother. If I came out with one or two healthy infants at the end, well, that would truly be an amazing miracle.
Now, I have two healthy and active almost-11-year-olds. Things change and we must focus on the joyful moment, the present, and enjoy the sunny days we’ve got.
All of these mundane family events happened on May 24, when many elementary school children were gunned down with their teachers in Uvalde, Tex. While my kids spent their afternoon at school in Winnipeg, the news spread that there had been another mass shooting in the United States. While the details aren’t all clear yet, the pattern is too familiar. Many families are being torn apart by horrible, unnecessary loss. Still others will face endless numbers of very difficult medical appointments ahead, for which I feel so much empathy and pain. Everyone should be able to go to school, the grocery store or their place of worship in safety. Every life taken by this awful violence is too many.
Our tradition tells us to cherish every single life, to do everything possible to save a person. Every moment and detail counts when something so precious is at stake. Still, we also have to find ways to pause and savour the details that make meaning. We need to find the moments that give us joy. We’ve got blessings to say, like the all-purpose Shehecheyanu, to embrace those grateful, new experiences and we’ve got specific ones for seeing rainbows, eating delicious snacks, and more. It’s a crucial part of our Jewish identities to use ritual tools to balance joyous, celebratory details in the moment with the real and dark feelings that come from tragedy.
May we all have chances this summer to celebrate, embrace the sunshine, and grow things – and pleasure. May we gather only for good moments.
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.