Walk This Way
Up and Down and Up and Down
Our son Cal has become quite mobile. Send help. He’s constantly scooting around, climbing on different objects, and attempting (unsuccessfully so far) to stand up and move on his own. Life comes at you fast.
My wife Lauren and I take different approaches to this new stage. She’s more in the get-as-close-as-possible-to-him approach. Admittedly, for an 8 month old that’s bumped his head a lot, this is probably wise (as is often the case between Lauren and me). I, on the other hand, will give him a little bit of space to see where he’s headed and give him a chance to right himself. That has kind of worked…sometimes. See the aforementioned head-bumping clause.
Truth be told, I think both approaches are sound depending on a multitude of variables: hunger, fatigue, slipperiness of clothing, etc. One of the intuitive thoughts that animates my thought process is that giving him space to explore movement, even when it might end in tears, is beneficial. Already, even in a small sample size, his weight bearing on us has decreased such that he’s moving much more of his own free will, accord, and strength. There’s something to that dynamic in rearing children and our relationship with God as attested to in our Parshah, Behalotcha this week.
Over a span of 6 verses in chapter 9, the text uses the phrase:
עַל־פִּ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה יִסְעוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְעַל־פִּ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה יַחֲנ֑וּ
By the word of the Divine, they traveled; by the word of the Divine, they camped.
The latter two usages of it flips the order so that it reads:
By the word of the Divine, they camped; by the word of the Divine, they traveled.
At first glance it seems a bit redundant even for a section of text that is dealing primarily with the Israelites’ travels. Ok, we get it. God was directing traffic.
As you know, anytime the Torah presents a redundancy, it’s incumbent upon the reader to dig a little.
Here is how the Degel Machane Ephraim1 solves it:
It’s like a parent that is teaching their child to walk. At first they lead them by hand and then leave them at a little bit of a distance with the hope that the child will then learn to move on their own. You do this a few times. Every time, you distance yourself more and more so the child becomes more accustomed to moving on their own. This is how it works with God. At first God activates within us a drive to be in relationship and then later on God distances Godself to empower us to “move” on our own.
Relating it to a parent-child dynamic, the DME makes the point that our relationship with God is just the same. We begin with a handheld walk in order to learn to walk on our own. In this case of the portion, that “camping” is a place of smallness and lowliness. Because sometimes we feel distanced from that Divine presence.
So he argues,
That’s why the latter two references are “By the word of the Divine, they camped; by the word of the Divine, they traveled.” Once you’ve gone through this dynamic one time, you recognize that each subsequent moment of being on your own and “camped” is another opportunity to rise back up and walk again.
The reason it needs to say it three times is because we need the reminder. The first time you’re just learning how it works. You go with the help of God and you also fall with the help of God. It’s easy to connect God to the moments of uplift and forget God in the rough moments, when we’re “camped.” So he says we get the reminder two more times. Even the “camps” are part of the growth process. He reinforces his point with a Talmudic quote (Shabbat 31b):
כְּסוֹתֵר עַל מְנָת לִבְנוֹת בִּמְקוֹמוֹ דָּמֵי
it was tantamount to demolishing in order to build in the same place.
Sometimes, our falling/camping/feeling abandoned is actually a rebuilding opportunity. It’s all part of the same grand adventure.
Every day and sometimes every hour of parenting feels like the rules of the game are constantly changing. It’s a bit jarring if I am being totally honest. One of the things I try to remind myself is that these are just small moments in a really grand and long adventure. In all of them, I want Cal to know the following:
I will always be there when he needs me, both to get started and to find me when he’s adrift.
He almost always will be able to figure out things on his own, using his own wisdom and strength.
That’s how it is for God and us. That’s how it is in our healthiest relationships. We get led. We find our footing. We get up. We fall again. Rinse and repeat.
May we all find the strength and courage to remember this in the particularly trying moments.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend!
R’Moshe Chayim Ephraim of Sudilkov