Yesterday on our walk home from Gan, my son gave me new insight into the weekly parsha, Hukkat. I was making my way with my four kids along the train tracks that link their various Ganim with our home. The walk is about a mile, and especially on hot summer days, it’s a challenge – even with scooters and snacks and all the helicopters and street sweepers we spot excitedly on our way home. Each of my kids has a water bottle, which I store in a compartment on top of the stroller. Only I can reach that compartment, and so I spend much of the walk home fielding requests for water and then apologizing when I inadvertently hand someone the wrong bottle, or rub “sunscream” (as the kids call it) on the twin who has already been covered in it rather than the one who has not.
We were about halfway home yesterday – the baby was screaming “cat” and pointing and squealing excitedly from her stroller, the twins were belting out the theme song of a TV show they have never watched (we don’t have a TV, but their friends teach them the songs), and my son Matan was apparently vying for my attention, though I was busy tying the strings on the baby’s hat under her chin while acknowledging with a vigorous nod that I, too, had seen the cat. I was kneeling down in front of the stroller when suddenly I felt a whack on my back. I turned around sharply to find Matan standing behind me wielding a long tree branch. “Matan!” I yelled at him. “I told you that you can only carry that branch if you don’t hit anyone with it. Now I have to take it away.” Matan looked at me, angry and affronted. “But Ima, I want my water, and you’re not listening to me.”
I stood up and reached for his blue water bottle in the top of the stroller. His is easy – it’s the twins’ pink and purple bottles that I’m forever mixing up.
“Matan,” I said sternly. “If you want your water, I’m happy to give it to you. But you have to ask for it using words. You can’t just hit me.”
And then – it hit me, too, how similar this episode was to one of the more dramatic scenes in this week’s parsha. While the Israelites were wandering through the desert – in a climate probably not all that different from Jerusalem in July, when you take into account global warming – they complained frequently to Moses about the food, their fondness for Egypt, and the futility of it all. “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates!” It reminds me of my kids’ frequent complaints. “Why can’t we stay in Gan and play until nighttime? Why do you make us leave the playground? And why did you bring pretzels? We want rice cakes!”
The Israelites’ complaints last for most of the book of Numbers, though they reach a crisis point in this week’s parsha when Miriam dies and the people run out of water. (At least on our walk home we pass several water fountains.) Moses and Aaron, exhausted by the people’s grumbling and probably also dehydrated themselves, fall on their faces before God, and God responds: “Take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation.” Famously, though, Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, water pours forth, and Moses is punished harshly: Since he has disobeyed God, he will not be permitted to enter the promised land.
We were trekking through that same promised land when Matan, exhausted and thirsty from all our wandering, hit me—the source of water—instead of asking me for his bottle. Perhaps I ought to have rebuked him, paraphrasing Moses, “Do you think that if you hit me, water will come forth?” Instead I punished him by taking away his stick as I’d threatened to do.
I wondered whether I was being too harsh. After all, as Matan later pointed out to me, he was tired and “parched” (his new favorite word) and he just didn’t have patience to talk nicely above the din of his sisters. Even so, as I explained to him, it is important to recognize that life is not an automat. Not everything comes quickly and easily as soon as you drop in a coin or kick the slot machine. This is also the reason I don’t let my kids watch television – I worry that the instant gratification offered by bright colors, loud sounds, and fast-moving images will gradually and insidiously erode their capacity to appreciate life’s slower pleasures: a symphony the builds over four movements, a novel that unfolds over three hundred pages, a poem that only really begins to resonate upon the fourth or fifth re-reading, if even then.
When my kids are thirsty on a hot day, yes, I should make sure they get water immediately. There are forms of gratification that ought to be instant. But talking is always preferable to hitting, and the lesson of appreciating life’s slower pleasures is one I care deeply about inculcating in my children. It is also a lesson I try to practice myself. When I sit down to nurse the baby, I try to remember that if I keep picking up my smartphone for a “hit” of data, I’ll never finish reading my novel. If I rush my kids home in a car (that is, were I to own a car and know how to drive it), I’d miss out on all of our long conversations about everything we see on the way home, and I imagine my kids would be less likely to free associate with me about all their memories from the day. I understand why God wanted the Israelites to take the long and circuitous route to the promised land. And if my children don’t yet understand, I trust that eventually they’ll get there too.