Gone are the days when newspapers would run regular columns by humorists. One of those writers was the practitioner of another extinct profession: housewife.
Her name was Erma Bombeck. Among my favorite quotations of hers is, “One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old he or she is.”
I love my kids to pieces. I know their names and their birthdays. But I will admit that as I get farther away from the original event, when I have to call up their ages at the drop of a hat, I hope the hat dropped off the top of a very tall building.
When I was a congregational rabbi, I had a small sub-specialty in working with deaf students who wished to convert to Judaism. They were all very patient as I did not know more than a smattering of sign language.
I knew nowhere near enough to communicate the specialized vocabulary about practice and faith. Occasionally, I would have the luxury of an interpreter if there was someone in the student’s family or circle who would join us.
Hiring someone was inordinately expensive, especially for the young people who were my partners in learning. We relied on a lot of writing and their lip-reading skills.
One student was a kind and gentle man who could not grasp the concept of mitzvah (divine commandment) no matter how I tried to express it. He had it stuck in his head that the obligations of Jewish law were punitive and heavy.
He was concerned that if he took them on and could not fulfill every one of them, he would be entering some sort of spiritual purgatory. Eventually, this naturally calm and sweet man got furious with me and demanded to know how I managed to live with the constant expectation that I would do the right thing in God’s eyes.
As I explained to him how much the structure and meaning of fulfilling each mitzvah enriched my life and added a sense of purpose even to mundane actions, he began to relax. And when I told him I was less concerned about where I fell short than where I succeeded, the light of comprehension washed over him.
His hands flew into expressive motion, and he voiced these words: happy burden.
Honestly, I had never heard a better explanation of the notion of mitzvah, and certainly not one so succinct. In fact, I have broadened his definition to include more than the specifics of religious observance. I think “happy burden” is a pretty good understanding of what it means to raise children.
I will acknowledge that when I was in the middle of that happy burden, I frequently felt more of the burden and less of the happy. I remember many Saturday afternoons, the time when my wife and I each desperately needed our shabbat naps, struggling with my own fatigue and active kids while she got her needed rest.
Each of our kids presented challenges to their parents by having the audacity to have complex feelings and an inadequate vocabulary to express them, especially in those pre-verbal years. Even today, they insist on making their own decisions, sometimes without consulting or even first informing us. The nerve.
But I have never been happier than when I bore that burden. Even those times when my heart broke for them or with them, the mitzvah of raising kids (and I am not making that up – you can look it up) is as energizing as it is exhausting, as thrilling as it is overwhelming. Sometimes the combination of those things makes it difficult to know their names and how old they are, at least without a hint.
On a smaller level, upholding each mitzvah is the same way – exhausting and energizing. It is especially true if you are expected to remember that what you are doing is a sacred act, intimately connected with a tradition millennia-long and divinely connected. It’s a happy burden.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call one of my kids to ask how old another one is.