Last month I read a tremendous book, “The Obligated Self” by Mara Benjamin, a professor of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Mount Holyoke College. The book argues that by examining our sense of obligation to our children we can learn a great deal about what it means to be obligated to God. Benjamin argues that the modern Western phenomena that binds these two concepts together is that for the first time in history, becoming a parent is largely a choice as is the decision to feel a sense of obligation towards God.
In this week’s Torah Portion, we witness the Israelites beginning to accept not only a relationship to God but a set of rules and principles. God tells the Israelites: “If you obey my commandments faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my cherished possessions.” A few verses later the Israelites answer: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
In Benjamin’s book, she discusses the obligation she felt during her early years of being a new parent and writes:
These shifts in my relationship to time, the material world, and my own autonomy comprised the becoming of an obligated self, a self radically bound up with someone else. In my child I recognized the one person for whom, I felt I could not walk away. In rational moments, I recognized this to be untrue: parents of small children can and do free themselves from the obligations of daily care and other substantive involvement by de facto relinquishing the claim to parenthood. I knew that. Yet I found it unthinkable that I would refuse the role into which my new child had, by the fact of her existence, suddenly put me. She exerted a gravitational pull, and my role was now to orbit her.
To be an obligated self was to be subject to the law of another; the Law of The Baby. The law could not be fulfilled in abstract but only in active, embodied, material actions: soothing, feeding, cleaning, comforting, distracting, smiling and wiping…
Nonetheless, I could not agree to the law before I was already subject to it. And once in place, I could only violate the law through inattention or frustration. I could not cast it off. I transgressed the law as often as I fulfilled it, leaving my crying baby or comfort seeking toddler to calm herself when I could not bring myself to respond. Nonetheless it was clear to me that there was a law, and the law applied to me by virtue of being my child’s parent.
The narrative of parental obligation resonates with me deeply. On the other hand, I cannot imagine being an Israelite and accepting the totality of the Jewish commandments from God based on the promise of being “a cherished possession.”
I witness parents at this school express their obligation to their children and teenagers on a constant basis. It’s reflected in the choices that parents make guide, feed, to nourish, to support, to comfort, and to discipline. Parents feel this obligation and as Benjamin writes, they “feel subjected to the law of another” and they can choose to transgress or accept that law.
Traditional religious archetypes often portray God in patriarchal and occasionally matriarchal language. I want to offer a reframe of the covenantal language from this week’s Torah portion based on Benjamin’s suggestions. Resetting God’s voice as a child’s voice, inviting us to enter into a relationship of obligation with us is beautiful. It is our children who come into the world and tell us, “If you ...listen to my voice and keep a covenant of respect and values as my parent, then you will be a cherished soul in this world.” When we hear our children calling out to us, undoubtedly we will answer as the Israelites did, “All that you have spoken to us, we will do.”