The Shabbat before last was undoubtedly the best day my daughter Tina and I have spent together since I started my first job as a rabbi a few weeks ago. Saturday morning we took a walk together—Tina, who is almost two, watched older children and I watched Tina. Then we bounced up and down on the bed and pretended to nap and tickled each other and laughed hysterically. At various points throughout the day I read her brilliant, hilarious bits of Red Fish, Blue Fish. I prepared breakfast, lunch and snacks for her and she didn’t eat much but I didn’t worry.
A few weeks earlier I had graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Before the graduation ceremony I had the foresight to ask my partner Ali to sit near the aisle where my classmates and I would process into the synagogue sanctuary. As my turn to march approached and I got closer to the sanctuary entrance I was thrilled to see Ali holding Tina a few rows away, and then Tina called out, “Rabbi Da-da!” and repeated it a few times. (Here's a link to the adorable video.) At this stage, Tina was only making two word phrases, and she couldn't have picked a better one. When I started rabbinical school six years ago I never would have said I felt called to the rabbinate and couldn’t even imagine what that would mean. After six years of spiritual and emotional growth and two years of parenthood, however, when I heard, “Rabbi Da-da,” I felt like Isaiah: “Then I heard a divine voice saying, ‘Who shall I send? Who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” (Is. 6:8) Send me to be Rabbi Da-da! This is my calling and it’s what I must do (perhaps that’s the definition of a calling). Because if I’m not being Da-da, I won’t be any use as Rabbi. Spiritual direction has helped me to realize that loving relationships are my strongest connection with divinity and if my relationship with Tina is not strong and positive, my ability to bring love and holiness into the world is crippled. It now makes perfect sense to me that Moses didn't receive his ultimate calling at the burning bush (Ex. 3:2 ff) until he had already become a father (2:22).
For the last two years of rabbinical school I was almost-rabbi Da-da. I have spent lots of time taking care of Tina and Ali and I have made good on our commitment to equally shared parenting, so I didn’t anticipate great difficulties in making the transition to Rabbi Da-da. Shortly after graduation I started work as the education director at Temple Beth El in Newark, DE. My colleagues are wonderful, the work is fulfilling the rewards will be great and I am determined to do a good job. Although in the summer I work just 15 hours per week, and I do some of my hours from home and Ali and maintained our equally shared parenting arrangement, after my first few days of work suddenly my relationship with Tina was off.
A few mornings I left for work before Tina woke up, so I missed her determined but (mostly) good-natured resistance to having her swollen night diaper changed, getting dressed and getting to the breakfast table. And I missed a few evenings, because of a board meeting and painfully inefficient public transit, so I missed sitting on a plastic stool reading her stories (or Spanish-English picture dictionaries, her choice) as she perched on a pile of pillows and stuffed animals in a cushy rocking chair, and then singing her songs and leaving the room and, when she cried, coming back in and singing songs and repeating this until she fell asleep.
And I missed everything in between. The part of our routine that I find the most moving is our frequent visits to the nearby public playground. There’s a sprinkler system, good for beating the heat and a fascinating phenomenon for Tina, whose current obsession is pouring water from one cup into another. But as soon as an older child shows up at the playground, some instinct in Tina is triggered and she makes a beeline to the child, stands way inside the kid’s personal space, looks at him or her (usually a her) out of the corner of her eye, and if I have followed her, says to me, plaintively, “Hold hand. Hold hand.” I facilitate introductions and explain to the big kid Tina’s goals for their relationship—to watch the kid and follow her around and hold her hand. Every time I get to see this it breaks my heart. The way it demonstrates the fundamental human need to connect is part of it. And, related to this, I'm moved by the way Tina makes herself so vulnerable in pursuit of this connection. The upshot is that my days as Tina’s best friend and primary playmate are numbered.
And all of Tina's activities are accompanied by ever-increasing talking. She is way past , "Rabbi Da-da," now. I read in one book that she learns a word every two hours and all kinds of new sentence structures in which to use her words. What she does with these abilities is highly dependent on her here and now—who she met at the playground or which Sesame Street Youtube videos she watched or which family members she skyped with. When, after missing an entire day, I would see her again awake (because of course I went into her room to adore her while she was asleep on the nights I got home late) it was as if we were speaking different languages. Imagine waking up one day unable to communicate with your favorite person.
Tina re-entered a phase of clinging to Ali in every possible way. When all three of us were together, if I attempted to wash Tina’s hands and face after a meal or lift her out of her high chair, it was always, “No Dada do it! Mama do it!” I couldn’t sing anything to her—“No Dada sing it!”—and I don’t think this was my daughter’s internal music critic making itself heard, although she would certainly have been justified. There was something else going on, and I felt it, too.
I had spent entire days apart from Tina before, but reconnecting hadn’t been so difficult after those absences. One Shabbat after I started my new job I was next to Tina in the backseat of the car and, presented with this ideal opportunity to read to her or sing with her or simply try to talk to her, I couldn’t keep myself from reading a magazine article on a subject I don’t care about at all. I realized this was wrong even as I was doing it, but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t seem to give Tina the complete, undivided attention I had been giving her before. Perhaps I was afraid that failing to connect with her would increase the pain I already felt at our disconnection. And perhaps I was distancing myself from her because I felt rejected, and/or she was doing the distancing because she felt rejected. I was disconnected from Tina and the Rabbi and Da-da parts of me were disconnected. The separation hurt.
At the end of last week I took my sister-in-law’s recommendation and read some sections in the book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be about how to handle when a child prefers one parent. My heart opened at the authors’ suggestion that in this situation, the unpreferred parent has the chance to demonstrate unconditional love to his child. This offered me extra motivation to persist in the face of Tina’s discontent.
Then, as often happens, keeping Shabbat made possible something new and beautiful. As always, I made the effort to set aside my work in body and spirit and turn my full attention to what matters most. It helped that Ali went out of town with friends and my in-laws babysat for Tina Friday night so I could join friends for renewing Erev Shabbat services and dinner. I started Saturday morning with Tina feeling optimistic and grateful. (It also didn’t hurt that we then spent the day with my in-laws, who have air-conditioning, and who Tina loves and who help take care of Tina in countless ways!) And we had a wonderful day. As we bounced on the bed I laughed at Tina’s efforts to tickle me and her sheer delight. The deepest notes of my laughter, however, were relief and wonder at the joy of reconnecting with Tina. I felt like I was one and my name, Rabbi Da-da, was one.
How can I maintain this unity? I have already started to arrange my work schedule so as to avoid missing entire days with Tina and I can make sure to check in with Ali about the latest developments in Tina-ese. There are many Jewish teachings, however, which suggest that constant unity is impossible. While this might seem discouraging, I find affirmation and hope here. According to Genesis 1, separations are at the core of the natural order—separation between light and dark, between land, water and sky—and this helps me to accept that my roles as rabbi and parent will be in tension and I will be divided between them. And the same Jewish mystics who teach about the separations within divinity itself teach that simple human actions can create healing holy unifications. So I pray for the wisdom and strength to take the pain of separation on bad days and turn it into intentions and actions to have more days like that Shabbat, and I have faith that I can and will.
This photo of Gabriel Decker is in the public domain, Wikimedia Commons.