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Pandemic Parenting: A Letter to My Children

Rabbi Sarah Marion
Parshat Emor
May 8, 2020
“Pandemic Parenting: A Letter to My Children”

A Letter to my children, on this Shabbat before Mother’s Day, in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic:

Dear Michaela and Levi,

This week, you added another crack to my already broken heart. 

It was just another day, another random moment, in this endless litany of pandemic-time, in which every minute just blurs right into the next.

But, as I already know, is during those seemingly ordinary moments in which you often say the things that are the most extraordinary.

I don’t even remember what we were doing – we were probably sitting on the couch – when Michaela, you turned to me, looking up at me with your big, 4 year-old eyes, and you said to me, “Mommy, do you remember that day before the germs came,  that day when we could touch other people? Do you remember that day?” “Yes, I remember,” I said – although, realizing, at the same time, that it was getting harder and harder to remember. And just as I began to appreciate the power of your question, you then said, “I wish we could go back to that day.” Stab. Pang. Ache. And, yet, I want to bottle up that little moment and save it forever.

Michaela and Levi, when I decided to bring each of you into this world, this was not the world that I thought I would be bringing you into…

A world in which touches, hugs and kisses from the people you love the most would become unattainable and unsafe.

A world in which preschool and playdates would become a thing of the past.

A world in which our national leadership, at the highest level, would become so corrupt, so immoral, and so adept at failing you – our children, our future.

Many, many moons ago, in another world, in another lifetime, there was another mother, named Yocheved, who lived through a pandemic of death and destruction of another kind, when Pharaoh implemented his horrifying plan to drown every Hebrew boy into the Nile river.

And it was during that pandemic that there were two midwives, named Shifra and Pu’ah – history’s first essential workers – who faced a demand of the worst possible kind:  “Hand over those Hebrew babies, or hand over your own lives, instead.”[1]

But, as we know, we come from a long line of strong and relentless Jewish mothers.

Time and time again, with hearts that were broken, these mothers looked outward, towards their broken world. And time and time again, they mustered every ounce of courage and strength to rise up and say:  our world may be breaking, but we will not let it break us.

Time and time again, they said:  no matter how much we wish for a different and better world for our children and future generations, we will continue to make more children. We will continue to ensure that there is a next generation.  We will continue to birth our babies; and we will continue to do everything we can to protect and preserve each and every precious life.

And so these were the words that become Shifra and Pu’ah’s rallying cry – as they courageously defied Pharaoh’s orders and continued to assist mothers in birthing and sheltering their young.

And these were the words that echoed deep in Yocheved’s heart, as she wove that delicate basket for her baby son – that sukkah of love and protection and perseverance that would shelter baby Moses as he floated down the Nile, towards the safety net that would enable his, and our, ultimate redemption.

It strikes me, that some of the most iconic shelters of our tradition were made from the flimsiest of materials. Baby Moses in the wicker basket crafted of palm branch and bamboo. I wonder if, years later, while wandering in the desert, seeking protection and safety from damaging winds and storms of sand, our ancestors modeled their temporary wilderness booths, or sukkot, as we now know them – after that one, tiny sukkah for that one, tiny baby – that one, tiny baby, who ended up saving one, entire world.

This is the wisdom that Yocheved and Shifra and Pu’ah and all of our foremothers have continued to whisper to us, year after year after year. Only their whispers are growing louder, now. Shelter one life, shelter an entire world. Save one life, save an entire world.

Michaela and Levi, this is what I hope you will learn from these difficult days. This is what I hope you will come to understand, as you continue to process this time without touches and hugs and playdates and friends.

I hope you will come to understand that when we find ourselves in the midst of plagues and pandemics and desert storms, we do what our mothers taught us to do, so many years ago. We do not simply wait and see and hope for the best. We do not gamble with our lives or the lives of others. Instead, for the time being, we shelter in place, weaving sukkot of love and protection around us – (and, now, we’ve even learned how to weave virtual shelters to replace some of the real ones) because life is so precious. Because each and every human life matters, above anything else. And because when we save one life, we save countless others. And so like Yocheved and Shifra and Pu’ah and all the others who came before, we will continue to do everything we can to protect and preserve each and every precious life.

And, like them, we will continue to rise up and we will continue to persevere, despite it all. Like them, we will continue to re-invent and re-imagine what our lives can and should be; like them, we will continue loving and laughing and living and learning and dreaming.

I wish I could fix this world for you. I wish you were given more years before having to learn such intense lessons about the fragility of our lives and the brokenness of this world.

But, because of these early lessons, you now hold so much strength and so much wisdom within you.

I know this, now, from that small but sacred moment together earlier this week.

My heart breaks for you right now; but I find comfort, knowing that you are learning how to survive the other inevitable storms and plagues that are bound to come your way.

And when those storms arrive, you will draw upon one of the greatest gifts of all – the gift of human touch – in order to shelter and sustain those you know and love.

And you will know and you will appreciate just what an incredible and precious gift that will be.

[1] Adaptation of Exodus 1