Rebecca Masinter

Parshas Ki Sisa - Living With Uncertainty

Parshas Ki Sisa is full of many topics, but its most famous story is probably the Egel HaZahav, the Golden Calf.  As we all know, Moshe was on Har Sinai for 40 days and nights, and when he didn’t come down at the time the Jewish nation expected him to, they became distressed and demanded a replacement for Moshe, or the Golden Calf.  I’d like to look at this story from a simple perspective - one that we experience ourselves and witness in our children all the time.  The Jewish nation expected something to happen at a particular time and when it didn’t, they felt distress and needed something done to alleviate that discomfort immediately. Interestingly, Aharon tried to buy time by asking them to get their wives’ and childrens’ jewelry which he thought would entail some discussion and negotiation and drag things out a bit longer, but they couldn’t even wait to do that - they just brought their own jewelry immediately. No waiting!  On its most basic level, this story is an exhibit of impatience or the inability of Bnai Yisrael to tolerate uncertainty and distress while waiting for matters outside their control  to resolve.

Inherent in being a human being is the reality that there is much we have no control over.  We only know what is happening now, and when we feel that something is wrong and have to wait uncertainly to see what will happen in the future, it feels uncomfortable!  It is hard to have patience, to sit still and see how a tough situation will develop; there is almost an uncontrollable urge to do something right now even when we are powerless!  

Mothers are familiar with this discomfort. We bring children into this world with no knowledge of who they will be, what will happen to them, or how they will develop through their lifetime.  All of our kids are going to hit road bumps in their path to growth; some moderate and some quite severe. Parenting a child who is struggling in any way: physically, academically, emotionally, or spiritually is challenging, not just in that moment, but especially because we don’t know what the future will bring.  We are powerless over so much in our children’s lives, even when we’re proactive and engaged parents.  

Bearing the distress of an uncomfortable situation without knowing when or how that situation is going to be bettered, is difficult for many of us and it can be extremely difficult for our children.  Think of a young child desperately trying to do something they’re just not developmentally capable of yet… Think of an elementary aged child distressed over a fight with a friend that may or may not be resolved happily… Think of an older child waiting to find out if she got into seminary or for the right shidduch.  We know that our children are going to have to handle great uncertainty, situations and timelines that they can’t control their whole lives long and we’d really like to give them the tools to do it.

While perhaps it is tempting to distract our child from feeling pain or frustration when life isn’t working out the way or at the pace she wants it, our children desperately need to learn to face the limits and realities of their lives and feel sadness over them!  Developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, beautifully describes the process of maturation that happens when a child is confronted by a limiting reality, something she doesn’t like and cannot change, and her parent lovingly lets her feel the sadness and disappointment of that moment.  That is the first step to developing resilience and confidence that our children can deal with challenges as they arise. 

If and when Moshe Rabeinu was going to descend from the mountain was something beyond the control of the Jewish nation.  Some things beyond the control of ourselves and our children include being perfect or avoiding failure, getting one’s way all the time, being best or biggest, undoing what’s already happened, knowing the future, being wanted or liked by someone who doesn’t want or like them, and the list continues on and on.  It would be short-sighted of a parent to try and distract a child from feeling the pain of these futilities.  We don’t want our kids to ignore or deny reality; we want them to adapt to it!  The gift we can give our children to let them become resilient and adaptive is to allow them to feel their sadness.  We can be mothers with whom it is safe to cry, we can acknowledge our children’s tears as valid, and we can provide closeness and comfort as they move through the tears.  Gordon Neufeld says, “The parent must become both an agent of futility and an angel of comfort.”  And, “Our challenge is to precipitate out of the clouds in our child’s life, a few tears.”

When a person learns to accept what is out of his control in life, when he feels the sadness inherent in that limitation, he can then adapt and become resourceful and resilient as he moves into new areas of opportunity and growth, instead of staying stuck in what's not working.

When faced with a challenge in our lives or in our children's lives, we have two choices.  We can react with fear, as the Jews did when Moshe’s return seemed doubtful, rushing, (as the Passuk says, “Saru maheir” they have quickly turned away from Hashem’s path), into whatever idea fills our panicky heads.  Or, we can choose to bear the discomfort and respond with patience as we see how Hashem unfolds our lives and our children’s lives in the best way possible.  I am very fond of the saying, “Patience is faith in action.”  If we work to strengthen our belief that Hashem is running our world and our children’s worlds, then we don’t have to panic and hurry into action when faced with a problem.  We can choose to tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty with faithful patience which allows us the space to respond in the right way at the right time.