Sheltering in Place: Tents and Torah

June 17, 2020Monica Steiner

My boys are making forts using all the pillows in the house. They strong-armed my husband into setting up our camping tent outside, and they sit there as the day grows hot. They are slinging blankets over couches, pulling mattresses off the frames: they are sheltering in place... with intensity.

By some mystery of narrative, they remind me of our founding patriarch Abraham, paragon of generosity because he kept all sides of his tent open to welcome strangers, entertaining angels in disguise.

In all the commotion, the baby tries to climb in with the big guys, who summarily push him splat-backwards onto the floor. He begins to wail. I scoop up baby and his starfish hands and doughy arms remind me of a funny truth: my favorite part of being a mother is holding a crying child. It is a rare moment of uncomplicated and complete healing. He snuggles in, then tries to bite me, and I swoop him up at arms-length, laughing into the air. Distracted, he wiggles down and makes for the forts again. And by virtue of another mystery, the boys let him in this time. 

The outsized global scale of COVID-19 has driven us into our dwellings and into ourselves, giving us the time to feel their boundaries, their potential, and their limitations. And I am fumbling with the challenge, often feeling unfamiliar to myself.

I am overwhelmed by the mess in my home, and the constant cleaning. I am pushed beyond patience trying to get my kids into simultaneous Zoom meetings for their classes, and shuffling homework packets their teachers sent home, while the children refuse to pick up their pencils. 

And that's just inside my home. 

I am often tumbled in a wave of worry for my parents, for people who are victims of domestic violence or child abuse, and for those who have no home at all. I desperately want to help but feel almost unbearably powerless. 

But then the Torah pokes me in the ribs, laughing gently. “Honey,” it says, ”There is nothing new under the sun.

The Torah is not impressed with or unsettled by COVID-19. It is not shaken or amazed. Nor is it particularly interested in what I can't do.

"Cool off," our sages say, smiling, "you are not being asked to complete that god-sized task of healing the whole world, just bite off a little bit and do some human-sized good."

And I recognize myself again for a moment, because I can. And I do. 

This week I gave a little tzedakah (charity). This week I abandoned the homework packets. This week I crawled into the tent with my boys. 

Lying in the dark tent, I hear piano music sailing on the breeze. My middle son points up, showing me through the netting how our tree makes a silhouette against our particular patch of stars. Then he snuggles in and falls asleep.

On my other side, my oldest son, Colin, asks how the people who made The Prince of Egypt knew the sea squirted up at the top when it split. We talk about not knowing for sure what it really looked like, or if it even happened. We talked about what truth the story holds, even if it didn't happen at all. We breathe for a while.

I'm thinking about Abraham in his tent, and how we cannot welcome people into our home right now, but we can always welcome the Torah into our lives, wherever it finds us. Just as Abraham unwittingly entertained angels, the lessons from our Torah can bloom in our lives, if only we rush to let them in. 

I ask Colin, lying there in the tent, ”Do we know anything?” The silence makes me think he must be asleep now too. 

But then he whispers, “We know how to ask the questions.”

My boys are finding their own responses to COVID-19, sometimes shocking the breath from me as they connect stories from our tradition to their own evolving lives.

The whole picture reminds me that, in a way, we're all children, reaching and fumbling, trying to grapple with things that are just so big. If we get it right even some of the time, I can imagine a divine Parent, head thrown back, roaring with joy.

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