There is a lot of drama and emoting going on in Parshat Chukat. We are introduced to to the red heifer and instructed very specifically on it’s purification. We hear the Israelites complaining about their lack of water, and we listen to G-d’s instruction to Moses and Aaron on how to bring water from a rock to sooth the people, and we witness Moses’s frustration as he strikes the rock and calls the Israelites rebels. Finally with the theme of death and purification running through the Parsha, we learn that Aaron and Miriam die, and are told that the Israelites wailed and mourned for 30 days for Aaron.
What we don’t hear, and what is not even alluded to in the text, is the circumstances surrounding Miriam’s death, and the reaction of the people she led across the Red Sea, joyfully playing her timbral.
“Miriam died and was buried” is all the Torah tells us, and so ends the life of a woman who played one of the most significant roles in the story of our People’s liberation.
This lack of detail, the fleshing out of the story surrounding Miriam’s life and her death lead me to think about stories told about women’s lives in general and the one I tell about mine specifically.
Was her life, her actions, and her interactions less important than her brother Aaron’s? As the emotional support of our people, not the High Priest to the community, does the Torah somehow imply that the role Miriam played was less significant? Is caregiving less valuable than “a real job with a title and job description?”
Wow did that thought take me back to the days I was a stay-at-home mom and my husband went off to work each day, to support our family financially in his job at a lawyer. We were raising our kids in Evanston, Illinois, in a neighborhood filled with lots of families. Most of my girlfriends at the time were working full time as lawyers, therapists and doctors.
I was a full time mom of three little kids, each two years apart. It kept me busy running around, but that role definition kept my mind busy too. I often played and replayed painful tapes about being “less” somehow because I was a stay-at-home mom.
In those years, three kids under 10, I struggled with quite a bit of doubt. Self-doubt. Oh, how I wish, for so many reasons, I had the tools of mindfulness to help me back in the early chaotic years of motherhood.
“Was it enough just to be a mom?” “Am I less interesting if I don’t have anything to talk about except my kids?” “Who am I besides being a mother?” “Am I even a good Mom??” All these questions constantly rolled around in my head back then. Mindfulness could have helped, and not just for all the doubt I had, but with all the other difficult emotions I was feeling as a new parent — anger, judgement, envy, worry and fear. All of these are aspects of the “five hindrances” or “veiling factors” as they are called, of mindfulness practice.
“The last of the five hindrances is doubt. Doubt can be the most difficult of all to work with, because when we believe it and get caught by it, our practice just stops cold. We come paralyzed.” writes Buddhist monk, author and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield. However, he goes on to write, “Depending on our relationship to these hindrances, they can be the cause of tremendous struggle or valuable fuel for the growth of insight.”
Struggle I did, along the path of parenthood, to uncover, understand, and ultimately unload most the burden of doubt I had about how I mothered. But even now, doubt about myself, and my self-worth makes a mindfulness practice so valuable to me, even when my three little babies are all grown up and living on their own.
Rabbi Jeff Roth writes. “Doubt, like other mind states, often arises and passes away on its own. The step of noticing and labeling the doubt helps us to see it as a passing phenomenon rather than the truth.”
Things are always changing…that should be the credo of parenthood, and one of the main principles of mindfulness. It’s taken me decades of being a mom, and years of mindfulness and meditation to begin to embrace this reality. I feel like I’m taking baby steps towards wisdom. Instead of judging myself with “Gee…what took you so long” thoughts, I’m choosing self-compassion for all the doubt and worry that has occupied my mind over the years.
I can only wonder how, if I had a mindfulness meditation practice 20+ years ago, I might have more skillfully navigated my doubts about the quantity and quality of my mothering. Maybe I would have been able to savor more often the many beautiful moments with my babies and evolving kids. I might have recognized the seemingly endless exhaustion, impatience, and frustration were “merely” fleeting moments that would pass, and would be replaced, again just temporarily, by moments of bliss.
Oh well. At nearly 60, and with adult kids all living in different states at this point, is it too little too late? Not at all. “For anyone wishing to be enlightened, cultivating mindfulness is essential. While it may seem slow, any improvement in our ability to be aware is a major accomplishment,” writes Jack Kornfield.