A Spiritual Voice in the Wilderness for Harried Moms

Motherhood is a test of character, a marathon of pushing past our comfort level to talk endlessly about firetrucks, remain calm amid grocery line tantrums and endure sleepless nights spent comforting a feverish toddler. But it is also much more, as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg beautifully conveys in her new book, Nurture the WOW, Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting (Flatiron Books). The following is excerpted from her book.

Those diapers feel endless. So does the laundry, and the dishes, and the wiping of runny noses. Of course, they’re not really endless—someday we will not be changing this child’s diaper, someday she will know how to wipe her own nose, someday the kid is likely to do his own laundry and eventually live somewhere else. Mono no aware.

And yet, for now, these repetitive, mundane actions really do demand our attention again and again and again. But this diaper change or load of laundry can be our portal to the infinite. The thirteenth-century kabbalist Moses de León wrote,

[T]he sublime, inner essences [of infinity] secretly constitute a chain linking everything from the highest to the lowest, extending from the upper pool to the edge of the universe. There is nothing—not even the tiniest thing—that is not fastened to the links on this chain. Everything is catenated in its mystery, caught in its oneness. (10)

Certainly, even just thinking of that pile of laundry or this sink of dishes as a link to the infinite can sometimes pull you out of the mindset of boredom and into a more interesting headspace. But the Jewish mystical tradition has another line of thinking that I find useful as well. Some traditional texts talk about how every act has the potential to release holy sparks—aspects of the transcendent—into the universe. For example, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, an important late 19th/early 20th century kabbalist, wrote,  

We constantly aspire to raise the holy sparks. We know that the potent energy of the divine ideal—the splendor at the root of existence—has not yet been . . . actualized in the world around us. . . . As we become aware of [this] ideal, absorbing it from the abundance beyond bounded existence, we revive and restore all the fragments that we gather from life—from every motion, every force, every sensation, every substance, trivial or vital. The scattered light stammers in the entirety, mouthing solitary syllables that combine into a dynamic song of creation. (11)

In other words, everything in the world, and every action, has an aspect of the sacred within it that can be un- veiled and added to the “dynamic song of creation.” How does one do this? As with the Buddhists, for the kabbalists, it’s all about intention. Are we eating and drinking to gobble and glug, or are we bringing a sense of blessing, a gratitude for the sustenance that we are lucky to have and a humble awareness of its source? Are we washing dishes in order to get done with an annoying chore and get to dessert sooner, or are we washing with a sense of awe at the warm soapiness in our hands and a will to link this action with the great dance of life unfolding? Can we even hear the love and longing from the pint-sized voice screaming in our ear for our attention as we try to clean up the food on the floor while also wrangling a squirmy baby? Can we find some tiny specks of light scattered somewhere within ourselves to help us when we respond? Can we find the holy spark inside the action of picking up those half-chewed peas? The critical issue is about performing these actions with the mindset that they are a humble form of service. 

Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris writes, “It is a quotidian mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation.”

When we offer up the grapes and the dishes and the diapers as spiritual service, when we conceive of our homes as our monasteries, when we commit to doing routine work as an intrinsic part of the care we provide for our families, we bring holy sparks into the world. When we conceive of our repeat performance of The Very Hungry Caterpillar not as a burden but as a mantra, or liturgy, we can reconnect to the great love that binds us to our children, to everything that lives, and, perhaps, to the transcendent. We are transformed, for the good, in the process. We are brought into communion with the great, gorgeous shape of our lives. Most of us might not be able to live in this place of mindful awareness all the time. But when we can get ourselves there, however briefly, when we can be present in even the most mundane of acts, we’re able to live our lives as they’re actually happening. This work, these quotidian mysteries, can bring us into the dynamic song of all of creation.

When the names of promising young rabbis are discussed, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s is usually part of the conversation. Being named a “rabbi to watch” by Newsweek and one of the “top 50 women rabbis” by The Forward, are just two examples of the recognition she has received. Her 2009 book Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon Press), was nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature and she edited, among other books, The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism (NYU Press) and Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal Press). She writes regularly for The Huffington Post and her articles have appeared in many other outlets, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon and The San Francisco Chronicle. She has also appeared in the Best Jewish Writing series and the new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica. Rabbi Ruttenberg received rabbinic ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and worked as senior Jewish educator at Tufts Hillel and as campus rabbi at Northwestern Hillel. She currently serves as the director of education for Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International. She lives in the Chicago area and teaches and lectures nation around the country.