When I was young, I would occasionally ask my mother, "Would you still love me if…," filling in the blank with some outlandish situation that would probably never happen, like accidentally burning down the house with a renegade stick of incense.
Her response was always the same: "No matter what, I will always love you".
As a teenager, I tested my mother's love with a stream of sharp retorts, a bad attitude and dozens of calls home from the principal about my skipping school. Mostly, Mom was the face of equanimity, assuring me that I was hurting no one but myself by the choices I was making. But once in a while, if I rolled my eyes just right and shot some rude remark at her, her calm reserve would crack. "Rea," she'd say, "I love you, but I really don't like you right now."
"Rea, I love you, but I really don't like you right now."
At the time, all I heard was that that she didn't like me anymore (Could you blame her?) which gave me enough fuel to collapse on my bed in tears of self-pity. But looking back, I realize what she was really saying to me: I may not like your behavior, your choices, and I may not even like you – but no matter what, I love you.
I didn't get this until I became a parent myself. Before I had my children, most of my relationships were built on the following dynamic: Do what I want, and I want you around. Don't do what I want, and I'm out. When my sons were born, however, I understood that real love doesn't work that way. My younger son, for example, gives me a run for my money, even though he's just barely two. If he can't be found throwing handfuls of Rice Krispies across the dining room, smacking his brother or kicking me when I'm trying to change his diaper, he's probably running across the parking lot of my building while the rest of us are trying to pile into the car. Sometimes, I want to sell him on Craigslist. But even though he makes me crazy, never for one second do I stop loving him.
Parenting is one of the most intense ways we can emulate God. True, we can practice loving kindness to our neighbors and friends, but our children came from us, just as we came from God. Even parents of children who are adopted partake of the creation process by raising them and helping to shape their characters. But this doesn't mean it's easy work; it's probably the toughest work we do. From unceasing demands of toddlers, to teenagers dealing with the unpredictable highs and lows, to stepping back and letting our grown children (But they’re still babies!) go out on their own and make choices that may not align with what we think is best for them.
But no matter what our children do, our love for them is ever-present and unchanging, just like God's love for us.
The gift of the Torah included the promise that even if we fall off the beam, God will always be there to catch us.
We will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, commemorating God’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people. The giving of the Torah is more than just a transmission of a blueprint for living; it's God's guarantee that we are bound to Him forever, that He will always be there to love us, to care for us, to guide us. We are His children, even when we may not be as likeable as we could be.
History has proven that we Jews have missed the mark over and over again. We gossip. We judge. We hurt each other. We eat too much, spend too much, don't give as much as we take. But the gift of the Torah included the promise that even if we fall off the beam, God will always be there to catch us.
That’s why we, as a nation, are still here, and we're thriving. No matter how far away we may drift, He is always there, waiting for us to come back. No matter what, I love you.
The same goes for our children. The ones who know they always have a safe place to come home to, where arms are open to them no matter what, are the ones with the foundation on which they can build a meaningful life.
I will try to remember this when I eat my cheesecake on Shavuot, and when my baby draws all over his belly in magic marker. I may not always like what my children do, and that's okay. I'm not required to like my kids all the time. My job as their mother is to just make sure they always know, No matter what, I love you.
Just like God loves us.