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Book Review: Blessings and Baby Steps



BLESSINGS AND BABY STEPS by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Behrman House

Now I understand why we need women rabbis. No man could have written this book or taught us the Torah that it contains.

I have never done it, but I suspect that if you were to read through all of the sermons of Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver, Stephen S. Wise, Israel Leventhal, Solomon B. Freehof, or Joseph Lookstein, who were the great preachers of the last generation, you would not know, at least not from reading their sermons, whether they were married, or whether they had children. The whole focus of their sermons was on improving the world, and on advancing the cause of the Jewish people. This book, in contrast, is jam packed with Torah lessons that Rabbi Grinblat has learned from going through pregnancy and childbirth, and from raising her two small children. The insights into Torah that this book contains are ones that would never have occurred to a male rabbi.

A couple of quick examples will have to suffice:

When Rabbi Grinblat takes her child to Pre School each day, she has two choices. She can drop them off at the entrance, and let one of the teacher’s aides take him inside, or she can find a parking space, get out of the car, and walk him in herself. The first way is easier. It saves at least five or ten minutes. The second way is better. It gives her precious time to be with her child, and it gives him a sense of confidence as he starts his school day.

She chooses the second way, and now she understands the verse in the Bible that says that when God took the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not lead them through the land of the Philistines, even though that was the closest way, but instead led them by way of the wilderness. God understood that if He led them the short way, if they ran into trouble, they would panic and go back to Egypt.

And now, Rabbi Grinblat explores the relevance of this biblical passage to her life as a mother, and to our lives as parents. She teaches us that sometimes the short way ends up being the long way, and visa verse. She teaches us that sometimes we learn a lot if we travel slowly and look around as we journey, instead of rushing to get to our goal as quickly as possible.. And she teaches us that sometimes, what is most important in life is not how quickly we get to our goals, but the relationships that we build along the way. Burying a birthday cake, for example, is easy. All it takes is a phone call and a credit card. Making a birthday cake together with your child is harder, but it is an experience that will stay in your memory and in your child’s memory, for the rest of your lives.

Here is a biblical passage about the Exodus that you and I have read many times, and thought we understood, but how differently it reads through the eyes of a young mother who is trying to balance the need to save time against the need to create sacred memories.

Another example: The Torah says that those who do kindness are rewarded with interest. The Talmud gives a number of examples. Miriam waited for an hour to see what would happen to her baby brother when he was put at the edge of the Nile. Therefore, when she was ill, the whole people of Israel waited seven days for her to heal before they continued their journey. Joseph took the time to go up from Egypt to bury his father in Israel as Jacob asked him to. Therefore, he merited having Moses himself  take his bones out of Egypt so that they could be buried in Israel. And Moses merited to be buried by no less than God himself, in reward for having buried Joseph. Miriam, Joseph, Moses—each person’s kindness was repaid with a greater kindness.

How does Rabbi Grinblat know that this word of Torah is true? Because one day, when he was in pre school, her son had pinkeye, and had to stay home for several days. As is the school’s custom when children are sick, the class called Jeremy on the phone to send best wishes for a speedy recovery. Jeremy and the family happened to be out at the doctors when the call came, and so they had to leave their message on the answering machine: “Hi, Jeremy. We miss you and hope you feel better. Come back to school soon. Bye.”

When they got home, Jeremy was thrilled to hear the message, because he had never gotten a message on the answering machine addressed to him before! And so he played it over and over and over again. He would not let his parents erase the message. Even after he went back to school, he insisted on keeping the message on the machine. Even though the message probably took the class no more than fifteen seconds to send, it ended up giving Jeremy many, many moments of joy. And from this, his mother learned that a small act of kindness can have a major impact on the heart of a child, and can continue to have an effect long after the act is completed. The Talmud is right!

And then Rabbi Grinblat goes on to recall some other small acts of kindness that have made a big difference in her life and in that of others. She once greeted a student who had been away for a year on the day when this student came back. She had no idea at the time that this student was apprehensive about whether anyone would still remember her, and that that greeting gave her the confidence to enter the school, and that she never forgot what she had done for her. That small act of kindness ended up leading to a lasting friendship between her and this student. She feels she has been paid back for her favor many times over the years.

She says that she washes her child’s face with a washcloth every day, and when she does, she makes sure that the washcloth is neither too hot nor too cold. And as she does, she remembers the nanny who always did the same thing for her when she was a child. And she learns from this recollection that acts of kindness do not expire. They get recorded on the answering machine that is the human heart and they stay there, gathering interest and being passed on.

In each of these chapters, words of Torah and the experiences that are part of parenting are constantly juxtaposed. A child’s need for a hug is related to the Divine Hug that we experience when we put the Tallit over our heads. When she sits on a bench and watches her child ride the roller coaster, she sees how important it is to him to have her there—witnessing what he is doing. And she begins to comprehend what it means for us to call God our Witness in the Unitane Tokef.

Rabbi Grinblat makes a remarkable observation in this book. She says that she went to rabbinical school for four years, but that she has learned more about God from wiping her children’s faces and tushes, and from the cuddles, tears, and kisses that they have shared with her than she did in school. If by learning about God, we mean studying theology and metaphysics, that is hard to believe. But if by learning about God, we mean experiencing the wonder within the ordinary, and the mystery that is at the core of life, she is undoubtedly right.

This is a book that expectant parents and those with small children can learn much from. But it is not only for them. Anyone who wants to know where and how to find holiness in the midst of this world, and how we can relate to the sacred that is found in places that most of us never notice, will benefit immensely from this book.

(Read the Ledger’s interview with Rabbi Ilana Grinblat)

Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent reviewer for journals of Jewish and General Thought in America and abroad. He is the editor of The World of the High Holy Days, and the co editor of So That Your Values Live On: A treasury of ethical wills.


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