Before the birth of our oldest son, Doron, my wife and I had many lengthy conversations about the kind of parents we wanted to be. The topics ran from the amount of screen time we would allow to the types of schooling and the religious environment we would foster. You name it and we had discussed our vision for being the ideal parent.
We thought we were so clever. What we didn’t know then, and what we continue to discover now, is that forward planning is good but not absolute. Even our “birth plan” was upended for reasons beyond our control. Instead of being born in the natural birthing center with aromatherapy, our preselected birthing playlist, and yoga balls, our son entered the world through an emergency cesarean section operation. It was possibly the scariest 20 minutes of my life. We were instantly thrust from the world of our well-crafted and meticulously planned ideal to the world of the real.
And, since becoming parents, we no longer adhere rigidly to a plan; rather, we have adopted a more flexible strategy which acknowledges that we rarely know what is going to happen.
This strikes me as an authentically Jewish way to be parents. It calls to mind two terms from Jewish halakhic (legal) thinking: “lechatchilah” and “bediavad.” “Lechatchilah” means “at first; in the first place” meaning that something is done ideally, with the full approval of Jewish law. This term is juxtaposed with “bediavad,” which means “after it has been done; after the fact.” So, for example, it is preferable to say a blessing before shaking the lulav and etrog on Sukkot — lechatchilah. But if you forget and do not say the blessing you would have fulfilled your obligation of waving the four species anyway — bediavad.
In parenting language, that might translate into something like this: Ideally, my children should be wearing clean matching socks — lechatchilah. But, since there are still nine loads of laundry to wash, fold, and sort, they can wear yesterday’s semi-dirty, mismatched socks again — bediavad. More seriously, I always want my children to hold hands and look both ways while crossing the street — lechatchilah. But sometimes, they run without looking and make it to the other side safely. It all works out in the end, so, bediavad, no harm, no foul. And yet, while I am mostly okay with a good enough outcome, I have to acknowledge that the ideal has been chipped away at and a disaster could have ensued.
Parenting may be the most profound and significant thing I ever do. Setting my children on (I hope) a path to be good people and good Jews is an enormous responsibility, which is why missing the mark can feel so demoralizing. But in my five-plus years of being a father (three children under age 6!), I have come to place more stock in living life as it is and as it comes than as it should be. In other words, my parenting philosophy has become heavily bediavad based.
That doesn’t mean I don’t dream of a time when we sit down to eat a home-cooked meal without various screens at the table, with animated conversations and excellent table manners. But for now, we often eat cereal and milk for dinner or have a pizza delivered. And that meal is just a prelude to the marathon of getting three small people ready for bed. I wonder whether my thoughts about bediavad will change when my children are older — when new technologies, dating, drinking, and questions about sex require more consistency and less compromise. Will I have less tolerance for bediavad when my children begin to make independent decisions that will have a lasting impact on their lives?
The concepts of lechatchilah and bediavad give me a focal point to continue striving toward ever better parenting. Like our parenting practice, our religious observance — and anything requiring a discipline — can be viewed through the lens of these two concepts. While we may not always reach our ideals, and while we may settle for “good enough,” we remain committed to a path of excellence.
Rabbi Uri Allen is the associate rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, where he lives with his wife, Sari, and their three children, Doron, Aderet, and Yedidyah. He enjoys playing guitar and basketball, and attending musical concerts, especially of the group Phish.