Turn Off Cruise Control
OpinionGuest Column

Turn Off Cruise Control

Dog days of summer bring time for reflection on mitzvot and maintaining an intentional presence.

Dena Schusterman

Dena Schusterman is a founder of Chabad Intown, a Jewish educator, and a founding director of both the Intown Jewish Preschool (intownjewishpreschool.org) and the Intown Hebrew School. She and her husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, are native Californians living in Atlanta for 20 years with their eight children.

I am functioning on autopilot.

I go about my hectic day alternating between semiconsciousness and full-throttle action, neither of which requires much intention or reflection. I am doing all the things I can do just as well in my sleep: well visits to the doctor, medical forms for camps and academic institutions, physical therapy for my swollen Achilles heel, labeling the children’s clothing and supplies for overnight camp.

Lists upon lists of actionable items for the upcoming school year at the Intown Jewish Preschool. Tasks go onto my trusty Keep app, then summarily disappear, and I forget they ever existed.

On autopilot, you don’t get too overwhelmed. You just do it because it is the cruise control mode of living. I plod along.

I get five kids off to their faraway summer programs. One is still finishing off his year abroad.

I have two kids left at home, our 5-year-olds twins.

I am almost paralyzed by the sudden quiet in my home. Where is all the lively banter? Where is all the beautiful chaos? Even the twins seem out of sync without all the background noise that usually buoys their play.

I breathe in. I breathe out.

It takes a little time to get used to this new normal of a small family.

Now we are enjoying the dog days of summer.

As a small family, we use the small car and cook small dinners. It is a vacation from reality, right here at home. It’s wonderful.

I begin to unwind. I begin to find time for reflection.

It is easy to smile and feel contentment when they are all safe, happily engaged in wholesome activities and far away.

Slowly the kids trickle back home. And then we are back at capacity, a full house. It is once again loud and energetic.

I am no longer on autopilot. I am extremely overwhelmed.

How do I acquire the patience to listen to every camp story, each long-winded negotiation for more computer time and the ubiquitous complaints of boredom?

I am reflective, and I pause. I breathe in, and I breathe out.

I acknowledge to myself that four weeks of peace and quiet provided time for me to amass reserves of patience, not to selfishly want more, more, more, quiet, quiet, quiet.

So with all my power of intention, I focus on being present and patient.

I remember that this week’s parshah is called Eikev. Simply translated, the first verse of the Torah reading is telling us the blessings that we will receive eikev tish-mi-un — when we will listen — to the word of Hashem.

Our sages focus on a different translation of eikev: heel. They say the blessings come specifically on account of the mitzvot that people are so accustomed to that they may otherwise trample upon them.

What is it about the heel that gets its name included for posterity as a weekly Torah portion?

The heel is what we use to disregard the things we find unimportant. In a sense, it’s the way by which we function on autopilot.

This week we are reminded to take all the commandments seriously and how blessed we are when we observe them — especially the ones we might step on, the ones we do by rote, on cruise control. These minor or seemingly petty mitzvot should be judged as equals to the big, important ones.

Keeping Shabbat is equal to building a fence for your roof. Being kind to an orphan is equal to saying a blessing over your food.

The message of this week’s portion is that I too should be both listening and functioning with intentionality. Although I feel as if I can do them in my sleep, I will not trample on these seemingly menial tasks I do for my family. I will stay focused and attribute meaning, even to my most mundane achievements.

It is not easy.

I recognize that the entirety of my parenting is equally important.

I will be blessed.

Dena Schusterman is a mother of eight, a wife, the rebbetzin of Chabad Intown and the executive director of the Intown Jewish Preschool.

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