It’s September/ Elul, and children everywhere are yanking out their uniforms, knapsacks, paperwork, and supplies, packing up lunches and snacks, and getting ready to rejoin the classroom scene. Hustling out to the bus stop, or listening out for the carpool honk, or hopping on bikes, rushing to be on time for the morning bell.
“Bye! Love you- have a great day; learn well!”
(One of my favorite aspects of homeschooling is no longer starting the day with that morning rush.)
Even pre-covid, many kids, parents, and teachers felt some anxiety with the back to school season.
The change in season, energy, and focus, as we bid the long lazy days of summer goodbye can bring on the blues, and impending sense of “oh, no- here we go again.” The unknowns of the next grade level, shifting of social groups, teacher and homeroom assignments, and even the bus or carpool schedule. It’s a lot of transition, particularly for the students who don’t thrive scholastically, the parents who just want a feasible routine in place, (and the teachers who are secretly burnt out).
Of course, there are some that love the back-to-school crisp Autumn nostalgia- the fresh, fragrant leaves of foliage and notebooks inviting a new year of possibilities. And many who feel bouts of both dread and excitement. (Feelings are rarely binary.)
If you are one of the many parents, teachers, or kids who are feeling particularly nervous this year, know that you’re not alone. This year brings with it, not only the usual mixed emotions of starting anew, but the compounded unknown of Covidlife 2.0. We had all hoped that by this time, we’d be breathing a collective sigh of relief, with Corona fading in our rearview mirrors. Instead, we are preparing for the possibility of this “second wave” and all the unknowns it entails. Trying to keep up smiles for the kids, while donning masks and literally distancing. This is hard on everyone.
But like any challenge, the best we can do, is to do our best.
We, as the adults, can be honest and reassuring- to our kids and in our own brains.
We can allow them the space to cry and express their fears and concerns- validating without mitigating. We can level with them, tell them that the doctors, teachers, and parents are trying our best to keep them as safe as we can. That we don’t know exactly what will be next, but that we are here for them always.
We can be courageous and compassionate: we can model resilience by trying to take the next good step, and kindness by being patient with everyone’s added fragility- including our own.
We can turn to faith- not that everything will end up the way we want it to; there’s no guarantee of that. But that as tough as this is, regardless of how this all plays out, we can try to be there for others, that there will always be goodness, good people, and hope. We can try to let go of what we can’t control, and instead, try to focus on what we can do for ourselves and for others as we navigate this next stage.
That will look a little different each day, even each hour- depending on our own emotional reserves, and what the people around us need. We will be imperfect- always. This is a process, and we all need more grace now than ever. We don’t have all the answers- we have hardly any these days. But we a different kind of toolkit- we have love and care and kindness and patience and humility and courage- these will serve us well as we go forward and lead our children through this and throughout all our life experiences and challenges. If we can cultivate these values and practices, this will have been the best education we can offer them.
It’s always a double challenge, that just as we’re preparing our children for the new schoolyear and they are beginning to adjust to the rhythm of it, we are also preparing for the chagim, which add time-sensitive tasks, expenses, and interruptions to this routine.
For parents, there is the need to outfit the families with Fall clothes, back to school gear, as well as assembling Yom Tov attire, food, plans, deal with missed work days, and sukkah building.
For teachers, there is the need to set learning systems in place so the students can adjust to their classroom culture, establish routines, and for Judaic teachers, cram in as much Elul- Tishrei curriculum as possible in about two weeks or less.
For the children, this is a lot of change and stimulation, with the adults busier than usual.
Add Covid to the mix, and it’s enough to send even the most even keeled among us into a tailspin.
And through all this, the emotional intensity of Elul, and the spiritual demands of the Yomim Nora’im season weigh on our souls. How can we try to be our best selves when we feel so frazzled and encumbered?
In the timeless words of Pirkei Avos:
“It’s not all on you to complete all the work. And you’re not free to neglect it.”
Or in more simple English: We can’t do everything, but we gotta try something.”
We need to let go of what I call our cultural “eshes Chayil complex” – the pressure to do it all, always, while smiling and looking great and spouting rosy platitudes.
Instead, we need to get real with ourselves, our souls, and each other.
We need to recognize that some tasks will inevitably get overlooked or intentionally sidelined.
That in order to preserve our sanity and that of those around us, we need to prioritize.
We need to know that the medical and mental health of our families takes precedence over all the other noise, now and always. That the pressure coming from the outside needs to be filtered or refracted in favor of generating stability within- within our homes and our minds.
Yes, making lists, planning ahead, delegating, and organizing will help the cause. (Or drive you crazier, or both.)
Some of us (I mean, you) are better at that stuff than others, and some have more resources than others.
If you have the time, money, creativity, patience, and desire to make your Yom Tov season elegant, then by all means- enjoy; maybe this is your self-care, your holiness, and your outlet.
But if that’s not realistic for you, if you’re not even interested in it, or if you don’t have some or any of those resources, remember that real quality is not about the “things.”
It’s about being as present as we can, given the circumstances we have. It’s about modeling integirty, kindness, and resilience in the middle of it all. It’s about trying to do what we can with what we have, and then repairing when we mess up. Over and over again. That’s literally, life.
If the kids don’t have the perfectly coordinated ensembles – they will survive.
If they are running a little late for school, or missing some of the endless paperwork, that’s better than starting the day with yelling.
If our tables are decorated more simply, if our meals are prepared less extravagantly, it’s more than ok.
What the average frum family serves at a typical Yom Tov meal is probably more nourishment than necessary for an entire day or more- we don’t need to demand that excess of ourselves now, (or ever, honestly).
And if the most we can do this Yomim Nora’im season is turn to G-d with all our baggage, and humbly ask Him for the grace, strength, and wisdom to get us through the next leg of this life journey, well, that’s pretty much what we’re meant to do anyway. He knows what a rough year it’s been.
No one asked for these challenges, and we don’t know exactly why they’re here. But once they are, all we can do, is take a deep breath and try to do our reasonable best, one day at a time.
*Learn more about how to cope with overwhelming thoughts and feelings with this technique.*
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Elisheva Liss, LMFT is a psychotherapist in private practice. Her book, Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking, is available on Amazon.com. She can be reached for sessions or speaking engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org More of her content can be found at ElishevaLiss.com