Why Can't We Just Have a Normal Shabbos Meal?
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this question.
There is a lot of energy in that question. It's loaded. I am imagining the women reading this article thinking, "yaaaasssss, pray tell!"
There is a lot of frustration and disappointment in that question. She wants the meals to look a certain way and as much as she asks for it, it just doesn't happen.
How to navigate a situation that seems hopeless? After all, she has tried everything and thinks her husband just doesn't get it. Is there an answer?
The answer lies in the word "normal".
What is normal? Normal is a perception, it is a judgment, a generalization. It is a preconceived notion that everyone is doing the same thing. It is a false understanding that feels like a truth. The truth is, that the word "normal" is laden with expectation and fear. We all want to be normal, look normal, seem normal...because if we are not, we feel we do not belong and that is terrifying. We will go to great lengths to feel like we belong to the majority. It is literally a survival technique. Which, of course, means that it is a fear. (Hmmm, a fear you say? I didn't think of myself as someone who is afraid…) Alas, yes, it is a fear and as soon as we are able to admit that we are afraid we have at last discovered a real truth! We are driven by the fear of appearing as anything other than normal, so our minds have contrived an idealistic vision of what normal looks like. And then we spend our days desperately endeavoring to adhere to that norm. In this case, we are speaking about what constitutes a normal Shabbos meal.
That desperation might spur a wife to pressure her husband to share more divrei torah at the table, engage the children more, lead the discussion with more authority. That same natural urge might make a wife pressure her husband to be more like so and so, 'did you see how he was asking his kids the parsha questions...'
The problem with this pressure is twofold. It backfires and it backfires. And I meant to say that twice. The first way it backfires is that no one responds well to pressure and judgment. Her dissatisfaction with him is not inspiring and even if he agrees with her, it doesn't ever feel good to be criticized. The second and more subtle reason why it backfires is because it doesn't fix what the real issue is, which is her fear. No matter what he does, he cannot remove the fears that are lurking in her mind:
"Are we the type of family that only speaks about politics?"
"Will my kids feel connected to Shabbos when they are older if they are not involved at the Shabbos table now?"
"If we cannot even have a Shabbos meal as a family, then we are really failing as parents."
Even if the husband relents and does what she wants, it is not as if the fear has disappeared, but rather, it has just been pacified momentarily. What really has to be addressed here is fear and how we can steer away from navigating our lives based on fears.
A different approach may be to navigate our lives based on conscious choice. For example, here is a fearful thought: "Deep down, I'm terrified that my kids won't have a good relationship with Yiddishkeit because our Shabbos meals were all about the guests." Instead of wallowing in that fear, I can purposefully move away from it and uncover a conscious choice beneath it, which is, "I really want my kids to have wonderful memories of Shabbos and I want to create that for them." The two sound similar, but in truth are worlds apart. With the first statement, you are always failing or nearly failing to ensure that your children remain frum, with the second, you are always succeeding at your objective which is trying to create beautiful Shabbos memories. It sometimes happens that one is actualizing one’s fear unconsciously by focusing so much on it! As Dr. Seuss wisely states, "If you read with your eyes shut, you're likely to find that the place where you are going is far far behind."
How powerful would it be to approach life from a deep desire to create? It takes a lot of courage to look at what you want instead of leaning on what everyone else does, that which is socially acceptable, or what your mind tells you is "the right way". When you walk away from the fear and expectation of what a Shabbos table must look like and instead think for yourself what you envision it as, you may be surprised at what comes up. You might realize that it's more important for your kids to have a brief but calm meal than a longer meal with games and interactive questions. You might also find that as soon as you approach the meal from a space of creative conscious choice that the singing and divrei torah might organically arise because there isn't a pressure any longer. You might even find yourself musing instead, "Who needs a normal Shabbos meal anyway?"