When I was pregnant with Zalmen, my first son, I was studying the section of the Torah that talks about building the tabernacle. I came to see the project of building a structure in the midst of the community where God’s presence could dwell as parallel to the project of building a child, a physical being, God’s image in the world. Our project as human beings and as Jews is to continue God’s work of creation, to make the world more perfect. Our ancestors in the desert did this by creating a space in which they could feel God’s presence, commune and communicate, and out of that relationship, live meaningful lives according to the mitzvot, commandments. I was doing it by growing a perfect little divine image in my belly, and preparing myself and my world to welcome and nurture him.
For modern Jews who think of a God who fills the whole world or even for those who imagine God living in Heaven, our minds may begin to wander at the list of construction materials, Temple furniture, and priestly clothing in this week’s Torah portion. If I can access God everywhere, or if it sometimes seems I can’t access God anywhere, why did the Israelites need to bring, engineer, build, sew, and weave such a complex structure for God to dwell among them?
The same could be said of the modern baby registry. How is it that such small people acquire so many clothes, toys, furniture and gear so quickly? Infants, who are content with no more than the milk that flows from their mothers’ breasts, the warmth and comfort of being held, and a clean, dry diaper somehow inspire us to buy and make, sew, knit, and crochet, paint, build and install. For some, whose custom it is not to prepare the baby’s room before the birth, the piles of stuff can be observed stealthily growing in the basement, garage or grandparents’ home. Even if we manage not to buy anything but the car-seat in advance, we have lists of all the things we’ll need to get once the baby’s born, and the the baby gifts pour in; both things on our lists of necessities (we could always use more socks – where do they all go?!) and things we never imagined we’d need (a pee-pee tee-pee for diaper changes – who knew?).
When Zalmen was on the way, I was both excited and nervous about all the baby things. I enjoyed browsing baby clothes, particularly the soft organic cotton ones. I happily researched the advantages and disadvantages of disposable, cloth, and hybrid systems of diapers. And I worried about drowning in plastic, battery-operated toys, each screaming its own electronic melody as they independently propelled themselves around my home. I dreaded being given a toy I had seen at a friend’s house that played a high pitched tune while throwing balls around the room. (When I was a kid we had to make noise and strew our toys ourselves!) I relished a hidden benefit of not knowing the baby’s gender: not allowing anyone to stock up on pink or blue clothing before the baby was born.
So why do our babies, so inherently portable, so able to be happy wherever they are, inspire in us a nesting instinct, an impulse to transform our homes, to prepare our world for their arrival? And how do we keep from becoming overwhelmed by the stuff our children accumulate? Is there meaning to be found in the baby gear market?
The Torah describes the nesting our ancestors did in the desert, when they were preparing their world to live in close quarters with the divine presence, as an outpouring of generosity. God tells Moses, (Ex. 35:5) “Take from among you offerings to God, whoever has a giving heart should bring God’s offering.” The accumulation of stuff comes from people who are moved to bring gifts, to participate and support the transformation that is taking place in their world. Some bring valuable posessions. Others, described as chacham-lev, wise of heart, participate by making things, building, smithing, sewing, and weaving. The people are moved to bring gifts, and they continue bringing and working and creating, until the artisans declare (36:5) that there is too much stuff! Moses commands the people to stop bringing, and they continue the work of construction, until the plan is complete, the sanctuary built with all its details, a place so invested with the people’s spirit of generosity and love, it can support God’s presence and our developing relationship.
I think a similar feeling underlies our impulse to surround our babies with anything they might need. We anticipate our lives changing as we enter into the closest of relationships with a mysterious, unknown, apparently perfect little being. We can’t know exactly what we will need to support that relationship, but we want to be prepared. And the people around us, who care about us and our mysterious stranger, want to participate, to be a part of the miraculous change in our lives and in the world. So they buy things, build furniture, knit and crochet sweaters, hats and socks, cook meals, bake cookies and contribute from their means, their talents, and their hearts.
And yet there may be moments when though the outpouring of love and generosity is beautiful and touching, there is just too much stuff. And parents who see it coming can acknowledge the love and ask people to stop bringing things. Maybe the family could really use meals for the freezer for the newborn adjustment period. Maybe some people could give their time to help around the house or just be there to support the new parents. Or maybe the outpouring can be channeled into donations to a charitable organization whose work the family values, or to one that provides for families in need. Maybe this family would really appreciate pre-loved hand-me-down gifts even more than newly manufactured things.
When a baby is born, a new manifestation of God’s image comes into the world, full of potential and mystery, and dependent on family and community to nurture and help shape his or her growth. People are understandably awed, and inspired to be a part of it all. I suspect it would be impossible to simply turn off the outpouring of love and generosity. It may not even be possible to list acceptable offerings as God does in the instructions for building the tabernacle. But it is possible, both for parents and for family and community inspired to give, to think critically about what it is that they are inspired to participate in, why they want to participate, what they would truly want to give the new baby and the changing family if anything were possible, and how to manifest that through their talents, purchases, or presence.
Lots of the gear is great, and I don’t know any baby who doesn’t need more socks; many traditional baby gifts are welcome and helpful. But when it becomes too much, we are presented with an opportunity to contribute in other ways and to discover the values behind the giving, and the intangible gifts we would really like to provide.