May 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The portrait of the Babba Sali, a famous Moroccan kabbalist who died in the early 1980s, came to us by way of a family member had been was storing (i.e., getting rid of) some items in our home for some time. When we moved, accidentally that box got opened and the picture was put up simultaneously with our family pictures, the giant Venice still-life we won at an estate sale and the scenic silver Jerusalem skyline. We had never had rabbi pictures hanging before. Although we had received some when we got married, I always found a reason why they didn’t quite fit with the decor of our homes, or else we had too few walls and too much open space. This time, however, we had a lot of empty walls, hallways and staircases that could use decorating. And so, when it was hung in the stairway heading to the basement, I didn’t complain. Babba Sali had his own corner of the house.

The picture itself is serene. The old rabbi is cloaked in a white hooded garment, his hands hidden under a table that is adorned by piles of books and an upright Torah scroll, and from behind him, a messenger or a friend, a man whose identity is unknown to me, looks on in agreement. The Babba Sali’s beard is thin and translucent, his eyes overshadowed by his more grandiose features, and the rest of him is concealed, securely wrapped in his clothing. I’m not sure why these pictures of our tzadikim exist, maybe to remind us of the great heroes, our ancestors, so that we can be inspired by their ways.

Throughout the years, when I put my children in time-out, I have adopted a “naughty-step” concept, from the single episode of “Super Nanny” that I once watched. Sitting on a staircase appealed to me more than a time-out in my young children’s rooms, because we could still somewhat see each other; it was close by, which meant less struggling to actually put that child in his room; and also I could be lazy. Sometimes there were several time-outs in a row, and that would mean climbing the steps too many times. The naughty step meant I just had to put that child on the bottom of the staircase, and it eliminated much of the lengthy struggle of hauling that kid off to his room.

But the thing is, some children don’t stay in their time-outs, and need to be put back several times. A great solution to this problem would be if the staircase had a door on it, so that I could simply seal it off with the child on the naughty-step, to keep him in place, to enclose the crying, to encapsulate the tantrum that would likely ensue and to release it all at the appropriate time (one minute per year of age), with the swing of a door. This worked out perfectly with our basement steps.

And so, “time-out” became synonymous with “Babba Sali.”

“If you hurt your sister, you’re gonna go to Babba Sali,” I threatened my son, one afternoon, as he vied for the new Shopkins I had just purchased, and which he was suddenly interested in.

“No! Not Babba Sali! I hate him!” Liad said, suddenly standing a little straighter, scared by the doom of this punishment, which is to stand alone on the staircase, and to be stared at by the Babba Sali’s shrewd, inquisitive eyes. He can’t handle the scrutiny. The eyes seem alive to him, and even though they are drawn to the Torah Scroll in front of him, my son likely feels as if they bore holes in him, reprimanding him for his bad behavior. Why did he think it was appropriate to bite his sister or punch his mother in the neck? It is the holy aura of this man that elevates these time-outs to something more intrinsic, something that forces him to examine his actions, rather than just sit alone in his bedroom, banging at the door to be released.

Lately, I have been feeling guilty that he should associate his bad behavior and the subsequent punishment with a tzadik, and so I don’t close the door all the way. I leave it open a crack so that his screams don’t sound like he is abandoned in a haunted house, but invariably, he thrusts the door open entirely and will be splayed out on the floor, one toe dangling onto the steps, into the realm of Babba Sali. And that is his time out. Begging to be allowed to escape, slithering like a snake, trying to shed the weight of his crimes, to leave them all behind on those steps, and to emerge as something fresh, something clean, that won’t require the scrutiny of the Babba Sali for a long, long time.

Now, as my son gets older and he frequents time-out less and less, moving away from the days of the terrible twos and torturous threes, I am sure that the naughty step will be a forgotten aspect of our household vernacular. The Babba Sali, even in his death, and in his legacy, will have worked miracles in our home, simply through his image. The sincerity he radiates is creating an obedient, awe-struck child.

But one day down the line, maybe in high school, a teacher will open the lesson with a story about the legendary Babba Sali and his miracles, and Liad will shudder with PTSD, unsure of why that name leaves a little bit of a bad taste in his mouth.

By Sarah Abenaim

 Sarah Abenaim is a writer living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected].

 

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