Praying for my son

How I wish I could protect my child from all of life’s dangers and sorrows…

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By Jeremy Kalmanofsky

The man sat in my armchair, telling me about the time the hospital nearly called off his 2-year-old son’s cancer treatments. The surgery to remove a portion of the child’s cancerous liver had been thrown into doubt by the discovery of spots in his lungs. “I was on the floor at the doctor’s feet,” the man told me, “begging, ‘Tell me it is going to be all right. You have to tell me this is going to be all right.’”

What could the doctor say? Nothing except: “I cannot do that.”

I pray with my baby in my hands. You weigh nothing; small body, soft bones, your ribs are matchsticks. Your smooth skin is luminous and translucent, revealing your tiny purple veins. With my finger, I feel your pulse through the soft spot on your head. I feel your head in my palm and I bless the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Sarah and Leah, our sovereign and our shield. I pray, Ancestors, this infant and I are both your children.

I pray with my baby asleep; you are barely moving in my hands. My left hand strokes your cheek. My right hand holds your body, swaddled in blanket and shirt. Genesis says that God made us coats of skin when we were driven from paradise. Mystic readers say that these garments of hide replaced Adam’s original garments of light. Looking at your pale skin as I say my morning prayers, I think you are both light and hide. I bless God who creates light and darkness, who will radiate a new light upon Zion, whose light pours off you to illuminate my room.

You suck on my fingertip as I pray; your instinct is to seek milk. On your mother’s body you suck and are nourished. I pray from Psalm 81: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. Open wide your mouth that I may fill it.” I would if I could, tiny mouth. I would give you everything I have.

You squirm in my hands. What if I become absent-minded and relax my watch on you? What if you fall? Your face screws into discomfort as you start to wake. You grow red and cry out. I try to soothe you with kisses and caresses, but I fail. I pray, I offer gratitude for our lives, which lie in your hands, Lord, and for our souls, entrusted to You.

What can I do to care for you, my child? You don’t even know what pain is coming, little dove, nor what tears you will shed. Can I keep you from sorrow? I would crawl across broken glass to dry your tears. I would fight wolves to keep you safe.

The Talmudic sage R. Ammi teaches, “A person’s prayer is not heard unless he carries his life in the palms of his hands.” One translation of Deuteronomy also says, “Do not appear before the Lord your God empty-handed. Each person [comes] with his particular gifts, according to the blessing with which the Lord your God has given you.” Do not come before God alone, separated from the intimacy you share with others, the writer is saying; come holding your gifts in the palms of your hands. To meet Avinu She’BaShamayim, our Father in heaven, then, pray with your baby in your hands.

I know the power prayer brings. A wakeful child has allowed me to pray at sunrise, and countless evenings I have put my children to sleep by swaying through evening prayers. In those moments, I experienced and expressed depths of devotion and gratitude, as well as hope and fear, awakened by the baby in my hands.

Since my first child was born, God’s parenthood speaks to me in a new way. I love my children more than I love my own life. If I could only keep them from bullies and nightmares, unrequited love, leukemia, depression, cocaine, car accidents, rapists, terrorists. If I could only save them from their own mistakes. If I could only guarantee that everything will be all right. But I cannot do that.

One February morning in Jerusalem in 1996, I was playing with my eldest son when we heard a ferocious bang. A suicide bomber carrying a dug-up land mine had blown up a bus, killing 25 people, including one of my classmates. More bombings soon followed; Israelis stayed off buses for weeks.

About six weeks after the first bombing, on a Saturday night, my family could not avoid riding a bus from Herzliya to Tel Aviv. I tried to be calm. The bus was crowded with people, including many soldiers. At one point, a young man boarded the bus with a large duffel bag and a smirk on his face. I was certain that this was the end.

My 2-year-old son was looking out the window. I played with his hair and stroked his cheek, imploring, God, let his last moments be peaceful. The ride went on, no one blew us up, and I gradually calmed myself. Still, in the terror of that ride, I repeated my inner petition: God, keep us from the wrong place and the wrong moment. I listened carefully for the answer: I cannot do that.

Our Parent in heaven, I think I understand how You feel. I love my children more than I can comprehend, but my power is scant. You are all powerful, but You restrain your power for reasons beyond our comprehension. Still, I have deep faith that You are a fountain of blessing, that You would do anything for your children as I would for mine. But You and I both know that we cannot fix everything for them. We brought our children into the world so that they could grow, so that they might realize the potential for wisdom, courage, and kindness that lies within them. They can attain this only if our power to protect them is limited, even as our love is infinite.

A prayer for my children

Merciful God, I have faith that, in the end, your infinite love will overcome the finite use of your power. I have faith and hope in an end of days when You will wipe away the tears from our faces. Until then, we are parents together, loving beyond any promise of comfort. We stand together over the beds of our sleeping children, making sure they are still breathing; we pick them up and hold them in our hands, kiss their warm cheeks; and, full of good will and tender care, we pray over them.

From Tikkun, © 2003 Tikkun. Reprinted with permission.

Jeremy Kalmanofsky