First Person Singular: Parenting and the High Holidays

September 1, 2006
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Erica Brown

The High Holidays are a first person singular, spiritual experience. Both prayers and Torah readings point to a private and emotional spiritual encounter with God. Abraham descended Mount Moriah alone. Hannah battled her infertility alone. Jonah ran away from God by himself. In Mizmor L’Dovid , the psalm we read from the beginning of Elul until the holiday season is over, David asked for only one thing: to dwell alone with God in His sanctuary. David asked for no company other than the Divine presence.

This fierce spiritual privacy is perhaps best embodied by the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. We each stand, as if hermetically sealed in our own unique life contexts, shedding tears over the year’s review and wondering to ourselves: “Who will wander and who will find rest? Who will live and who will die?” No one – not even those closest to us – can share the intense singularity of those thoughts.

Motherhood was the first experience that cracked my personal spiritual assumptions. It forced me to reconsider the private versus public aspects of prayer. For me, praying and holding an infant was an ultimate spiritual experience. The divine smell of a baby’s head was itself a prayer, so real and so ethereal. When a respected rabbi informed me that a person should not hold an infant while praying lest he or she drop the baby in neglect, I laughed: This legal opinion could never have been written by a mother.

Holding a baby during prayer created a physical extension of myself that turned into a metaphysical extension of what I prayed for and about. Motherhood brought me out of my private spiritual casing and into a more expansive sense of a prayer community. I learned over time, and with the addition of three more children, that a new prayer community had emerged. My own family. My own prayers felt both more urgent and more concrete. Tefilot for world peace joined with intense prayers for one complete night of sleep. The private aspects of prayer merged with the public aspects of communal life more seamlessly, the way they always should have.

Communities are larger families, expanded clusters of people in relation to each other. The spirituality of a community is not only about religious intensity; it is the complex organism of memories and shared history. It is about being present for births and deaths, important celebrations, and tragedies. It is a humbling life lesson to learn that spirituality in prayer is not only about how often you close your eyes but rather how often you keep them open to the needs of others. I didn’t learn that in yeshiva. I only learned that lesson from my children.

A young mother, a former student, shared with me her pain at not being able to stay in the synagogue for the whole Rosh Hashana service. Her baby needed feeding and changing and napping. All she wanted was a few hours of the service the way that it used to be, a few transcendent moments that would give her the spiritual strength to do her mundane mothering chores. I asked her to let go of the way it “used to be” and embrace the way that it is. Feel blessed by the sacred act of parenting. Allow it to become its own prayer.

When we see parenting as a living prayer – a task of integrity rather than a burden that takes us away from something more important – we begin to understand what it is to pray in the plural. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the great rabbi of the mussar movement, was on his way to the synagogue for Kol Nidrei when he heard a baby crying. The family had all left for prayers, assuming the baby was asleep. Rabbi Salanter did not show up until the end of services that Yom Kippur evening because he was babysitting.

This story forces us to ask ourselves as parents and community members what it takes to have a first person plural experience of spirituality. Judaism has always viewed the home as a miniature sanctuary; the family as our first learning community. If this is true year round, it is also true on the holiest days of the year. When we pray we place diaphanous spiritual wings over our families, friends, and community. So, how do we let others in so that we grow spiritually in the process? This question raises a theological issue of whom we pray for and what we pray about. It is about the dynamic tension that prayer generates to push and pull us out of ourselves and back into ourselves.Halakhah has formulated prayer in the plural. We may divide ourselves mentally, but in the eyes of God, “Berov am hadrat melekh”; God’s glory rests in the community.

On the High Holidays, we begin our annual journey in the company of others, even at the most private of prayer moments. Prayer begins with the self but never ends with the self. Only when we lose ourselves spiritually to others do we truly find ourselves.

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Dr. Erica Brown is Scholar-in-Residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Deputy Managing Director for Education and Leadership. In that capacity, she serves as the director of its Jewish Leadership Institute. A Jerusalem Fellow and faculty member of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, she is the author of the forthcoming book The Sacred Canvas: The Hebrew Bible in the Eyes of the Artist. She resides with her husband and four children in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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