When my 70-year-old father was working out with a personal trainer, his “heart hurt,” so the next Monday he went to the doctor. On the spot the doctor admitted him to the hospital and scheduled him for tests. When I called him on Tuesday, he sounded confident that he’d be home by Thursday. But when I spoke to him again Wednesday evening, he told me he was scheduled for a quadruple-bypass on Friday.
I stumbled into the kitchen where my husband, David, and my oldest son, Adam, who is almost 14, were foraging. “What am I going to do?” I asked them.
Before David could take a breath, Adam jumped in between us. “We have to call Jacob right now and ask him to say a mi shebayrach tomorrow morning at minyan,” he said. Jacob is the ritual director, the shamash, of our Conservative, 1,700-family synagogue. My son’s request was that we ask Jacob to say a prayer that is traditionally recited for those who particularly need or deserve God’s blessings. A prayer that in Hebrew begins, “Mi shebayrach avotainu. . . .” “He who has blessed our fathers. . . . ” A prayer that until six months ago I had never heard of. I glared at Adam, who was holding the receiver out to me. “Put the phone down and get out of here,” I snapped.
I grew up in a traditional Jewish house. We kept kosher and belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. I attended Hebrew school for 10 years and was fluent in Hebrew. I went to Israel when I was a teenager and again three more times with my husband and children. When I moved into my first apartment my mother encouraged me to keep kosher by giving me two sets of dishes. And I did. When my parents dictated that I date only Jewish boys, I didn’t argue. I joined a synagogue when my firstborn was four And when the synagogue’s preschool principal once asked me my goals for my second-born son, I answered spontaneously, “To marry a Jewish girl.”
Being Jewish is part of who I am. Rituals and institutions are not. But I believed that if I wanted my boys to be Jewish adults, at the very least, I had to join a synagogue and set them on its religious-school tracks. And I did. But I no longer kept kosher, although we still had two sets of dishes. I never went to “services.” Sometimes I even stayed home on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As the kids got older, I worked at hiding my ritualistic heresy.
Since his bar mitzvah, Adam had been attending services every day. He attended his first minyan the Tuesday before his bar mitzvah at the suggestion of the cantor. He liked it so much, he went back Thursday morning. Jacob, the ritual director, a non-judgmental man whose contagious smile says, “You’ve made my day by coming to shul,” encouraged Adam, gently. In weekly 20-minute sessions before minyan, Jacob began teaching Adam to daven, to pray to God. Some days Adam led the service. Other days he was the gabbai, the honor guard to the Torah, and he stood on the bimah while the Torah was read. Most days he just sat toward the back of the sanctuary and davened. And he loved it. “It’s better than a shower,” he told me one morning when I picked him up at the synagogue to take him to his Quaker school. “It’s invigorating. The more I learn about the prayers, the more I realize I don’t know. But it isn’t like math. With the prayers I’m glad there’s more to learn,” my straight-A seventh grader explained to me.
I rarely go with Adam to minyan. I tried it at the beginning. I liked being with Adam and watching the members of the minyan pray and socialize. But I just couldn’t get into the religiousness, the spirituality. So I stopped. But I had gone enough to hear some mi shebayrachs and I had figured out what they are for. But they weren’t for me and certainly not for my father’s upcoming surgery.
That night I had trouble sleeping. I was anxious about my parents’ expectations I seem never to fulfill and the fallout that always comes after. But as I do every morning, I got up at six and drove to the pool at our local Jewish community center to swim a mile. On the way I argued with myself that if the mi shebayrach was something Adam believed in, it wasn’t fair for me to discredit it. When I pulled into the parking lot at the J.C.C. I decided to call him.
“Listen,” I told him, “if you get up now, you can still make it to minyan. Ask Jacob to say a mi shebayrach for Grandpa.”
“Mommy, Grandpa’s going to be all right, isn’t he?” he asked.
“He’ll be fine,” I said and burst into tears. It was the first time since my father had been admitted to the hospital that I had cried.
Adam told me that he would go to the evening service and ask Jacob to say a mi shebayrach then. “But will you go with me tonight. Mommy?” he asked.
I said no. I was afraid I would fall apart if I went. “I know. Mommy. I’m going to cry, too,” he said. I told him I’d think about it and we hung up.
Another swimmer had seen me on the phone and although I had wiped my eyes after I hung up, she could see something was wrong when I passed her in the locker room. We aren’t friends, not even acquaintances. So when she asked me if I was okay I said yes, stiffening my eye muscles and damming my tears. But as I stuffed my things into a locker I blurted out, “Do you believe in mi shebayrachs?” I knew she sent her kids to a Jewish day school and often went to Shabbat services, so I thought-she’d know what I was talking about.
“No,” she said thoughtfully, a little taken aback. “But last year when my mother was sick we said them a lot and I had this same discussion with a friend.”
On the way to the swimming pool we talked about my father. We even lingered a few minutes before slipping into our separate swimming lanes. She reminded me how lucky my father was to have detected the problem before he had a fatal heart attack. She was not aware of my family’s tumultuous history, so she talked to me as if I were a daughter just plain frightened about losing her father. Her show of concern touched me.
We sat beside each other at the edge of the pool, our legs dangling into the water. Once again I felt the daughterliness that had flared in me, temporarily, when I talked to my son on the phone. Seconds later, immersed in the water and forging robotically through my first lap, tears dropped from my eyes and collected in my water-tight swimming goggles.
Throughout the morning I got angry at myself for being sad about my father. At best, he is scathing and at worst he is brutal and malicious. When I was 20 he got so angry over how I once answered him back that he stopped talking to me for two years. However, I wasn’t aware of it until the two years were over and he told me. But after my swim on the day before his surgery, whenever I imagined the world without him there was a hole. He had been part of my life since the beginning of my time.
That afternoon I called him. He had told me the day before that he did not want to talk about his operation. That if I were going to call him again I had to talk about something else. “Would drivel be all right?” I asked. “Drivel would be good,” he replied. This, from a man who never makes small talk, to a daughter who’s not very good at it. So when I called him that afternoon I was nervous. I heard laughter in the background and I knew that the call could be short. I told him I couldn’t do drivel and he laughed, which in itself is a rare event. To show I was doing what I could to help him, I said that Adam and I were going to the minyan that night to ask for a mi shebayrach. He laughed again. He said he’d read an article in Science that debunked religion with the thesis that it’s an institution that evolved because of man’s egocentricity. My father, a true cynic anyhow, grew up in a family devoid of any Jewish observances. My mother had been the Jewish cornerstone during my childhood. So the Science article was right up his alley. He had told me about it once before when he came to visit to hear Adam read from the Torah one Saturday morning. I had tried to block it out of my mind then, and I was trying to block it out now, too. But both times I heard enough to know that this time his story ended differently. This time when he finished his synopsis he added, “But thank you. Maybe a mi shebayrach will tip the balance in my favor.” I mustered the courage to tell him I loved him. And for the first time ever, he said it back.
When we entered the sanctuary that evening everyone already had their noses in their prayer books. Adam headed for Jacob to ask for the mi shebayrach.
During the service, whether sitting or standing, Adam and I were shoulder to shoulder. He davened. I alternated between staring ahead blankly and studying the people around me. Most of the people who attend minyan are mourners. Many are graying widowers. Seeing these veterans calmed me. For the first time in my 43 years I was in the big leagues of life-threatening events and it was comforting to know I wasn’t the first one there. Quietly, Adam and I sobbed. Sometimes I started. Sometimes he did. At one point in the 20-minute service Adam left my side, returning seconds later with a tissue from the closet at the back of the room.
“You’re really a regular when you know where to find the Kleenex,” the rabbi said with a smile, standing behind Adam and resting his hands on Adam’s shoulders. “I’m sorry about your father,” he said when I glanced at him and Adam. Not surprisingly, Jacob had transmitted the news.
After the service Adam and I sat in our car in the synagogue parking lot and cried. That day, for the first time in my adult life, I felt the bona fide love of a daughter for her father. On the day of the surgery and the critical days immediately following, my feelings for him solidified. I loved him and wanted him well. I had no contradictory feelings to wrestle with.
And I could scarcely remember it any other way. Not during the day of surgery, which I went through in an anxiety-ridden trance, waiting to hear from my mother
or sisters that the operation was over and that he was all right. And I couldn’t imagine it any other way during my daughterly visit to the hospital, three days post-op when I saw my father pale and asleep, and I cringed when my brain went out of control and I pictured him dead.
Six days post-op, after making nearly unprecedented progress, he had already been home for over a day and was apparently feeling like his old self. When he answered the phone and heard my voice he said, not at all apologetically, “Look, I don’t want to talk to you.” That’s when I remembered.
But that’s okay.
Before hanging up on me, my father told me to thank Adam for requesting the mi shebayrach. When I did, Adam just smiled.
Sarah Cooper is the pseudonym of a freelance writer
...And the Sages say About Dad: You Don’t Have to Love the Guy
by Susan Sapiro and Susan Schnur
The Fifth Commandment comes in two flavors: the Exodus 20:21 flavor and the Leviticus 19:3 one. Needless to say, because of the differences between the two texts, commentators have pounced on the possibilities.
In Exodus, the commandment reads, “Honor Your Father and Mother.” But in Leviticus the order is reversed: “Fear your Mother and Father.”
Why, asks the renowned Torah commentator Rashi, does the word “mother” precede the word “father” in the second version? Because, he answers, a child instinctively fears his/her father. And in the Exodus text? Well, he continues, the father is mentioned first because children naturally honor their mothers, who “win [their children’s] favor with kind words.”
And what about “fearing” versus “honoring”? Again Rashi, citing the Talmud [Kiddushin 31], explains. Fearing your parents means that you do not sit in their chairs, speak in their stead, or contradict them. As for honoring, that’s a different ball of wax— honoring implies giving parents food and drink, providing them with clothes and shoes, welcoming them in and accompanying them on their way.
Interestingly in all of this, there is no commandment to love one’s parents. Why? Because Judaism, in general, tells us how to behave, not how to feel. By prescribing behaviors—but not emotions—the Torah implicitly acknowledges that the parent-child relationship is often fraught with conflict. Still, it suggests, our behavior needs to rise above our emotions. We don’t have to love our parents, we just have to honor them.