By Sarah Rudolph
(Kveller via JTA) — Twinkle, twinkle, kochavim (stars),
Shining in the shamayim (sky).
When I say Shema tonight,
Everything will be all right.
Years ago, my oldest child brought this song home from preschool. It made me wonder: What exactly was the message they were trying to convey to my little girl?
As a new mother, I rejoiced in starting to pass on Jewish traditions and prayers to my daughter, such as reciting the Shema at bedtime. Freshly bathed and ready for bed, she would cuddle on my lap while we said the prayer. At first I said the words for her. Then I was overjoyed when she began to say them herself, like generations of Jewish children before her.
But I wasn’t thrilled to discover that her teachers were presenting the Shema as some sort of magic formula.
“When I say Shema tonight, everything will be all right.” Really? Is that what we believe?
What was I to say if she woke up an hour later and vomited — should I tell her she must not have said the Shema properly? Or that her illness, despite her suffering, is actually “all right?” I could maybe get away with minimizing, say, a midnight earache, but what if something more serious were to happen during the night?
Surely her teachers didn’t think through the implications of the song that much; it was just a cute rhyme. But I didn’t think it was so cute.
At the time, I wasn’t ready to discuss theodicy with a 2-year-old. (Nine years later, I still don’t have perfect answers when my children ask about the existence of evil in the world — in fact, no one does.) But I knew I wasn’t going to teach her that if she always did the right thing, only good things would come — and that, conversely, if bad things happen, she must have done something wrong.
Aside from being a terrifying thing to say to a child, I just don’t think it’s true — the world is too complex, and God is too complex, for any kind of simplistic, linear equation to accurately represent the relationship between what we do and what happens to us.
Part of the traditional ritual of reciting Shema is to cover the eyes. When I first started saying Shema with each of my four babies, I was always careful not to fully cover their eyes because I thought that would be alarming for a little baby. I would leave my hand on the side a little, or leave gaps between my fingers, trying to accustom the baby to this ritual without making it uncomfortable or scary. As my children got older and more used to it, I was able to fully cover their eyes — the way I do myself.
One recent night, when my youngest was about 18 months, she was the one who took my hand and placed it over her eyes. (I guess I wasn’t fast enough!) As we sat and rocked, singing the special songs we like to sing before bedtime, that one little move of hers got me thinking. I realized that perhaps I had unknowingly taught her a better lesson than the one her big sister learned at school.
No matter what we do or how fervently we pray, we don’t actually know that everything will be all right. Shema or no Shema, there are no guarantees. There is little that we can be sure of in this world.
But what I can do — and what our bedtime Shema ritual can do — is help my children prepare to face a world of uncertainty. I can help provide them with the security to have their eyes covered — to welcome it, even — to find assurance from the embrace of their parents, and of G-d, to confidently embark on a long, dark night without knowing how things will be in the morning.
As a mom, I hope and pray that the rituals and habits I teach my children will provide them with a framework from which to confidently explore the world, with all of its uncertainties. I hope they will be able to gain strength — through the Shema, along with every other mitzvah I teach them — to be “all right” with whatever life brings.
(Sarah Rudolph lives in Cleveland with her family. She has been teaching Jewish text studies for over 10 years to students ranging from elementary school to retirement age. More recently, she has begun a foray into blogging for such sites as The Times of Israel and The Torch.)