So it finally happened with more of a whimper than a bang. Another familial milestone passed with the bittersweet flavor of watching your children grow. Over the course of sixteen years, my wife gave birth to eight little ones. A mathematical calculation demonstrates that we have been reading bedtime stories to our kids for over twenty-four years. Until now.
During those years, my wife learned to recite The Cat In The Hat by heart while the car sounds and party noises of Go Dog Go were reserved for me. We sat on floors in Boston confronting the stereotypes in Danny And The Dinosaur and on couches in Jerusalem wondering about the strange educational message of reading about kidnapping a curious monkey from his home in Africa. In our newest home in Israel, we read old classics from my youth. Of course, we tried to avoid discussing rainbow-colored ponies and magical dragons despite the numerous requests; in all honesty, we usually gave in. All kinds of books, both new and old, made it to our bedtime ritual. We discussed with wonder a girl who broke out in a Bad Case Of Stripes and pondered the existential problems of Green Wilma – the schoolgirl who thought she was a frog when, in truth, really was a frog dreaming of being a schoolgirl. Maybe Tedd Arnold knew that his works were preparation for future Talmudic education.
At times I resisted the call to “let Imma read” when it was my turn. When I asked why, I was told, with some amount of trepidation, that she doesn’t fall asleep mid-sentence like I do despite reading about some princess for the hundredth time. I must admit, my father, the reader of my youth, fell asleep regularly during this ritual. I thought that this was the custom, and I am a traditionalist for goodness sake. It took time, but I learned to try to refrain from slurring sentences as my eyelids fluttered.
Bath, book, bed, and of course, Shema Israel and a few songs had been our custom for twenty-four precious years. Many times we asked that there be no book tonight. Sometimes we exhausted parents won, and on other occasions pleading eyes and mischievous smiles convinced us of the error of our ways. I’m glad the children mostly won that battle for, in retrospect, our wins were a Pyrrhic victory.
We parents strive to maintain a close connection with these beautiful creatures who are similar to us but so unlike us in more ways than we sometimes want to admit. Reading and playing with them allow us to share an intimacy that can never be replicated.
I’m reminded of a moving Torah of Rav Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch. In Maggid Deverav LeYaakov the Maggid suggests that a parent is like God. The parent wants so badly to communicate with his child, but the intellectual and spiritual distance between them is vast. To bridge the gap, the parent will act like a child. The parent partakes and enjoys childish actions because the entire goal is to bring happiness to their child in a manner the young can understand. I still remember when my first daughter was born, how my mother told me about the many hours I would spend trying to make her smile.
This is what parents do. We read about dancing giraffes, green eggs, talking turtles, Spanish speaking child explorers, and strangely humanoid aardvarks. All of this is enables us to communicate with our children and share their experiences. Feeling mutual excitement and joy and hoping to pass some of our values to them in the process.
God, says the Maggid, bridges the chasm of infinity by speaking to us in ways we can understand. Certainly, we must also be open to hearing the Divine call. According to the Maggid, the miracle stories and the Exodus from Egypt that synagogues read about over these weeks are part of God’s attempt to speak to us in a language we can understand. Eventually, of course, humanity grew up, and stories of miracles don’t hold the spell they once did. That is how it had to be. Finding God in our world has become more difficult as the pathways of communication change. But if God shares these attributes with parents as the Maggid suggests, then the difficulty of finding God was expected. As humanity matured, in certain ways, we have become more Godlike even as the distance between us expands.
We hope and pray that our children will grow up. But we know that when they do, the relationship will change, and as they become more like us, something will be lost forever.
This past summer, my youngest reached the ripe old age of eight. Too quickly maturity set in, and she announced the other night that she can put herself to bed. After twenty-four years of nighttime reading to kid after kid, all came to an end. No fanfare, no goodbye to Goodnight Moon, no waving farewell to the rascally cat in the hat or the couple of dogs riding off into the sunset, just a smile and statement, “Abba, that’s ok, I can recite Shema on my own.”