January 21, 2019

Who Loves You?

A bright and otherwise articulate second-grader was having night terrors. Well after midnight, she’d awaken screaming hysterically something about death. So her parents brought her to see me, the rabbi.

“I know kids, but I’m not a therapist,” I complained.

“But she trusts you,” they responded.

So I agreed to speak to the child and see what I could do.

“Sounds like you’re really scared at night,” I began.

“Yeah,” she agreed, playing with the knickknacks on my desk.

“Did something happen that made you so scared?” I inquired.

“No, nothing really,” she put me off. Then after a pause, “Well, my dog died.”

I jumped on this, “That’s terrible! Your poor dog died. You must be really sad about that.”

“No,” she parried, “he was really old and really sick and really smelly, and I didn’t like him very much.” And then, “But when he died, I started thinking about my grandma who died.”

Having been put off once, I proceeded more carefully, “And what was that like?”

“Well, I was only 3, so I don’t really remember her very well. But I started thinking that if grandma could die, and grandma was mommy’s mother, well, that means mommy could die. And that made me really scared.”

The knickknacks were set aside, and we were both paying attention now. She was such an open and forthright kid, I thought I’d go a bit further: “What do you think about when you’re so scared?”

“Well, you know, if mommy died, who would take care of me?”

“That is scary.”

“Yeah, that’s what I think about at night and that’s why I start crying.”

Of course you’re crying. At age 7, you’ve discovered the single-most-terrifying element of the human condition and your world is no longer so secure and bright. Of course you’re crying. We’ve all cried those tears. But we know something else about being human. And you know it, too.

“Tell me something, who loves you?”

“That’s a silly question … lots of people love me!”

“Like who?”

“Well, mommy and daddy, my grandpa, and my other grandma and grandpa — I call them Nana and Papa, my Uncle Jack — he’s really funny….”

“Wait a second,” I held her back and reached to find a piece of coloring paper and a marker. “Start writing. Make a list of all the people who love you.”

So we started the list again. “Mommy, Daddy, Grandpa, Nana, Papa, Uncle Jack….” Soon the list grew long, including teachers, doctors, babysitters, the lady at the bakery who gave away cookies. Even the rabbi made the list.

“Here’s what I want you to do. Keep this right next to your bed. When you wake up in the middle of the night, and you start thinking those scary thoughts about death, read the list. Read the list of all the people who love you. Read it out loud. Let’s see what happens.”

She read the list every night before bed. And sometimes in the middle of the night. And the night terrors stopped.

This week’s Torah portion gives us the central affirmation of Jewish prayer — “Shema Yisrael.”

Before saying “Shema Yisrael” in the morning, tradition requires that we gather together the tzitzit, the fringes of the tallit. We wrap them around the fingers and hold them close as we affirm our faith.

There are several authoritative interpretations of this custom. But now I have my own, taught to me by this insightful young woman. As we gather the fringes, we gather all those who love us and all those we love into our hands. We gather them into one, as we say the word “echad” — to affirm the oneness that gives us the courage to face all the terrors of being human and continue to live with hope and with faith. The custom is, as well, to elongate the word echad — hold the syllable, ehcaaaaaad — long enough to include them all, all those we love, and all whose love touches us. To feel their collective love is to feel the presence of the One who loves us.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and author of “Tough Questions Jews Ask — A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life” (Jewish Lights), which was recognized as a finalist for 2004 Jewish Book Award.