November 20, 2018

Alligators Under

I learned most of my theology not from my teachers but from my children. When my daughter, Nessa, was 3 years old, we had a routine. Each night, I would tuck her into bed, sing our bedtime prayers, kiss her good night and attempt to sneak out of the room. Halfway down the hall, she began to scream, “Abba!” An avid reader of Parents magazine, the Torah of parenting, I knew what to do: I walked back to the child’s room and turned on every light. I looked under the bed. “No alligator, Nessa.” I checked the closet. “No monsters, Nessa.” I surveyed the ceiling. “No spiders, Nessa. Now go to bed. Tomorrow is coming, and you’ve got to get to sleep,” I’d say. “Everything is safe. Good night.” “OK, Abba,” she said, “but leave the light on.”

We did this dance for an entire year until, one night, I stopped myself as I was walking down the hall and asked myself: “Who is right? Whose description of the world is empirically, factually correct? The child afraid of alligators under the bed? Or the father who reassures her that everything is safe and tomorrow is surely coming?

The truth is that the child is certainly correct. She doesn’t know the names of the alligators under the bed. She doesn’t know about cancer, about AIDS, about drive-by shootings, about lunatics who steal children. We grown-ups…we know their names, and yet we still insist to our children that the world is safe enough to trust for this one night. All loving parents do this. Even the most hard-boiled atheist says to his kid, “Tomorrow is coming; you’re safe tonight; go to sleep.”

This is the beginning of spirituality, our experience of God’s presence. Perhaps 17-year-olds can proclaim their disbelief. It’s easy for them — they don’t put children to bed each night. They are isolated — there is no one whose life and hope depends upon them. But for those of us who live with others, who live for others, we know better. Having children, rearing children, loving another with all our soul is an exercise in spirituality.

Spirituality is not something added onto life. It is underneath life, just beneath the surface of consciousness. It represents the answers to the ultimate questions of our lives — questions we may never have consciously asked, but whose answers ring through our daily actions. Why do we get up out of bed in the morning? Where do we find the hope, strength, inspiration to go on each day? How do we cope with all that’s terrifying in life?

Judaism is a way, a language, for asking these questions consciously. It is a way of sharing the answers of the generations that have come before us. And it is a discipline for facing our fears, listening to the questions and searching out the answers.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, the journey toward the Promised Land resumes. Interrupted for the two-year encampment at Mount Sinai, the trek through the perilous and mysterious wilderness will now continue. But before the march commences, instructions are given for the kindling of the menorah, the sacred lamps. Judaism is that menorah — the light left on at night, a gift of wisdom and hope whenever we suspect that there are alligators under the bed.

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who is completing a book (along with fulfilling synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple).

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