What I Learned From A Child’s Prayer

After close to three weeks of coughing, temperatures, and doctor visits, I drove my daughter Bracha through the frigid post-Sabbath air to our local emergency room, landing in Hadassah Ein Kerem the following morning. The doctor informed us that Bracha was struggling with her second bout of pneumonia, making this her fourth hospital stay in the year and a half since she was born. Watching our beautiful little ball of energy alternate between fatigue and convulsive coughing fits was agonizing and I welcomed the hint of relief I now felt, knowing that doctors were close at hand.

In the playroom of the children’s ward, Bracha and I met an older girl named Keyla. Despite the IV dangling from her hand, Keyla seemed cheerful as she spoke to her Oma in a mixture of Hebrew, Dutch¸ and English. It didn’t take long for Bracha to saunter over and guilelessly take a toy away from her new friend. The girl grinned and acquiesced, using the same calm tone she had used a few minutes earlier to tell a hospital worker her age (seven years old). I smiled back at Keyla, grateful for her kindness to my daughter in her weakened state. When Bracha returned a few minutes later to take away the blue balloon puppy that visiting seminary girls had just given to Keyla, she beamed again and offered it to my daughter with a patient smile.

In my halting Hebrew, I asked Keyla if she had younger brothers or sisters. “No,” she answered, “but cousins.” She reminded me of my older sister at that age, “roller skate skinny” with a gentle, reassuring confidence.

With the sun about to disappear completely behind the hills of the Jerusalem Forest, I found a quiet corner and struggled through the afternoon prayer. Cradling my daughter, I rattled off Psalm 145 and hoped she wanted to be held. My lips formed the words as quickly as they could and I realized as I finished that I had forgotten to specifically ask for healing in the appropriate spot, despite my little girl coughing in my arms. Some prayer, I thought, planting a kiss on her head.

A few hours later, I attempted the evening prayer. Mumbling the words in hushed tones in the space between the crib and makeshift bed, I barely looked at the book. I had managed to concentrate on the first two verses of the Shema and hadn’t woken up my daughter, which felt like an accomplishment. The other child staying in our room was a baby who rasped in painful barks in between the dings of his father’s incoming WhatsApp messages.

As I reclined on the cot trying to read, I wished that my inability to concentrate during prayer was a function of our current surroundings. Unable to sleep, I held my daughter most of the night, drinking water in anticipation of the fast that would begin before dawn. Around sunrise, I put my daughter in the crib and slipped into an hour’s worth of dreamless sleep.

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When Bracha awoke, we headed out of the ward for a morning walk, coming across Keyla’s room on our way. Sun streamed through the window as she held a prayer book in front of her face, covering her eyes. I saw her move backward and forward as we passed, a child immersed in the slow swaying of a Jew’s prayer.

As my daughter settled into the sling, I couldn’t put my finger on why seeing this young, sick girl praying moved me so much. Inexplicably, I thought back to the moment when I decided I wanted to learn how to pray. Some seven years earlier, I snaked my way to the top of Ein Gedi’s Ascent of the Essenes. In the heat of a late July afternoon, we started up the incline about two hours before sunset, remaining mostly in deep shadows cast by the hulking hills that skirt the Dead Sea. Slick with sweat we hit the plateau, where the trip leader, Adam, broke away from the other members of our group.

I watched as he turned to face the direction of the sunset. With no prayer book in hand, he bent at the knees and then stood erect, swaying in the dust by himself. He stood for ten minutes, and then took three small steps back, before bowing to each side. At that moment, I realized I had never really seen a Jew pray before. I had never witnessed a person reach out to that unknowable Power and speak, feet together, head bowed. Out of all of the experiences I drank in during that two week visit, the thing I desperately wanted to bring back to America was that silent sunset prayer.

So I asked Adam how I could learn to pray, and he told me. Over the course of several years, I had in fact mastered the mechanics, progressing from clumsy phylactery-less morning prayers on the 4 train to moments of intense closeness. At some unknown point, I hit hyperspeed and feverishly chased orthodoxy, my flight from darkness bleeding seamlessly into a breathless race toward light. Eventually, ensconced in the safety of my tzitzis and payos and thrice daily prayer with a quorum, that image of Adam shuckling at Ein Gedi had slipped away. How had I forgotten the way it all began?

Back at Hadassah, my daughter giggled at our rapid descent in the glass elevators, returning me to the present. And I marveled at the power of Keyla’s prayer to transport me back to that moment in the desert when I first yearned for more.