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Oct 19 2010

Atonement, Preschooler Style

By at 12:19 pm

I knew as soon as I flipped the light off that I couldn’t get away with this sort of rule breaking, this inconsistency and hypocrisy, anymore. Adira, my almost-4-year old, was sitting on the toilet, Shabbat had started a few minutes before, and her eyes were laser focused on my hands as I flicked the switch.

“You can’t turn on the light on Shabbat,” Adira said, more matter-of-factly than accusingly.

The truth is, there was a time not that long ago that I wouldn’t have done it. If I’d forgotten to leave a light on, it stayed off all Shabbat. And if my alarm clock accidentally went on, we’d listen to the radio until it went off automatically. If it went off automatically.

These days, I’ve gotten more lax, and while I don’t try to justify it—I don’t even like that I do it—this was not the first time I’d knowingly broken Shabbat for comfort and convenience. Still, it is rare enough that Adira noticed. And suddenly, I needed an answer for what seemed like a simple decision to give her some light so she could pee in peace. After all, she’d been the one whining about the darkness.

“You’re right, I shouldn’t have,” I said, and though I probably could have dropped it there, I continued. “Sometimes people decide to do the wrong thing, to make a mistake. I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway. It’ll be OK.”

Mea culpa issued, lesson learned, time to move on. But Adira wasn’t done.

“Will you say sorry to Hashem?” I wasn’t sure I heard her right at first. We talk a lot about Jewish tradition, about the dos and don’ts of our lifestyle, about what it means to celebrate Shabbat and keep kosher and to celebrate holidays. We talk here and there about God, Hashem, but we don’t dwell on it too much. But I hadn’t misheard, and Adira repeated the question.

“Will you say sorry to Hashem?”

“Yes, I guess I will,” I finally replied.

“Are you done? Ready to wipe?” Not so quickly.

“You didn’t say it,” Adira said.

“Say what?”

“Sorry to Hashem.”

My wife later reminded me that once or twice, in response to Adira’s repeated questions about why we observe Shabbat—or, more frequently, why she can’t watch TV on Shabbat—when my usual explanations of a day of peace and togetherness, of family, prayer, and good food, playgrounds and playdates, just weren’t cutting it, I’d resorted to the kind of oversimplified line I’d vowed never to use but did anyway: “Because Hashem told us to.”

So it made absolute sense in Adira’s young mind. Now that I’d broken Shabbat and admitted as much and told her I’d say sorry to God, it was time to do it, to say, “Sorry, Hashem,” and yet I was silent.

“I’ll do it tomorrow in shul,” I told her, finally satisfied at something I’d said in this unexpected conversation. “That’s what davening is for.”

Adira finished up her business on the toilet, and I continued prattling on, happy at the chance to explain to her why we pray and what all that Hebrew mumbo-jumbo is about.

“Sometimes we pray to say sorry to Hashem for things we’ve done, sometimes it’s to say thank you for all the wonderful things we have in life, sometimes…” I realized Adira was off and running, back to playing, the incident of the bathroom light on Shabbat behind her.

Until she asked me the next day, after shul, whether I’d said sorry to Hashem when I davened that morning.

Michael Kress is the executive editor of Parents.com

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2 Responses to Atonement, Preschooler Style

  1. homeshuling says:

    Love this. The best piece that I’ve read on this site so far. Maybe you could have explained to her that we don’t talk to hashem in the bathroom…..

    • Elli Sacks says:

      Loved this piece… rings very true (and therefore very amusing.) I think your answer about making mistakes was very interesting in this context. But now you have to figure out how you will answer Adira the next time it happens!

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