It all started on Purim in my daughter’s nursery school in Jerusalem. Her teacher went into a considerable amount of detail regarding the hanging of Haman and his ten sons and the murder of Queen Vashti when she refused to appear naked (“in just her crown”) in front of the Royal Court. I assumed that Raphaela had no real understanding of the finality of death, at the age of 4.5.
It continued with Passover, with the teacher’s in depth explanations of the 10 Plagues, with a liberal use of the words “death,” “died,” and “killed.” In this black and white view of the Universe, my daughter was taught that the plagues affected only the Egyptians and their property, because they had enslaved and abused the Jewish people. Pharaoh and the Egyptians deserved their fate, because they were wicked and the Jews were good.
Raphaela came home with two drawings, and described the scenes set out in both:
First drawing: “Mommy, this is a princess right after the plague of Darkness (hovering dark blue sky). She is going to die in the Tenth Plague (symbolized by the ominous black blob next to her smiling face) because she is wicked.”
Second drawing: “Mommy, this is a good princess!” Presumably this good princess will not die, as evidenced by the ginormous flock of pink butterflies covering the sky, and the bright flowers on the rest of the page surrounding the girl in the picture.
The death talk continued to make me nervous, and I prayed that she had not become traumatized by all the talk in nursery about mass destruction and dying.
This morning, however, the dam burst. Raphaela started our theological discussion by reinforcing the lesson that the “bad people” and their animals died in Egypt. I reaffirmed that in fact all the animals and some of the Egyptians who died during the plagues were themselves not evil, but that they were collateral damage to Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Raphaela wondered out loud why the horses had to drown along with the Egyptian army, at the crossing of the Red Sea, and I agreed with her that we could be sad for the horses and their chariots.
I reminded Raphaela that the King’s own daughter had goodness inside her, since she saved Baby Moses and thus enabling the liberation from slavery. “That’s why we take away some of our wine when we recite the plagues. Because a lot of Egyptians died, and they were also God’s children. We are all God’s children.”
Then she asked me, “When will God die?”
I explained that God is timeless, and that the Divine Power possesses the special ability to exist now and forever. I then added that inside our physical body which ages we have a piece of God, called the Soul, a powerful spark from God that lives forever, even when we get old.
Raphaela burst into tears, collapsed on the floor, and cried out, “I don’t want to get old and die! I don’t want my cat Harry to die! I want to live long enough to start first grade. It is not fair, I am good and I do not deserve to die like the bad people!”
The hug lasted 10 minutes until the sobbing ceased.
I told Raphaela to look into my eyes and tell me what she saw. She answered, “I see my Mommy’s Soul. I see love.”
Then I told her that she will live a very long time, that she will finish all of elementary school and high school, that she will attend college and become a powerful professional woman and do good things for herself and the world. I told her that one day she will get married and have children inside her tummy, and I will become a happy Bubby. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she came up with a “doctor like Mommy” and a dancer–and of course she will continue to be a Princess. She also pointed out that she plans on running the Jerusalem Marathon with me when she gets older, and that it is one of her dreams to take a real shower instead of a bath, just like Mommy and other big girls.
“But I will not grow old, right?” Raphaela asked, fearfully.
“We grow every day, don’t we? When you came out of my tummy you were so small that I could hold you with one hand, and you weighed less than Harry. Now you are tall and you can speak in Hebrew and English and Spanish, and you go to school and your hair is so long and pretty, and you are my beautiful Princess.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Raphaela affirmed.
I looked into her eyes and said, “I am your Mommy, I will always be your Mommy, and I will always love you.”
Having reassured my daughter that she will do all these things and much more, that the entire world of possibilities is open to her, I felt we had passed through this existential crisis, for the most part.
After a half smile through the tears, Raphaela returned to the original point of concern and summarized, “So, Mommy, we are not going to die, ever, and neither is Harry, because we all have a soul and we are good. We are not going to get old, only wicked people like Pharaoh will get old and wither away and die, painfully.”
Holding back my own tears, I said, “You and I are going to be around for a very, very long time.”
It will be a dark day indeed when our 12-year-old cat Harry, my first born and Raphaela’s closest thing to a big brother, passes on.