“I wanna eat!”
These words have been my alarm clock almost every morning at 7 a.m. for the last few months. They ring from my 3-year-old daughter, Hanna, who somehow finds her way to my bed in the middle of the night.
I’d love to hit snooze, but I’m against child abuse.
From the day she came out of my womb, her morning cries and demands have prevented me not only from sleeping in, but from observing any steady, spiritual morning ritual, my version of Shacharit, the name for Jewish morning prayers.
Back when I was a student at a Modern Orthodox high school, I would recite Shacharit every day and kept this ritual until my early 20s, when I explored other denominations and secular life. While I never returned to Orthodox prayer, the idea behind it stuck with me, and I’d find time to meditate or pray every morning to clear my mind — sometimes in my own words, and sometimes with elements of a Jewish “script.” Motherhood has deepened my connection to tradition, so that I could pass this beautiful legacy to my daughter.
But since becoming a mother, I’ve learned not only to dream small (three book drafts have been shelved), but to pray small, literally. The most I can muster after the “I wanna eat” chant is the iconic Jewish morning prayer of thanks: Modah Ani (“I give thanks”). Luckily, according to Rav Kook, the beloved religious-Zionist rabbi of the 20th century, just these two words go a long way. In his commentary on the siddur (Jewish prayer book), he wrote: “Gratitude, recognizing the goodness of the Lord of the world, Master of all works, who invigorates life with his goodness, is a treasure of goodness.”
After answering Hanna’s prayer for breakfast (which she thinks can include pizza or chicken nuggets), I rally my energies to feed her, make coffee and get dressed (admittedly, while she watches “Peppa Pig” on the iPad, for which I will have to pray for forgiveness).
If I get her to daycare on time, then my real prayer for the morning has been answered.
Still, I yearn for more. I know that praying Shacharit would elevate my mornings, so that I’m not simply a robot taking care only of my and my daughter’s primitive needs. Part of that morning service, the Shema, is supposed to be recited during a very specific window related to sunrise. But after I drop Hanna off, it’s already around 9:15 a.m. and I have to catch up on work, shop and cook — all before daycare pick-up. Who has time to pray, especially without the controlled structure of a minyan (quorum) generally offered daily to Orthodox Jewish men?
According to Orthodox Judaism, I don’t even have to pray at all in the mornings, but whenever I so choose. Women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot (commandments), except for lighting Shabbat candles. I have no obligation to pray at any specific time. Jews have issued apologetics for this, saying, for example, that women are innately on a higher spiritual level than men.
Being a mother, especially a single mother, makes me see beyond apologetics. Until modern times, women have been the main caregivers. For mothers of babies or toddlers, time takes on a different dimension. Hanna is the master of my time. The amount of time I have for productive pursuits unrelated to childrearing has been cut by at least half.
Women with supportive, hands-on partners can likely take on more time-bound mitzvot. If their schedules permit, they can split the morning routine, giving the other the “luxury” of prayer if they so choose. But actually, I think a greater Jewish feminist revolution would involve women not clamoring for the right to perform mitzvot designated for men, but for men to receive reprieve from “masculine” time-bound commandments — to get in touch with their feminine side and also allow their partners to engage in prayer and other tasks they no longer have time for.
For me, one solution for making time for morning prayer is to get a husband. But that’s a very big prayer to be answered! Others might consider substitutes for prayer, like jogging to empowering music or the gym’s yoga class, which I manage sometimes. But I would like to connect with my tribe and the great ethical tradition we received at Mount Sinai.
The thing is, I do seem to find time for a different ritual each morning: checking social media on my phone right after I say Modah Ani. For now, I’m trying to resist the urge to tap my tameh (impure) smartphone and instead tap the faucet for “netilat yadayim” (ritual handwashing), as a symbol of renewal and cleansing.
If I can go to my room to pray for even one minute while Hanna eats (and enjoys her screen time) before shouting “Mmmooooommmyyyy,” I will have accomplished a lot.
Until I can find my rhythm, I take comfort in Jewish wisdom. Maybe I, as a mother, don’t need to say Shacharit because taking care of my daughter is a prayer. My Holy Temple is the home I create with her. I’m reminded of “A Mother’s Prayer Before Dawn,” a popular poem by Israeli writer Hava Pinhas-Cohen, in which she describes the morning ritual of childcare: “The aroma of boiling milk overflowing and the lingering smell of coffee/ Is an offering of thanks and an eternal offering/ That I do not know how to give.”
My daughter is an offering and prayer answered, a soul God has entrusted me to renew every morning. The sacrifices I make to bring her on time to Jewish kindergarten ensure that she can carry on the tradition of being in awe of God’s world. There, she prays more than me, such that when I put her to bed at night, she can already (approximately) recite the bedtime Shema, and it fills me with nachas, pride. My sacrifice of prayer enables her own cries and chants that go beyond an exuberant “I wanna eat!”