The other Friday, I was laying out my kids’ clothes for Shabbat when my 3-year-old son turned, pointed his pudgy finger in my face, and said, “You, Mommy, you no go to shul.”
He didn’t say it in an accusatory voice, but simply stated it as a fact. His mommy does not go to synagogue. Period. Being 3, he couldn’t begin to understand that I have been sick, and it it’s not that I don’t want to go to shul. I couldn’t help but wonder how my absence is going to affect him at this early age.
For as long as my kids can remember, I have not been going to synagogue with them on Shabbat. That is because, for almost as long as they have been around, I have struggled with chronic illness, which relegates the walk to shul too hard for me. Every week when my husband (who is a saint) loads the kids into their double stroller, he wheels them to whatever spot I’m sitting in to wish me a “Good Shabbos.” With hugs and promises to have “good behavior” and not to eat “too much candy,” they leave, and I pray alone.
One of the most challenging parts of not being able to go to synagogue with them is my concern that I am missing out on that crucial aspect of their spiritual development. I wonder what my daughter, who is 6, feels when she sees her friends sit in shul alongside their mothers—watching their mother’s pray, participate, and be present. I doubt she has any memories of our first years together, where she joined me in that sacred space, until illness cut me off from the communal experience.
Every week I get reports about my son stealing away during Kiddush to sneak into the Torah ark to kiss the Torah—he bursts with pride when he gets to tell me afterwards that he kissed it “two times!” I wonder what my inability to participate in communal prayer means to him, when he is just beginning to learn to love this aspect of Judaism.
When the clocks changed and Shabbat finally started late, I decided that instead of letting him stay up for dinner, I would put him to bed after candle-lighting. As always, I lit the candles (with my son trying to get precariously close to the fire) and held him while my daughter and I said the blessing to welcome in Shabbat (while he tried to blow out the candles).
After we were finished I told him it was time to go to sleep, but he responded, “No! I no go to sleep. I daden (daven) with my mommy now.” I was surprised by his interest, because he usually destroys my living room with toys while I pray on Friday nights. He ran off to the bookshelf and retrieved his children’s siddur (prayer book). While I sat next to him and began to pray, I watched him as he put on his father’s tzitzit and his own kippah and began to sway back and forth in front of his open siddur.
He then recited Mezonot, the blessing that he says over cookies—10 times in a row. Each time he swayed with reverence, pointing to the words in the siddur that he imagined correlated to the blessing that he was so fond of. When he felt that he had prayed enough, he closed the siddur and held my hand and said, “Look, Mommy—I daden with Mommy together.”
I looked up and saw my daughter standing with her siddur partially covering her face, whispering the words of the morning prayers that she knows by heart. Her eyes were closed, mimicking what she had seen me do thousands of times, and in that moment I realized that I had been a part of their spiritual development from the beginning.
The sacred space that we had created in our living room included me in their Shabbat experience all along. I finished my prayers that evening, feeling extra grateful for the sign that I had been given.