The Torah of our Mothers: Reb Zalman, Shavuot 5770, 4am
Another mother poem: cresting the first hill

Morning prayer, on retreat and after


On the first morning of Shavuot I had Drew in my arms. He had been asleep in the stroller during Reb Zalman's 4am teaching, but not long after we began to pray at 5am he woke up, and thereafter I was holding him on my lap or in my arms or wearing him in a sling. I didn't bother to hold a siddur (prayerbook) -- my hands were, quite literally, already full. This is what I've been doing at shul when I make it to Shabbat morning services, too: holding Drew and praying aloud without a written text. (I am grateful that the prayer life I developed during my early years of rabbinic school means I know the liturgy well enough to be able to do this!)

Anyway, back to Shavuot. That morning I danced Drew around the back of the room, dandled him on my knee, and nursed him on a couch in the adjacent lounge while listening to the community sing a psalm of thanksgiving responsively with Reb Zalman. (He would call out a line like "Praise God, all the whales and little fishes," and everyone would chorus "Hallelujah" in multi-part harmony.) I remember davening that way with him one Shabbat morning back in 2004; this time I wasn't part of the singing community, but we listened to it from the next room.

I enjoyed dancing Drew around the back of the room and singing along. I loved the feeling of enfolding both of us in my new Bnai Or tallit, and I loved thinking about how he is already steeping in the melodies of prayer. And I even enjoyed nursing him in the other room and listening to the psalm as it was co-created by the kahal, though I also felt a pang of wishing I were able to lend my voice instead of just listening in from afar.


On the second morning of Shavuot, Drew began to fuss just as morning services were about to begin. We'd had a rough night and I was already exhausted from having hardly slept the night before. I was also feeling frustrated at having missed two evenings' worth of reportedly glorious prayer in order to put Drew to bed at 7pm -- it didn't seem fair that I was about to have to miss morning prayer, too. "I guess I'm going to have to take him for a walk and see if he falls asleep," I said to the friend who was standing beside me, folding up my tallit to put it away. At that moment, a kind stranger saw my frustration, and she swooped in and rolled Drew away in his stroller. "I have three kids; I recognized the look on your face," she said later when she brought him back to me.

What that meant was that I was able to daven purely on my own. Standing next to my friend David, harmonizing with him and with everyone else in the room, I was amazed by how strange and unfamiliar it felt to be davening without worrying about how Drew was doing: whether he was bored, whether he was enjoying himself, whether he was about to start fussing. Because it was a festival morning service we sang the psalms of Hallel, and oh, it felt so good to clap and stomp and sing with all my heart -- to be able to really immerse myself in prayer! I think it may have been the first time in six months that I davened without him.

Around the time of the Torah service, my new friend returned with Drew in the stroller; he woke up just as we were beginning Yizkor, the memorial service, which I decided was a perfect time for us to duck out of the sanctuary and go tend to our assorted physical needs.


On the third morning of the retreat, we gathered with Reb Zalman for weekday morning prayer at 7am. He began by speaking with us briefly about tallit and tefillin, both on a practical level and on a spiritual one; he spoke about the need to have a weekday davenen practice in order to energize our spiritual lives and to infuse our lives with our values; and then he told us each to find a place in the room and to daven aloud for 20 minutes. A practice of more than 20 minutes, he said, isn't likely to be sustainable; what matters most is that we maintain connection with God. And, he added, he wanted each of us to pray loudly enough that we could hear ourselves at least murmuring.

I put Drew in his bouncy seat in front of me, wrapped mysef in tallit and tefillin, and sang an abridged morning service quietly. Drew bounced in his chair, kicked his feet, sucked on his pacifier, and beamed at me. The practice is exactly what I could and should be doing at home every day (though there are ways in which it's easier on retreat than it is at home -- on retreat I wasn't tethering myself to a breast pump in the mornings, which tends to use up Drew's patience, and also someone else was cooking my breakfast and doing my dishes!) I was also reminded that the experience of solo prayer in community, surrounded by the rise and fall of other voices, is entirely unlike solo prayer at home with the baby.

It was also the first time I'd laid tefillin since Drew was born. Between my initial struggle with postpartum depression (which left me feeling largely unable to pray) and my continuing struggle with the logistics of life-with-baby, I hadn't been able to muster the ability to put on tefillin in six months. I don't think I'd realized how much I'd missed it.

I'm still figuring out what's going to work for us now that we're home from Isabella Freedman. On Sunday morning I took Drew to my study and put him on a quilt on the floor to play with toys in front of me while I davened -- but midway through my brief davenen he started to rub his eyes and fuss, and I had to bring him downstairs and nurse him and settle him for a nap.

Life with a baby is a continual exercise in picking up threads from earlier in the day, earlier in the week, earlier in the year. My conversations with friends and family are perennially getting paused so I can tend to Drew's needs; then I call back, or turn my attention to the other person in the room again, and say, "...I'm sorry, where were we?" I guess it's no surprise that my conversations with God are the same way.

The other truism about parenting which rings true for me these days is that just when we're getting used to one thing about life with Drew, it changes. I imagine that my prayer life will continue to morph and shift as Drew changes and grows. Once again I'm reminded of the Hasidic notion of serving God not despite our embodiment, but in and through it. My task isn't to find a way to set nursing, or pumping milk, or changing diapers, or playing with the baby, aside in order to connect with God; my task is to connect with God precisely through doing all of those things which are part of this moment in my life.