Bedtime prayers and the alphabet
February 14, 2013
My mother taught me to say my prayers before I went to sleep. She would sit by my bedside, and every night, I would recite "God bless Mom and Dad, Lali and Eppie" -- my grandparents, of blessed memory, who were then living -- and then go on to mention all of my siblings (and, in time, their spouses), and Eloisa (one of my childhood caregivers), and "my aunts, and uncles, and cousins, and friends, and everybody else, amen." And then I would say, or sing, the one-line shema.
I didn't know then that what I was doing had a formal name and was part of daily Jewish practice. Saying my prayers before bed and ending with the shema was a shortened version of kriat shema al ha-mitah, the traditional liturgy of the bedtime (or "in bed") recitation of the shema. That's something I've come to know in adulthood, as my study of Judaism has deepened. All I knew, when I was a kid, was that this was what I did every night, with my mother sitting by my bedside.
(I've posted about my favorite prayer from the bedtime shema liturgy before. If you want a beautiful downloadable rendering of that whole set of prayers, with transliteration and meaningful English, you can find one at the end of Rabbi Daniel Siegel's post The Cycles of T'shuvah.)
Saying my prayers before going to sleep was such an ingrained childhood tradition that I've never stopped doing it. Even on my tiredest nights, when I climb into bed, I silently thank God for people in my life, for the blessings of home and bed and enough to eat, and I say the shema. The tradition is more or less unchanged since my mother gave it to me -- though some of the people I used to bless have died, and others (most notably our son) have joined my list.
So it's probably not surprising that as Drew has grown, I've shared this practice with him, as my mother shared it with me. Before he goes to sleep -- as we're sitting in the gliding rocker where we used to nurse, after we've read a book together and turned on the white-noise machine and turned off the lights -- we ask God to bless his parents, and grandparents, and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, amen. And then when he's in bed and I'm sitting by his bedside, smoothing the Thomas the Tank Engine fleece blanket over him and nestling all of his stuffed animals by his side, we say the shema. And then I tell him I love him, kiss him goodnight, wish him sweet dreams, and quietly tiptoe out of the room.
Well: that's how it goes some nights. Exactly like that, sweet and serene. But other nights, nothing goes as planned. He giggles his way through putting on pyjamas (often running around the room half-dressed, or pretending he thinks the bottom part of the PJs goes on his head), resists brushing teeth with remarkable stubornness, and when I invite the saying of prayers or singing of the shema, he shouts "no!" On those nights, what he usually wants to do is sing the alphabet song, instead. He sings it to me, then I sing it to him in lieu of a lullaby. (I miss the lullabies I used to sing to him when he was a baby, but I try to respect his desires.)
Anyway, last night was one of the nights when he happily joined me in listing the people we wanted to bless, but didn't want to sing the shema. Instead he sang the alphabet song. And asked me to sing the alphabet song. And then sang the alphabet song to me again. And as I sat on his bed listening to his voice, I remembered the Hasidic story about the little boy who came to synagogue but didn't know any of the prayers. So as the congregation was immersed in prayer, he recited the alef-bet -- the only Hebrew he knew -- in hopes that God would assemble the letters into prayers on high. And it was his sweet, simple recitation which lifted up the prayers of the whole congregation.
(There's a one-paragraph version of that story in a post from Rabbi Phyllis Sommers: Alef Bet. Another version appears in The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, and the story's available online via google books search: the boy who prayed with the alef bet.)
I love the idea that even when he doesn't want to join me in a formal prayer before bed, God can translate his alphabet singing into the most meaningful prayers of his heart.