How embarrassing for man
to be the greatest miracle on earth
and not to understand it!
How embarrassing for man
to live in the shadow of greatness
and to ignore it,
to be a contemporary of God
and not to sense it.
Religion depends upon what man does
with his ultimate embarrassment.
– Avraham Joshua Heschel (1)
Recently, I experienced the great embarrassment of living in the presence of God, thinking that I knew what it entailed, only to realize that I had no clue. It was a rude awakening, dreadful as can be. I was confronted with a situation that I have always known exists but have never experienced before.In an instant I learned what no book could ever teach me in hundreds of years: that I should sense the ultimate in the ordinary; that I should live in awe when I encounter the trivial.
I learned to be constantly thankful to God for His incredible gift of children, children-in-law and grandchildren.And I learned all of this on Friday, June 11, when my wife and I nearly lost a daughter and three grandchildren.
On that dreadful day, our daughter and three of her four young children were attacked by a mob of Arabs near the Kotel Hama’aravi, in Yerushalayim. My daughter was injured by a rock thrown at her head, while my grandchildren – twin 8-year-old boys and a 5-year-old girl – bent over in their seats, protected by an angel from the shards of glass that fell around them as the car was stoned and kicked by the mob. In the midst of this terrifying experience, my daughter told her children to recite shema and ve’ahavata as she hit the gas and sped through the murderous mob, hopeful that God would help them.And so He did. They barely escaped.
At the same time, in Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital, our youngest daughter was giving birth to a healthy baby girl. While a previous pregnancy had been difficult, this time it could not have gone better. An easy birth, and a beautiful baby.The contrast between these two life-altering events was so impactful that it felt as if my brain would explode. It was as if more than one baby had been born: my daughter, her three children and the little baby girl. Five gifts: one brand new, and four given to us a second time.
What we imagine is far is really very near. What we believe to be natural is in fact a miracle. What seems to be average should be a source for ultimate astonishment. We live in ongoing tension between illusion of the normal, and constant encounter with the vicissitudes of the divine. I relearned to revere God, to see in each of my children, children-in-law and grandchildren a miracle greater than the splitting of the Red Sea. I grasped how much they represent the ineffable. All our children are manifestations of the supreme.
My daughter phoned me from the hospital so that I would not be shocked when the police would bring her car to our home. It was badly damaged – with nearly all windows broken – and covered with the shoe prints of an angry mob. She told me in a few words what had happened, calmly assuring me that she and the children were fine and that her brother and sister were with her at the hospital. I am not one to panic, so I sat down after hanging up and tried to get my thoughts together.But I was immediately forced to pick up the phone once more, this time to hear my wife’s excited voice informing me that we were blessed with another healthy grandchild. The divine paradox could not have been more radical.
A devastating thought entered my mind. Here I am at home, waiting to hear of a new grandchild’s arrival, while without my knowledge one of our daughters had been fighting for her life and the lives of her children. And I, the parent, had no knowledge of it! Instead, I had been sitting comfortably on the couch, sipping coffee, biting into a cookie, saying some tehilim, looking into the Torah portion of the week, and tranquilly waiting for the news of a new family member. I was totally ignorant of the facts. Only God knew what was happening and how it would end.
I was overcome by a feeling of solemn terror, by an awareness of being inferior to dust. We can endure neither the heartbreaking splendor of life, such as the birth of a child, nor our children’s narrow escape from danger; neither the awesome sunset nor even the mundane drinking of a coffee.What was happening ‘out there’ while I was taking a sip? And what was the meaning, then, of this sip? Did it expose me as terribly ignorant? What, I asked myself, is the value of all my ‘learned’ opinions, my words and writings? My illusions had been shattered. I did not even know what was happening to my own child, my flesh and blood! Of all the fathers in the entire world, only I am her father – nobody else but me. And I could not even protect her and her children in their hour of need. So who am I? What is my significance?
Last week my daughter answered me in her own way, without even knowing. At the seudath hodaya (a festive meal that we Jews prepare as a token of thanks to God after narrowly escaping danger), she said that just as a little bit of light removes much darkness, sometimes even a few moments of acute darkness emphasizes the magnificent light that was there all the time but not appreciated. The entire ugly incident took less than a few minutes, but it created infinite appreciation as well as a reconnection with the mystery of life and the need to see in every triviality a moment of intense greatness and holiness.
Children are miracles that emerge from the womb without us parents having much say in the matter. We are just asked to experience a moment of intense love, and suddenly there is a child, carried through a nine-month acrobatic race in which all limbs are put on a time clock instructed to get it all together within a second. We parents do not own our children; we do not even create them. God just borrows our bodies, and we charge a fee that He pays in cash. We Jews call it nachat, the indefinable Jewish word for parental joy. We are simply dedicated caretakers employed by the real Parent. He creates strange twists, incomprehensible to us.Sometimes He reveals our nakedness in a cup of coffee and then covers it up with a miracle.
True, not always do these stories end on a happy note. We do not know what happens on the other side. We just hear some perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. We know that there is more, but we are unable to grasp the immense expanse of the Infinite.
I have come to a new level of awareness as a parent, long after my children married. Can life go on as usual? What does it actually mean to be a parent? What is the stuff parenting is made of? Does it mean you become a new parent each day, because the child of yesterday turned out to be much more precious than you ever imagined? I hope it does.
The police told me they were deeply impressed with my daughter and her children. They stayed relatively calm, crying only a bit. After it was over, the boys told their mother they were fine and she need not worry about them. “You now need to take care of yourself and your injured ear,” they said. One of the boys took her hand, caressed it, and told her how much he loved her. While driving in the ambulance, the other reminded her that they should phone the friends who were with them at the kotel and tell them to drive a different, safer way. A few days after the incident, the children came home with a pair of earrings, which they had bought at the ‘shuk of good deeds’ at their school, to replace the ones our daughter lost that day when the rock hit her head. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you that when our daughter told the children to duck, the boys both bent over their little sister, who was sitting in the middle, so that they could lie on top of her and protect her.How does one live with such grandchildren? Who is teaching whom?
I am now dealing with a problem. How does one proceed when faced with a miracle? How does one ensure that it does not become trivialized?One thing I know. Whenever I see my children, children-in-law and grandchildren, I will think of that Friday and fight any attempt to take them for granted. Children need to remain a constant surprise. They are God’s revelation, always extraordinary. And if they exist, as they indeed do, why should I doubt that the God of Israel spoke at Sinai? Perhaps Sinai is nothing compared to the birth of a child. After all, nature is the frequency of a miracle. Sinai happened only once, while children are born all the time. Perhaps the revelation at Sinai is a reminder that I should be astonished when I see my children.
I do know this: Since we are constantly in the mills of death, we cannot write our autobiographies in advance. Once again, I have learned that we are not the masters of our destiny.But the challenge is in remembering the message of Avraham Joshua Heshel: We are the contemporaries of God.We ourselves are walking miracles; how do we live up to that?
Dear reader, when next you take a sip of coffee, be aware of what may be happening somewhere else at that same moment – good and bad. Perhaps that is why we Jews make a brachah, a blessing. It is a moment of contemplation, one that asks us to think of the many mysteries that happen as we smell the coffee’s fragrance.
May God grant us life in His presence.
Who is man? Page 112.