MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD SPIRITUAL TEACHER

MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD SPIRITUAL TEACHER

From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

My Five-Year-Old Spiritual Teacher

Out of the mouths of babes you have founded strength. . . .

Psalm 8:2

Most mornings I have trouble getting out of bed. It’s an old bad habit. I used to lie awake and brood. I’ve progressed to the point where I now lie awake and meditate. It’s very joyful, actually. But it still doesn’t help me get out of bed.

Often my son, Lior, wakes up during my morning inertia. His general routine is to climb out of his bed (he’s learned better than to expect a parent to attend to him at such an early hour) and mount the stairs to the third floor where our bedroom is. He peeks into the doorway expectantly. I lift up my head. “Hey Lior,” I whisper. “Come to Mommy.” He bounds over and then, with unsuppressible exuberance, he bursts out, “Mommy, Mommy!” I lift him up and tuck him under the covers, feeling the blessing of this very special soul cuddled beside me. My cheeks are soon soaking wet. “I love kisses,” he whispers with serious big brown eyes.

“Lior, let’s not wake up Daddy. Let’s go downstairs.”

Lior slides out from under the covers. I follow him, grabbing my early-morning stretched-out sweater and my tattered Israeli slippers from ten years ago.

He leads the way with a purposeful step, down two flights of stairs to the front room. He grabs two prayer-books from the shelf and hands me one. We cuddle under Grandma’s crocheted blanket.

Lior’s davening is mesmerizing. His little body naturally moves in the way of the ancient zaydes. His eyes are half shut. A serious look is on his face. He vocalizes sounds reminiscent of Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday night z’mirot, Shabbos morning P’sukei D’zimra, and various Yiddish melodies. His voice is clear and very strong.

I remember the winter after Lior was diagnosed. The entire family participated in a statewide conference for families with young children in early-intervention programs. Another participant approached me after a workshop we had both attended, with great earnestness on her face. “I heard what you said in there. You’re so lucky. You have a child with Down’s syndrome. He’s a real person. My young daughter may someday be able to turn over herself, but that’s all I can hope for. Your son is going to have a life.”

I think about that woman a lot. I am lucky. I suppose most people don’t think so. But when I sit beside Lior at sunrise and he pours his heart out to God, using every technique four years of speech therapy have given him, raising his little arm to emphasize his earnestness, I feel deeply, deeply blessed.

I’m not sure why he loves to pray so much. Most typical kids his age would much rather be playing with Tinkertoys. But the big question Lior asks every morning is, “Is it Shabbos?” And when the answer is, “Yes, Lior, tonight is Shabbos, and tomorrow we go to shul,” he jumps up and down with unbounded joy and shouts, “Yay, Shabbos!

” His sense of time reflects a deep understanding of the process of Jewish time. There’s “everyday,” profane time, and then there’s Shabbos, holy time. Each day of the week brings us that much closer to holy time, to Shabbos. I think Lior’s weekday davening is a way of borrowing from Shabbos’s holiness. It helps keep him on track. Great Jewish philosophers have written deep and powerful essays on this phenomenon. Lior gets it naturally.

My family has the blessing of living in a neighborhood that houses several wonderful davening communities. Our community, Minyan Dorshei Derech, is part of the Germantown Jewish Center. For Lior it is a second home.

There are those Saturday mornings when I admit I would love to lie in bed—it’s just too much trouble to get four children out to shul, I’m tired from the previous week’s chemotherapy, there’s a lot of great excuses. But most of the time I can’t. I get there on time because I don’t want to miss davening with Lior. My husband feels the same way. We’re responsible for providing Lior with this weekly opportunity to do what he loves to do best and to be where he loves to be most in the whole world.

Lior’s relationship to Dorshei Derech is really quite amazing. He is a very important and vibrant member of the community, even though he’s only five and a half years old. When he enters the room he nods to people, gets his siddur, puts on his Tallis specially made for him by several women in the neighborhood and takes his regular seat in the front. He shyly looks around, out of the corners of his eyes, and checks out if his beloved regulars are sitting in their usual spots. He then has me help him find the correct page, according to where my siddur is turned, and begins to quietly daven. Periodically, the group breaks out in song. Lior listens for a minute. And then he closes his eyes, and with that same serious look on his face I saw during our private weekday davening, he lets go his voice.

Lior’s davening has a profound effect on the community. I used to think people were so aware of him because they loved him so much. I now realize it’s a much deeper relationship than that. Lior’s Kavannah serves as an inspiration to every adult in that room. When he lifts his voice with unwavering clarity, “Ya, ya, ya,” and puts it inside the cacophony of voices around him, he gives everyone in the room permission to do the same. People measure where they are in their inner prayer experience against the authenticity of his.

The Torah service is a very important time for Lior. He deeply loves the Torah. He needs to show this love in very physical ways. And so each week Lior helps to open the ark. And then, upon seeing the Torah sitting inside, he stands on his very tiptoes and gives the Torah a huge hug and kiss. He smiles to himself. “Torah,” I hear him murmur to himself, “Torah.” I am in awe of such a moment of Kedusha, of pure holiness. What Lior is experiencing at that moment is a true connection with the Divine.

Lior then proceeds to walk through the entire congregation, shaking everyone’s hand. He greets his special adult friends at this time. “Hi, Mitch,” he whispers. “Michael, Good Shabbos.” A collective smile flows from one end of the room to the other as Lior continues on his rotation. He manages to connect with every single member of his prayer community.

“Can you imagine what his bar mitzvah is going to be like?” I hear someone whisper. I feel a surprisingly strong emotional reaction to that statement. I pray that God will grant me the blessing to live to be part of that day. I also wonder about what it will be like. Will Lior continue to be able to create a place for himself in this community? Will his charming, childlike innocence be able to evolve into more mature forms of expression?

And then I hear our communal introductions at the end of the service. It’s Lior’s turn. “Lior Liebling,” he says clearly (except for the l’s, which still give him trouble). And, I think, he’s doing just fine. He’s figuring it out himself. It’s my job to sit back and trust him. I don’t know where he’s going with all this. But our communal tradition is powerful enough to guide him. And he’s wise enough to listen.

Lior has opened up so many people to the multidimensionality of human nature. What does it mean that he is “retarded”? He speaks to God in a way that eludes most of us. He is one of my most important spiritual teachers.

And he gives great kisses.

Rabbi Devora Bartnoff

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