A Baby’s Journey Back to Health
When my newborn daughter became gravely ill, I found strength in the first Torah portion I ever chanted
In early January 2011, when my daughter Rena was nearly 3 weeks old, she stopped breathing for six seconds. Since she was hooked up to breathing and heart monitors in the Roosevelt Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—where she and her twin brother, Aryeh, had been living since their premature birth eight weeks before their due date—a nurse quickly caught this brief episode of apnea. But when the nurse examined Rena, she saw that her belly was slightly swollen, a possible symptom of necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, a dangerous intestinal condition common in preemies. The neonatologist on duty that day told me that she was concerned and would continue to monitor my daughter.
The next day was Saturday, the Sabbath. On my arrival at the NICU in the morning, the doctor informed me that X-rays had shown that Rena’s swelling was not subsiding. She told me that she planned to insert an intravenous line into my daughter and funnel antibiotics into her bloodstream for seven to 10 days and also feed her intravenously. (Until then Rena had been fed small amounts of pumped breast-milk through a thin plastic gavage tube threaded from her mouth into her stomach.) I did not know it at that time, but NEC—an infection that causes the lower intestine to die—is fatal in one quarter of cases. The doctor was reassuring, however: She said I would just need to sign consent forms permitting them to insert the intravenous line into Rena. I did.
That Sabbath was the day on which the weekly portion of Beshalach is read from the Torah in synagogue. The portion of Beshalach, which we read this year on Jan. 26, has very special meaning for me. It’s what I chanted the first time I was called to the Torah. And it includes the beautiful Shirat HaYam, or Song of the Sea, in which the Israelites, recently freed from slavery in Egypt, pour out praise after crossing the Red Sea on dry land, “as the waters formed a wall for them on their right and on their left.” So, I put my hand through the porthole in Rena’s incubator, and I folded her hands over her chest so that she would feel safe and loved, and I sang her the Song of the Sea. I knew that she was going on a journey across a wide river, and I prayed that the waters would rise up to form walls on her right and her left, so that she could cross over in safety. And when I reached the end of the song, the nurses wheeled Rena in her incubator into the Level 1 NICU, where they care for the smallest and sickest babies. To calm myself, I began to think about her bat mitzvah.
In the Orthodox Jewish community in London in which I grew up, it was not customary for a 12-year-old girl to celebrate her bat mitzvah by chanting from the Torah, or to be called up to the Torah to recite the blessings, or even to give a D’var Torah (a commentary on the weekly portion). So, I did not have a bat mitzvah ceremony. When I was 12, I was simply pronounced “bat mitzvah” and celebrated with a party in the garden at home with my school friends. My parents made a kiddush for me—a light meal following Sabbath services—at Rebbe Finkelstein’s shtibl, the synagogue-in-a-house that we attended in Willesden, our neighborhood in northwest London. I probably helped prepare the kiddush: My honored role at the shtibl was to spend most of the Sabbath morning in the kitchen spreading chopped herring on crackers, poking toothpicks in fried fishballs, and arranging slices of cake in decorative circles on serving platters. By the time I returned to the service, in a separate room for women, it was almost over.
My introduction to chanting from the Torah, or leyning, came nearly three decades later, on Yom Kippur in 2004 at the egalitarian West Side Minyan, which meets at the Conservative Congregation Ansche Chesed on New York City’s Upper West Side. During a break in services, my friend Solomon Mowshowitz offered to teach me the special cantillation for reading the Torah. I readily agreed. I chose a passage from Beshalach, a stirring section of the Torah in which Pharaoh first sends the Israelites away (beshalach means “when [Pharaoh] sent”) then changes his mind and decides to chase after them with chariots and horsemen, just as the people are reveling in their first taste of freedom. After several months of lessons, I was called to the Torah, picked up the pointer (the yad, Hebrew for hand), and read the second aliyah of Beshalach, in which the Israelites, camped on the shores of the Red Sea, look back and see the Egyptians pursuing them. They cry that “it would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the desert,” to which Moses responds, “Stand firm.” Though my hand was shaking as I moved the yad over the words in the Torah scroll, I loved singing this passage and thinking about its meaning.
Those two words—“stand firm,” or in Hebrew, one word, hityatzvu—are what make this section of Beshalach so powerful for me. So often during their wanderings in the wilderness, the Israelites yearn to return to their old lives in Egypt, remembering the “free” fish, the “cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Numbers 11:5) that accompanied their slavery. But Moses tells them to face the challenge of freedom, to persevere, “for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.” And the Israelites listen and step into the sea. In taking up that yad, I too embarked on a new life of Jewish engagement, of participation as an active member of the community, and over the next few years, to marriage (I met my husband Larry in a Talmud class) and, after much persistence, to my sweet children.
On Martin Luther King Day, remembering the advantages of a public-school—rather than day-school—education