When I would bottle-feed my newborn child during his first few weeks of life, he would curl his hands to his chest as if he were engaged in transcendental meditation. Now that hes a few weeks older, and has begun to recognize the world a bit more, he no longer does this. Has knowledge prevented him from finding Nirvana? Is this what should be expected from a Jewish baby?
I love your question, and I answer with brand new qualifications: our first grandchild arrived into this world the week before Hanukkah. As a grandmother, my first instinct is an almost insane amount of gratitude, humility and deep appreciation for the sweetness of the gift of life.
So, though it has been a while since I held my own babies in those wee hours of the morning, I am fresh from the experience of cradling a baby, smelling the delicious scent and feeling the whisper of breath that tips out of the babys mouth.
I am not sure if I can tell you anything that you dont already know about what we expect of Jewish babies, but I think I can tell you something new about what Jewish babies expect of us.
They expect us to appreciate and to understand their uniquely holy and pure natures. They expect us to stand back as you clearly have been doing and observe their unsullied characters and precious demeanors. They have a lot to teach us.
The Talmud tells us that the embryo is busy while in the womb of the mother. A light is shown to the embryo that shines from one end of the Earth to the other. They are taught the entire Torah from beginning to end. But as the infant enters this world, it is struck by an angel and forgets what it has learned.
This picturesque midrash is open to rich interpretation. We Jews imagine that our newborn babies come into this world with a predilection and proximity to Torah that will forever elude us as adults. Though we are destined to feel a familiarity and comfort as we rediscover what we have always known, it is the face of a baby that hints at this shadow of lost wisdom.
The further they grow from birth, the further they travel from perfect knowledge, as they ironically attempt to refill the vessel that was emptied. But not to worry: they have been eternally designated as a vessel prepared to contain Torah. Perhaps you are seeing a hint of this phenomenon in your babys pose.
There is more. That we know what they once knew, Jewish babies deserve our best attempts at providing them with the deja-vu-all-over-again opportunities to slowly refill themselves with Torah, even at the most tender of ages. Our tradition tells us that the mother of Rabbi Yochanan would bring his cradle to the house of study and place it near those who were studying, thereby exposing him to the music of Torah learning.
So I ask, to what do we expose our children? What are the sounds they hear and the sights they see? It is our obligation to make sure that we do our part to help them in their life-long process of attaining the wisdom that we know they once had. The wisdom that lives deeply encoded in their consciousness is waiting to be found.
The specific curling of the tiniest of fingers and most delicate of hands has its own symbolic meaning. You and I come into this world grabbing for everything, hands clasped in earnest in a fist, as if saying, Mine! But as we depart at the end of life, our hands are open. We have learned the lesson that takes a lifetime, we cannot have it all and we surely cannot take it with us.
A babys countenance suggests much, but most of all it teaches us the unbounded capacity we have to give over abundant love and devotion to a soul so new.
Please forgive the shortness of this column and join me in welcoming Avraham Yischak Dan Loike into this world. May his life be a life filled with the love of Torah, passion for good deeds and commitment to the people Israel.