(The Night of Protection)
By Keith Bloomfield
It was nearly eleven when the phone rang. I was watching TV while my wife was in bed reading. Fast asleep and cooing gently was our son of just seven days. Only seven days earlier, my wife had visited her doctor. "Everything is fine and your son should arrive in roughly three weeks." We're glad he told us, but he had neglected to tell our son.
"The baby should be right on time," my wife told me from her cell phone, as she was leaving the doctor's office.
"Thanks honey, but babies can't tell time."
An hour later, I received another call. "What are you doing this afternoon?" she asked. "I just broke my water."
"I'll be there as soon as I can!" I became a dad that afternoon. Tomorrow would be my eighth day in that new capacity. The phone rang again. "It's probably a relative looking for directions," I mumbled as I picked up the receiver.
"What are you doing now?" asked the familiar voice on the other end of the line. It was Rabbi Yaakov Feldman, a friend of my father-in-law and now a friend of mine.
"I'm getting ready to go to sleep."
"Not yet. Is it OK if I come over?
"Yaakov, is something wrong?"
"He wants to know if something's wrong," he sputtered, as though speaking to a room full of people on his end of the call. "The night before a Bris is called Leil Shimurim the night of protection. Because the mitzvah of Bris Milah is such a spiritually awesome event, the Kabbalah teaches that negative forces will try to prevent the mitzvah. We have to take positive steps to counter the evil. So -- can I come over?"
"And do what?"
"We'll study a little. Say a few brachot. Drink some wine and eat some sweet cakes. You'll see. You'll love it!"
"Let me check with my wife. If it's OK with her, it's fine with me. Hold on a moment." My wife thought we were both crazy, but said it was fine with her, as long as she didn't have to get out of bed and we did not wake the baby. Yaakov was gone when I picked up the receiver again. Had he given up on me or did he already know the answer? I didn't have to wait long to find out. The bell rang no more than ten minutes later. Surely, he could not have made the trip from his home to mine so quickly. Or could he? Or was he already downstairs and calling me from his car?
I opened the door and greeted my friend. I was nervous about the bris and I knew that Yaakov's presence would take my mind off the next day's proceedings.
Rabbi Feldman stepped into the apartment and locked me in a firm embrace. "Mazel tov, mazel tov!" he sang into my ear. His large brown eyes darted around the room and he stroked his red beard, betraying gentle streaks of gray. "And where is he?" Yaakov's broad-brimmed hat kept striking me in the head, but I knew his sentiments were sincere.
"He's in his room, but you'll have to be quiet."
"At seven days, he already has his own room. I didn't get my own room until I was married and I still had to share it." He elbowed me in the ribs and tried to coax out a laugh. It was dialogue I would expect to hear in a Marx Brothers film and behavior that some might say was unbecoming of a Rabbi. But that was Yaakov's charm and why I appreciated his company on that special night.
I put my finger across my lips to hush my guest.
"What's the matter? Don't you think that I can be quiet? I have five children and three of them are boys. I know what you're going through. Hold out your hands." I held out my hands and Yaakov filled them with the contents of one of the pockets of his long wool coat: two airline sized bottles of wine, two paper cups and a cellophane wrapped package of parve junk food chocolate cake and artificial crème frosting. "First we study, then we say the brachot, and then we eat and drink."
"We really should study in the same room as the child." He probably read the expression on my face and knew that that was not going to happen. Yaakov scanned our living room and pointed to the dining room table. "We'll study there," he indicated, with a hand clenching a thick oversized text. He took my seat at the head of the table and opened the book in front of him.
"Vayikra that's Leviticus. We'll study the last few lines of the Mishnah on Vayikra."
Yaakov read to me in Hebrew and quickly translated into English. The Mishnah spoke about circumscion and the laws regarding the purity and impurity of the woman who gives birth to a male child. I was barely listening and Yaakov knew it. He wasn't really there to study; he was there for me. "The negative forces" were the demons in my own mind. Wondering about the next morning and the hundreds of mornings to follow as a dad. Yaakov's presence was there to "counter the evil" of my own making. I was glad he had come. When he finished, he reached for the cups and the wine. He broke the seals and poured us full cups of the sweet smelling liquid. He rattled through a prayer said after studying a religious text and I joined him in the blessing over the wine and a moitzi over the pastry.
"And that's it," I asked.
"For us it is." That sounded ominous. He stood up from the table and began walking backwards towards the front door, never once losing eye contact with me. "You never did meet my sons, did you?"
"Each time we were supposed to meet. Something happened."
"Not this time," he said as he reached the door and opened it with a flourish. Three youngsters were waiting outside in the hallway. "Come in. Come in," he said with a wave and the children entered the apartment.
"You left your sons outside in the hallway?"
"They were safe. Baruch here is our oldest," he said placing his hands on the shoulders of the tallest boy. "He's very responsible. These are his two brothers Mendy, and Shlomo." Each of them was the spitting image of their father. In their dark suits and white shirts, open at the collar, they made me feel self-conscious in my tee shirt and blue jeans.
"I didn't see them when you came in."
"You just didn't know where to look."
"Rabbi, it's getting late and shouldn't they be at home asleep?"
"Ah my friend, they have a very important role to play in what we just started."
"Now I see what you meant. We're finished, but they still have something to do. Well, come in boys and have a seat, but please be quiet, my wife and son are asleep."
"Where is the tinok, abba?" asked Baruch. Rabbi Feldman pointed toward my son's room. Baruch took his two brothers by the hands and led them to the baby's room.
"Rabbi, isn't this going a bit too far? They'll wake him!"
Rabbi Feldman stepped forward and wrapped his arm around my shoulder. "What you and I did this evening. . ."
"Rabbi, it's after midnight," I corrected him.
"Alright," he chuckled. "What you and I did this morning, is not sufficient to guard against the forces I mentioned on the phone. In truth, they should be at his crib side for the rest of the night." I began to respond, but he hushed me. "However, we can cut it short."
We followed the boys into the nursery. Only Baruch was tall enough to look at my son over the top of the crib railing, his brothers had to look through the slats. The boys chanted the Shema in the kind of pure, clear voices that would float swiftly to heaven, unimpeded and all who heard them would wonder how such sweet sounds could emanate from anyone on earth. Rabbi Feldman and I stood behind the children. My attention shifted back and forth between the youngsters and my son asleep in his crib. At one point, I was sure that he was smiling as he listened to the Rabbi's progeny. The boys read prayers and recited several Psalms from a book they passed between themselves. Even Shlomo, the Rabbi's youngest son, read and sang with his older brothers.
Rabbi Feldman removed a small candle wrapped in foil from his pocket and handed it to Baruch. He lit it with a cigarette lighter and the boys waited a moment for the flame to stop dancing at the end of the tiny wick before chanting the final blessing:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, by whose word all things came to be.
It was the word of God that had brought everything into existence and that protected my son though out that long night.
"They were wonderful Rabbi. Can I give them something?" I whispered, for fear of waking the baby.
"Do you have any milk? I have a snack for them in my other pocket."
"There's a fresh carton in the fridge and paper cups in the cabinet over the sink."
Yaakov blew out the candle and led his sons into the living room. I stayed behind and stared at my son. I wondered if he had any idea how many people had taken an active role in protecting him. I turned on a nightlight and left as well.
The Rabbi's sons were just finishing their snack when I rejoined them. Mendy led his brothers in a blessing and they were ready to leave.
Yaakov collected the text and stuffed the bottles, the cups and the wrappers into his pocket. He tucked the book under one arm and shook my hand as he backed toward the door. "I'll see you in . . . a few hours," he joked.
"I don't know how to thank you and your sons for coming by this morning."
"You don't have to. It's a mitzvah we are proud to perform. Now you get some sleep and hope that the mohel has a good night's rest too. No one wants a mohel with shaky hands," he smiled, as he and his sons slipped out into the hallway, closing the door in front of them. I peered through the peephole and watched them walk down the long hallway toward the elevator.
I locked the apartment door, shut the lights and eventually tried to slide into bed next to my dozing wife without waking her. I failed.
"I guess that Yaakov is gone," she said, stifling a yawn.
"Yes, they just left."
She quickly turned to look at me. "What do you mean they just left."
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me. Go back to sleep and we'll talk later." She did and I was soon there with her.
My memory of Yaakov and his sons is as fresh in my mind today as it was that early morning more than twenty years ago. The first time my son was old enough to accompany me to services, he stood at my side singing the Shema.
I asked him, "Where did you learn that prayer?"
"I've always known it daddy. When I was a baby, angels sang it to me once in a dream and I've never forgotten it."
I could not bear to tell him the truth or maybe he already knew.
from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine