Infinity Hands

Listening to my son talk about God

I was walking with my son, Jonah, who was six, and his friend, Jack, home from school. They were discussing Pokemon cards.

“Chancey EX has 120 HP points,” said Jonah.

“Mine has 140,” said Jack.

They were quiet, munching on Cheez-Its.

“What do you think God is?” Jack said. I looked up.

“God is what we’re breathing,” Jonah said.

“Jesus is God,” said Jack.

“God is what you eat,” said Jonah. He was three and a half feet tall, his lips orange from Cheez-Its, his shoelaces dragging, but he sounded profound as a prophet who had emerged from a cavern in the desert. “God is what you’re wearing. God is everywhere.”

There was a silence, and the intent sound of munching.

“I want to trade you for Chancey EX,” Jonah said to Jack, and they marched on.

The Tiny Creationist

When I had children, I didn’t think that I would discuss theology with them. Or I imagined it might start when they were nine, ten, when they might start to attend services; what use would they have for God before that?

The theological proclamations began earlier than that—a lot earlier. They seemed to begin shortly after Jonah’s grandfather died, and right before his younger sister was born. Jonah was almost four years old. He had been let loose into this world, and he was trying to make sense of it, the unbelieveable and perturbing facts of existence

He began, of course, to ask the unanswerable. And we had no real answers.

“Where did Grandpa go?” he asked.

“He flew away,” we told him. “He’s in your heart. He’s in your mind.”

“Why do you need her?” he said about his baby sister.

“We loved you so much we wanted her, too,” we said.

He listened. He was not appeased.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, came theological proclamations. “Do you know why we’re talking? God is making us talk,” he announced at dinner.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, firmly.

“Do you know why we’re breathing?”

“Why?” I asked, a little uncomfortable, looking at my son, a tiny Creationist.

“God said so.”

Tot Shabbat

He would come out with this at odd moments. Not in a context when it might be understandable—at temple, perhaps—but at dinner, on the playground, in the car. I didn’t know where he got it—at Tot Shabbat services at our Reform Jewish temple? From kids at school? He talked about it in his life, and I wondered if perhaps religion was this–the extension of our desire, as young children, to give the messiness of life a form, to somehow create answers.

In Judaism, the idea of God is somewhat abstract. Our rabbi told the children once that “God’s face is drawn with a clear crayon.” I liked this abstraction—it made God into a creative concept. So I let my son talk about God in his way. I wonder at what point I might tell him what God means to me.

This was what God is for me, the soaring feeling in my throat that we, for one pure moment, belong to one another, that our yearning makes us more than we are alone.

I developed my own sense about what God was when I started attending High Holy Day services, when I was in my teens. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur constituted the largest gathering of Jews in one place I had ever seen. There was something miraculous about that fact alone, the congregants adorned in fancy suits, the carpool mothers adorned with makeup and expensive hats. It was like a gathering of all the forms of one particular and compelling species that I happened to be a part of. And there was something miraculous, perhaps godlike, about the way all of them, all these Jews, stood up when the rabbi opened the Ark.

Better People

This was where I found God as a young woman. “All rise,” the rabbi said. He turned toward the Ark and opened the doors. The entire congregation would stand up, in a motion so simple and beautiful and human that it brought tears to my eyes. We were all different—men and women, adults and children, old and young, nice and not—but for one moment, we all became one thing. We wanted to be better people. I wanted this, and my parents wanted it, and the bratty kid in the Hebrew School carpool wanted it, and the annoying Temple secretary wanted it. Or everyone seemed to want it, and that was good enough for me.

We stood, several hundred people, each one spectacularly different, but for one moment the same, silent, in front of the sheer white curtains that fell over the Torahs. It was this silent, shared yearning that made the moment holy. It is what I feel now, when I go to services, when the rabbi says to us, “All rise.” This was what God is for me, the soaring feeling in my throat that we, for one pure moment, belong to one another, that our yearning makes us more than we are alone.

I don’t know if that’s the technical definition of what God is in the Torah. It’s what I made up myself, and what I am comfortable believing.

Jonah recently said to me, “God has infinity hands.” I stared at him, astonished. His statement was beautiful; it was his. My job as a parent is just to listen to them, to let him be.

“Where did you learn this?” I asked. “From a teacher? In Religious school?”

He looked at me as though I was an idiot.

“I didn’t have to learn it,” he said. “It’s true.”

Karen E. Bender is the author of the novel Like Normal People (Houghton Mifflin), and co-editor of the anthology Choice (MacAdam/Cage). Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta and Zoetrope, and have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.