Last week there was an uproar in the Whatsapp list of my two-year-old’s Gan. One of the mothers wrote to notify the rest of the group that her son was accidentally left behind in the playground that morning, and was discovered missing only twenty minutes later, once the two teachers and the other thirteen children had already walked the two blocks back to the Gan. The child was fine – he had wandered off to a corner of the park to play with the water fountain – and he was returned to class unscathed. But the mother was outraged to learn of the incident, and she wished to inform the rest of the parents that she was pulling her son out of the class.
Her message, which was cogent, well-articulated and not merely the product of her initial fright and fury, triggered a flurry of responses. One mother wrote to say that she could not understand how such a thing could possibly happen, and she demanded that the Ganenet account for her negligence. Another mother requested that a meeting be convened immediately to discuss the incident and re-examine the playground policy. Another mother threatened to pull her daughter out if the Ganenet didn’t provide her version of the events to all the parents right away. I didn’t write back at all. I rarely write group messages– I am too concerned about how each and every person in the group might respond and whose feathers I may inadvertently ruffle.
If I had written anything, though, I think I would have just said I was sad. Sad that it had happened. Sad for the mother of the child who was left behind. Sad for the pain and panic of the Ganenet, whose heart surely stopped beating when she realized that one of her charges was missing. Sad for the other children in the room—including my daughter—who may have sensed the acute distress of their caretakers in those moments before their classmate was found. Sad for the concern of the other parents, who, like me, may not always appreciate what it means to entrust our children to the care of others, and what is at stake the moment we let our kids loose upon the world.
That same night we heard from a family friend about a toddler who had fallen out a three-story window and hit his head. The friend told us that the parents of the child had been home, but they were downstairs and didn’t realize that their son had made his way upstairs to the third floor of their new house, where the window panes had still not been placed in the windows. They heard their toddler scream to his brother outside, “Wait for me, I’m coming,” and they both dashed up the stairs – but they were too late. The child remains in the hospital in critical condition.
I pray for that child every day, invoking his name and his mother’s name – the traditional formula seems especially apt in this case, since I am as concerned for her distress as I am for his health. I pray that the mother will be able to forgive herself, to look herself in the mirror, to know that she has done the best she can. I know how easily I could have been that mother – how often I fail to come when my children call me, to follow them when they wander off, to look back once we start crossing the street to make sure no one is left behind. No matter how closely I watch my kids, it never seems enough.
“There are things that have no measure,” the Mishnah teaches in tractate Peah in a passage recited every morning as part of the daily liturgy. The Mishnah then proceeds to list various commandments that have no minimum or maximum limit according to the Bible. For instance, it is a mitzvah to leave the corners of one’s field unharvested so that the poor may come and glean, but there is no minimum or maximum amount that must be left. Likewise, it is a mitzvah to perform acts of kindness and to study Torah – but we are not told how kind we must be, or how much study is too much.
I think about how the care of children is also something that has no measure. I cannot watch my children enough, because no matter how vigilant I am, kids fall and get hurt and wander off. But there is also no minimum measure. “Leave me alone, Ima,” my seven-year-old has started telling me – he wants me to stop urging him to do his homework, and stop badgering him to get ready for school. Then I feel like I can’t ever give him enough independence, and that between freedom and vigilance, I will never strike the right balance or find the perfect measure.
The reward for caring for children has no measure, too. “These are the things whose fruits a man eats in this world, but whose principal remains intact for him to enjoy in the world to come,” the Mishnah goes on to teach, enumerating commandments such as honoring parents, performing acts of kindness, and studying Torah. All of these activities yield benefit in this world, but the real reward comes in the world to come. I might add being a Ganenet to this list. Yes, there are rewards. One is remunerated for one’s labor both financially and in terms of the emotional satisfaction of watching children grow and play happily. But there is no measure of compensation that could ever possibly be adequate for the safe delivery of my daughter into my arms at the end of the day. I could never possibly pay any caretaker enough for sparing my daughter from harm. After all, how much do I actually pay for someone else to care for my daughter eight hours a day and ensure that she stays safe? And yet is there any sum I wouldn’t pay to receive her back safe and sound if something were to go wrong?
The Mishnah’s list of things that have no measure includes only commandments that human beings perform to honor one another and to honor God. But of course the true thing that has no measure is God, the infinite, the One who is beyond measure. When it comes to the care of my children—whether they are in my care, or whether I entrust them to others—I can really only pray. I pray when I wake up in the morning that they will lie down safely in their beds that night. I pray when I put them to bed that they will wake up breathing, their souls restored to their bodies. I know that at times I must entrust them to the hands of others, but I also know that I am entrusting them to human hands, and no human being can watch everyone and everything at all times. Who is to say that next time in the playground it won’t be my daughter who wanders off? “All is in God’s hands except the fear of God,” the Talmud teaches, and so as while I place my children in human hands, I place my fear in God.
When I think of the little boy who was left behind in my daughter’s preschool class, I’m reminded of Yehuda Amichai’s poem about God’s compassion for little children in the playground.
God has pity on children in Gan,
He has less pity on school children
But he pities adults not at all.
He leaves them all alone.
And sometimes they have to crawl on all fours
In the scorching sand
To reach the pickup point,
Streaming with blood.
He will have pity on those who truly love
And take care of them
And shelter them
Like a tree over the sleeper on the public bench.
Perhaps even we will spend
Our last pennies of kindness on them
Bequeathed by Mother
So that their own happiness will protect us
Now and on other days.
Often it seems to me that it is only by grace of God’s compassion that my children return home safe and sound at the end of the day. And so while I know that some of the other mothers in the Gan are indignant at the incident, I wish that instead of anger or outrage we could all try to bestow pennies of kindness on our caretakers and on ourselves. The care of children is frightful and awe-inspiring – none of us can keep our children safe at all times, and any one of us could be that mother whose child climbs too high and too fast. May God have pity on those who truly love their children and shelter and protect them so that all of our children can run happy and free – and may their happiness gird us, and give us strength.