Vowing to God: What to Do When Your Son is a Month Old and Already on Heart Medication?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Benzion N. Chinn

I confess that this is less than a traditional Torah thought, with a clear question and answer, than an expression of my own bewilderment. It is less that I am offering textual interpretation and sage advice and more that I am asking readers for their guidance.

My son Moshe Eliezer (Louis “Mackie” McKenzie) Chinn was born this past April 24th. Since we brought him home he has been sent back to the hospital twice. The first time was after a coronary-pulmonary failure; in lay-person’s terms, he stopped breathing and needed CPR. The second time was with a heart rate over 300 beats a minute. Thank God, Mackie is responding well to treatment and is now home. We have been introduced to Wolff-Parkinson-White-type Supraventricular Tachycardia. It does not appear to be life-threatening and we hope for the best. The reality is that if things had played out a little different (if Mackie did not have a grandmother who is an OBGYN, or if his veterinarian aunt was not visiting), Mackie right now might be a SIDS statistic.

In the meantime, his mother and I have been very anxious and not getting loads of sleep.  These past few weeks have presented their own spiritual challenge. As a Maimonidean-rationalist, I refuse to believe that God actively saved my child. I did not deserve a miracle and, however righteous my wife may be, a God who would intervene to save my son while allowing thousands of other babies to die that day must be condemned as capricious if not downright satanic. All of this leaves me in a spiritual bind. None of my spiritual training has given me the tools to look the death of my child in the face and then to find salvation. My idolatrous heart tells me that God spared my son because of some good deed and that I should vow to do something in thanks.

While I struggle, I take comfort in the fact that this week’s Torah reading is one of the great examples of the Torah’s ambiguous relationship with vows. The Torah accepts the concept of a Nazarite vow, that one may promise to refrain from cutting their hair and from drinking wine, but at the same time seems critical of the entire venture.

Nazarites bring a sin offering at the completion of their vow.  Perhaps this is because they did not take the pleasure from this world that they were supposed to. There is something fundamentally antinomian and heretical about asceticism. A person who does not believe in the saving power of Halakhah, so that he needs to do extra things, will eventually come to believe that he needs to violate Halakah in order to be saved. For example, the Nazarite Samson slept with gentile women and even went to prostitutes. I suggest that this was not a contradiction to his being a Nazarite, but rather a logical conclusion.  If you believe that his Nazarite status placed him above the normal understanding of mortals, then you must also accept that what would be a sin for anyone was really the height of righteousness for Samson.

I have not become a Nazarite. In fact, I made sure to get a haircut right before the holiday. I am more inclined to think that if I honor my parents by not looking like a Nazarite, I will one day be able to bother Mackie about the length of his hair.

Benzion N. Chinn (SBM 2003) lives with his wife, Miriam, and their two children, Kalman and Mackie, in South Pasadena, CA. He works as an academic and special needs tutor, while occasionally finding time to blog at www.izgad.blogspot.com

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