Throughout the Bible, God asks our prophetic ancestors: "Where are you?" "Hineni," they answer: "Here I am." The question is not a geographic one, but an existential one. Not just "Who are you?" but "What are you?" Or even: "Are you?"
"Where are you?" my wife Abby asked me, eight centimeters into our son Aviv's birth, as I fell to the ground in utter bewilderment. "Here I am," I tried to say before I blacked out. Ten minutes later, an icebag on my head, I collected myself so I could be present for the last hour of the birth.
Despite being absent for only a few minutes, my feeling of failure gnawed at me. Over the next two years I asked myself over and over: "Who was I that I couldn't have stayed conscious enough to help, much less say the words 'Here I am'?"
It was with an existentially overloaded agenda that I walked Abby into the hospital 33 months later, our second child ready to pop. What would the price of failure be this time if I couldn't answer the call? Strangely enough, it was the certainty of my imminent failure that saved me. I knew that fainting was certain, and I ceded control to whomever or whatever had wired me genetically. At the same time, I knew that I had done everything I could to prepare myself for this moment.
At 2 AM, my wife and our baby both reaffirming the thin line between life and death, I told Abby I was going to sit down and faint, and that I would be back soon. I was as good as my word. The nausea, the headache, the disorientation was just the same as before. But Abby knew where I was; knew what I was. And, most importantly, so did I.
Daniel Schifrin is Director of Public Programs and Writer in Residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. www.thecjm.org