October 14, 2014
Twice, I didn’t make it to shul on Rosh Hashana.
The first time, I’d herniated a disc while putting the holiday turkey in the oven. My husband ended up handling the chore himself, taking full credit – with a wink — for preparing such a tasty and tender bird. A friend stopped by to blow shofar. I nibbled on challah and some dark meat. Otherwise, the holiday passed uneventfully, lower back pain eclipsing my disappointment.
During my second stay-at-home Rosh Hashana, I was pregnant with my eldest and confined to bed rest. For months, I lied flat, too uncomfortable even to read, watching the same loop of shows on the fledgling Food Network, followed by Oprah and the 5 o’clock news. It was all mind-numbing, but I kept my eye on the prize of the baby pickling inside me.
When the holidays approached, however, I naively assumed I’d be able to waddle over to shul. It was the start of the year in which I would become a mother and I couldn’t imagine missing the ritual fanfare. But no begging or cajoling could sway my obstetrician. He permitted me to light candles, and then it was back to the couch.
I spent the days worrying, as I’d done each day of my bed rest, and – for everything, but mostly for the wellbeing of my unborn son — I beseeched
G-d. But they’re called the Days of Awe with good reason. The moving score, the scenery, the powerful soliloquies, and the costumes – oh, that sea of white kittels on Yom Kippur! – create a powerful sense of drama, helping us get into the spirit. Though I had plenty to fear, I just wasn’t feeling the awe in my living room. I missed the familiar melodies, the hypnotic sway, the rabbi’s message, and most of all, the echo of the shofar blasts in the sanctuary.
So it was an interesting thing this year when, just days before Rosh Hashana, I found myself struggling to get into the High Holiday groove and considered, for the first time, opting out of shul. I’d hit a funk, mostly over everyday challenges that had accrued into a daunting bowlful. I convinced myself that I’d be too distracted during the long service and that it would be wrong to sit there, my mind racing with off-topic thoughts.
As a mom, I still had role-modeling obligations, so I proceeded with my routine, hoping to get in the mood. I rose early to wake my husband for morning selichot. I made sure the boys had clean pants, pressed shirts, and new shoes. I made a brisket and I wrote out two lists: one of blessings for which I’m thankful and a second, which was more of an “All I Want for the New Year” sort of thing. I figured that if I went to shul and if my mind wandered, those lists would keep me anchored.
Meanwhile, G-d, who notices everything, had a plan up His sleeve, a gentle push to get my mind on track. When I lit candles to usher in Rosh Hashana, I reacted the way I did around fire only once before: at a Shabbaton when I was about twelve, mesmerized to distraction by the largest havdalah candle I’d ever seen. This time, I became so entranced by the flames that the hard bits – the ones insisting I couldn’t possibly do the Days of Awe well right now – melted. I couldn’t get to shul fast enough the next morning.
It was there that memories of those two less than spiritual Rosh Hashanas came flooding back to me, like a wagging finger. Perhaps, I thought, it’s because I’d dithered away so much time over the preceding few days when I should’ve been more focused on repentance. Or because an emotional year lay ahead — a son’s graduation, another’s bar mitzvah – and I should’ve been more cognizant of my blessings. In the end, the reasons didn’t make a difference. What mattered was that I was there.
When the shofar-blowing began, I could not believe I’d actually considered skipping shul. I felt the adrenaline rush in my chest. The opening blessings, like the gun shot at the start of a race, gave me a quick, stark reminder of how lucky I am to have made it around another lap.
As I often do during the shofar blasts, I closed my eyes and cried, a primitive response to their raw, emotional power. I believe that each of us hears what we need to hear in those sounds. To me, they were a call to be present: in that moment and in all the moments to follow. Mostly, though, they were shouting at me to listen to what G-d was trying to tell me all year.
Which, I believe, is this: I don’t have to be reflective all the time, though reflection has its hour, especially during the Days of Awe. But to be successful at this being human thing is to show up in body and spirit, and to savor life in whatever quirky package it arrives.
Sometimes, it means to swallow hard and mine the depths of my tolerance. At others, I know it means to laugh, like when holiday guests – for whom I’ve prepared multiple dishes to accommodate their various dietary requirements — eat everything else instead, leaving behind an untouched pan of flavorless chicken and unseasoned potatoes. But everything happens for a reason, even if that reason is to ensure that there are no margarine and brown sugar-fueled apple kugels leftover for me to nosh on once they’ve gone home.
Laugh I did ten days later, too, when I arrived in shul on Yom Kippur drenched from head to toe. Though I’d donned a raincoat and boots for the 1.5 mile walk, my outerwear was no match for the downpour.
In the ladies’ room, I joined other women shaking off their wet coats and restoring order to their outfits before heading in to pray. They gasped politely when I asked if they thought I could, in my obviously saturated state, enter the sanctuary. They agreed I could not, consoling me in the face of the obvious, assuring me that I’d soon dry. Still, I savored the camaraderie – we all joked about the storm’s impact on our appearances — even as I worried about contracting pneumonia.
I was about to give up and head home when another woman arrived. She took one look at me and offered me her pashmina, which she’d brought along because the shul temperature is arctic on Yom Kippur. When I demurred, she insisted. I asked, “What if you need it?” She replied, “We’re both here in the shul. I’ll find you.” Indeed, we were, and although my clothing didn’t dry at all, the shawl and the kindness that came with it kept me anchored where I needed to be.
Here we are, the first days of Sukkot already behind us, the last days fast approaching. But even as we head back into our kitchens for this round, even as we kvetch – with a wink — about shopping and preparing, even as we wonder where on earth we’ll put another bite of honey cake if we’re to wear our dresses again, I’ll rejoice to have been in the moment for every bit of this long stretch of holidays.
For as long as I can, I’ll cling to the warmth of that pashmina and the flicker of the Rosh Hashana candles. I’ll find ways to keep the echo of the shofar in my ears. After all, there’s a long winter ahead.