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Balancing Act

posted on Blogs Times of Israel August 1, 2017 Tisha B’Av

I spend my days seeking balance in life: creating joyful moments to offset challenges I face, practicing righteousness to outweigh injustice, finding the calm to counter the frenzy. I surround myself with reasonable, good-hearted people, and I attend to the chaos in but small doses. The balancing act we call life relies on our ability to blend the ideal measure of what is good and bad in this world and to emerge as  human beings who possess virtue with kindness, integrity with honor, and morality with self-worth. Since we lost Gilad almost 7 years ago, striking the balance that’s comfortable for me means gathering a fertile measure of happiness and filtering the gloom.

Judaism itself has checks and balances, the Torah acting as our guide to life and relationships, equity in the community, fairness in our actions. Religion influences and teaches us, guides us to do what is right and just in every action and movement each day and with anyone we encounter.

Yet, there are paradoxes at every turn, colored black and white with few shades of grey in between. One moment it is permissible to work, plow a field, cook, use electronics, drive, and turn on lights; another moment those activities are taboo on the Sabbath. One week in the life of a woman she is accessible to her husband in loving ways; other weeks she is in seclusion from that intimate relationship.

Moreover, there are chunks of time during the year when joy is mandated and encouraged, akin to a performing a good deed. The flip side of the calendar are the weeks when weddings, vacations and business transactions are avoided, as it is not a time for happiness. Rather, that is the time we commemorate tragic events that befell our nation. We enter a sad and heavy-hearted realm, and are low of spirit. New clothing, music, and parties are discouraged, often forbidden, and life chugs along on a lower scale of the register.

Most people, I believe, are able to navigate the vacillating nature of our days, the back and forth of happy and sad and then happy again, and claim to be more resilient as a result. As young children we learned to master the natural and unpredictable ebb and flow of life, where experiences deeply affected our emotions. But a loving hand on our backs assured us that all would be well, and that a treat or something special or fun was just around the bend, maybe not right now, but perhaps soon, even tomorrow.

I am too seasoned now to expect a hand on my back to reassure me that everything will be ok. In addition to the loss of a son, aging parents who now need us present thorny, myriad challenges which prod and push incessantly into everyday life. It takes much circumventing and mental effort to keep the balance skewed towards what feels good and right.

So when I find myself in the midst of a mandated sad, mournful period of time, I cannot usually tap into that directive. Even years after my son’s passing, part of me is sad all the time, and one of my coping mechanisms is to withdraw into the recesses of my mind and daydream myself onto a beach or into a relaxing game in order to escape reality. It is a calculated way of spacing out and ignoring what may be taking place around me. Whether it is the period of time between Pesach and Shavuot or the 3 weeks between Shiv’ah Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, I am not as present as others may be. I simply cannot afford to relinquish my emotions to sadness, or I may just inadvertently drown in the fray.

I few years ago, in a piece entitled  “Not Just One Mournful Day,” I spoke of the challenges of Tisha B’Av: ”If my heart carries sorrow every day, am I required to mourn beyond that? How do I add a layer of communal loss onto the burden that already weighs me down, to grief that is emotionally deafening on more than one mournful day? Haven’t I had enough?”

Many people fuss over the 3 weeks and time of the omer, and are inconvenienced by the fast days in the summer. Others admirably and successfully tap into national days of mourning and commemorate somber times appropriately. But for me these sad periods in our history and practice are a tenacious reminder that I struggle to strike the right balance each and every day. If I freely allow Tisha B’Av into my psyche, I wonder what I may discover. I cannot admit what sitting on the floor and talking in mournful tones reminds me of.  And while others will return to their lives unscathed after the prescribed period of fasting and mourning, it is not as easy for me to return to my carefully constructed life if I let down the guardrails of my heart and allow entry to more sadness than I may be able to accommodate.

 

Seven Years A Life

Time continues to confound us, moving both slowly and rushing past at a speed we cannot quite register. Seven years is a lifetime for our granddaughter; seven days is a lifetime of creation. The days in a week number 7, as do the mourning time of shiva and diametrically, seven are the blessings of new life at a wedding. Some of our holidays span 7 days, and we count seven ancestral patriarchs and matriarchs.

Is there magic or a mystical quality to the number seven? We encircle things 7 times: the walls of Jerico fell after 7 miltary passes, a bride moves around her spouse under the chuppah to signify their own emotional space. We track 7 weeks between the spring holidays of Passover and Shavuot, allow the ground in Israel to lay fallow in its 7th year, and organic species of  Israel – wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olive (oil), date (honey) – total seven, too.

Other numbers represent good luck, completion, protection, or unity, and while 7 may be powerful in its own context, what does it mean? Clearly seven signifies a cycle of things – a week gone by and starting anew, a holiday appearing again on the calendar, a period of time to experience joy or grief or agricultural practice.

So where does that leave my family as we approach the 7th yahrtzeit of Gilad’s passing on August 26/16 Elul? Is Gd, in His infinite wisdom, sending me a message at year seven?

My mind and spirit consider Shabbat, the 7th day of rest we enact every single week. All week long there’s a driving force propeling us forward, translating our passions into productivity. We need to accomplish and gloat about how busy we are:  we rush to school or work, panic to meet deadlines, set our alarms to go here there everywhere, and squeeze in time to exercise and run errands. Yet, at the end of 6 days, we are right back where we started –  with a full inbox, the to-do list growing even as we check things off. Is our life a series of frenzied sprints or where we are mindful of the present and notice that there are roses to smell?

Each Shabbat we stop and breathe and think and love and remember. We go back to Biblical times and about-face from computers and smart phones and televisions. We don’t drive to the office or pick up a little something at the store or run just a tiny errand that will take only 10 minutes. And on the seventh day you shall rest. Shabbat is the only time all week I sit on my living room couch and read; it’s when I invite friends over to connect and lounge over food and wine. The seventh day of the week is when we can have a love affair with our lives – to relish being with each other, to breathe deeply, and to truly be in the moment in a way that escapes us the other 6 days of the week.

No matter how sick Gilad was, he embraced Shabbat. He showered and changed his clothes, even if he donned pjs or sweats and T-shirts all other days. I remember him coming downstairs, all ready for Shabbat but no longer going to shul, and laying down on the couch to rest. The living room couch was our Shabbat space, so even these simple actions were different and holy. Gilad sat at the table with us for as many weeks as he was able, even if he needed a comfier chair, even if he was not really eating. One of our most powerful memories is of Gilad singing at the Friday nite table – and then later us singing at his bedside – with his eyes closed and voice clear, as true as prayer can get. These images of Gilad and Shabbat resonate deeply in my heart. He may have had his issues with Gd, as he wasn’t being allowed to live his life as an adult on his own terms. And although I was not privvy to all that Gilad practiced or chose not to, I was witness to his keeping Shabbat close to his heart until his last days on earth.

At year seven I persist in my struggle to make sense of it all, and continue to challenge Gd with unanswerable questions. But in the spirit of the number 7 and our beautiful, charming son, who should-have-been could-have-been a fabulously successful and gorgeous adult, I too am intensely keeping Shabbat…and remembering Gilad every day each week as we count seven over and over again.

 

A Year in My Life

Time fleeting in mind, fingers through sand
January turns to March now spring again
Intent to pen in hand, more days are gone
A year has had its way with us

Children grown, it’s all a blur
Babies to toddlers, grade middle high
College courses, grads now employed 
Tuition no more, it’s grandchild toys

My kids in their 20s 30s, best I’ve ever done
And my loves who are 7 and 5 and now almost 2
Named after our boy who was once just as cute
So it’s games balls and stories, lego and crafts
Belly laughs and giggles, pretend soup and cake
Brings me to life the second time around
Frazzled before, now soaking it in

Generations cycle, the old and young
Mothers who need us, stable aging or not
Sweetly ask how we are & how’re the kids
Smile upbeat to questions that loop
And how are you and what is new?

Care with the love they instilled us within
And patience and calm and love, did I say?
Allow independence and freedom to be
With their thoughts and their ways
And the things they hold dear

Pray we nurture them down the road
Half as well as they did us
They encouraged and nourished 
And loved us so well

Takes a toll in and out, up and down
To my grounded but thinly worn self
Birthdays farewells and we cycle on
Fresh loss turns the corner, a new one appears

Last year was OR/ER for tonsils and heart
Emotions unleashed once more and again
This time an uncle forever he sleeps
And a miracle truck, the hand of our Gd
Celebrations of life, anniversaries of death

Rivalries aflame, ignited anew
Struggles at work, things rip at my heart
Revisit myself as a young timid teen
Slog back to present, but wiser again

Time flip flops back and forth
And marches on to whatever beat
Those who passed still are gone
The years unclear it’s all the same
We move forward and on and through
And hold on tight and sometimes slip
We promise to do well and act and be
And sometimes don’t but often do

We forgive but don’t always forget
We hurt and scar, love and spar
Hope and hope for the good to be best
Perhaps it maybe can outweigh the rest

To love with our hands and inside our hearts
Open our souls more than our lips
To kiss and hug more than we shout
And be real and honest and good as we should

Treat each other with true deep kindness 
As the years pass with tears joy and love
Remember the ones who stood here before us
And honor the ones who will take our reins 

And another year has had its way with us
While a new one is already on the way

Foreign Language

My vision of the fall holidays is the warmth of family gathering as the weather chills, menu planning and multiple grocery store runs in preparation for mouthwatering family meals, and an attempt to buy everyone a new outfit, sweater, or tie. And, of course, there is the anticipation of the year to come, the traditions which we uphold as we usher in a new cycle, hoping for sweet things, praying to be inscribed in the proverbial Book of Life.

Critical elements of the new year are prayer, charity, repentance, and looking towards the future with hope, and the promise to be better and do more.  But prayer is where the uncertainty of life and my unresolved anger with Gd converge in an emotional impasse. During the course of the year I manage to sidestep the synagogue and avoid communal prayer, but this is the time of year – starting a mere 2 weeks after Gilad’s yahrtzeit –  that I feel trapped and ambushed, called possibly by Gd himself to lay claim for my life. We are summoned to advocate for ourselves, to present defense against our sins, and beg for benevolence for ourselves, our family.

Hello Gd, it’s me: Are You not aware that I have been less than pleased with Your response to my requests? Am I the only one who recognizes that our relationship has been a contentious one?

Perhaps sacrificing an animal would be easier. I imagine the logistics: procuring an animal, prepping the accoutrements, planning the transportation to Jerusalem. It might be cumbersome and gruesome, but not emotional. Pack the ram into the back of the van, drive through traffic to the holy site, meet the coordinating Kohen, pay my dues and journey home feeling lighter, better.

As my emotions rise to the surface, I become busier still in the kitchen or run off to errands, anything to disentangle myself from the ram’s horn urging me to come pray, to atone, to join my community in the synagogue to chant and sing and recite and pray. This year’s plan was to stay home with the grandchildren so my daughter and her husband would be free of child-care responsibilities; other years I rode on the coattails of “I still cannot bear to be present, to ask Gd for things I know He won’t offer me.” It’s six years now, and I still feel uncomfortable in my own shul and spend limited time engaging in tefillah b’tzibur. I was that person once, but that was a lifetime ago.

My excuse to be home and avoid the inevitable only lasted so long, and after words from my usually patient husband, I directed myself to the synagogue on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashana facing the words I’ve seen my entire life, the liturgical poetry on the page waiting to be uttered.Just as when I was a child, it felt like the hours would only pass if we turned the pages, sang the songs, whispered the words privately or collectively. My body was there, but my mind was thinking only of my own private akeida, the sacrifice of my child to the Almighty. Was my mere presence within a holy community a form of religious observance, of connection to Gd?  If I just hummed or listened to others reciting, would that be considered prayer? And why couldn’t I tap into the version of myself that claimed was no longer angry at Gd?

I did not – still do not – feel that those prescribed words speak to me, to my world or my life. These are foreign idioms, contrived and cobbled together by my ancestors from a long-ago age, an unrelatable time. The connection is fragile at best, held together by threads, worn and aged, and speak a language not my own.  Or – are they a touchstone to the part of my heart that is still angry, still weeping?

Don’t get me wrong: I still speak with Gd, often in my car or in the privacy of my home or here or there, but it that enough?

My conversations with Gd, weekly and often daily, don’t take place in the synagogue and my choice of words is far beyond a combination of consonants or sounds or vowels. Illness and the fear of a life cut short transform the very nature of prayer, stripping down expressions to raw emotions which mere words cannot convey. I am a mother who choked her own name in a prayer for the sick: heal my son, mother of me. I begged and pleaded, offered myself in his stead. I prayed passionately and deeply, and communities stood behind and alongside me. Deeds were done, and kindnesses exchanged to benefit my son. I stood at that altar with my husband and prayed the true language of prayer, not one of words, but of aching hearts leaking blood, sweat, and tears.

So how, how can I transition from that experience to finding myself in a room with others who are chanting, singing, swaying, praying for reasons I cannot begin to fathom? Why is one paragraph chanted in a serious tone, transitioning the next minute to a hopeful and jubilant tune? How can I believe that mere prayer or good deeds can ameliorate devastating news, prosperity issues, health dilemmas? How can I be part of an experience that I have moved beyond?

I struggle and I thrash; I remain perplexed and in awe of those who can simply and fully believe in a simple algorithm of believe, pray, live. The printed words are just that: words written and uttered by others, but this mother’s heart knows a form of prayer no one should ever know, and I simply cannot go back to that reader, that primer of prayer I have graduated from.

I live and I believe, and perhaps my life is my prayer. A series of milestones laced with occasions, a dropped stitch here and there, formed the sometimes mismatched fabric of my life. But – but – I purposefully and honestly allow Gd to be present in my life, now and always. Perhaps my acceptance and recognition of Gd can act as a tribute that may wield more power than any language of prayer. My prayer is my life, and that is what I can offer.

I have stood at an altar, and I have sacrificed my son. I speak another language with Gd and I pray it is not too foreign.

Still and Always

He is still ours
Still remembered
Loved always
And he matters still.

I allow myself to grieve him still
To ache and still miss him.

He still died
Simply and still gone
He is forever missed
He is still a beloved friend, son, uncle, brother, grandson, cousin.

He can no longer be
create
plan a future
invent
write
laugh
pursue dreams
sing & jam
discuss philosophy
sit with us
compose music
see the world
wish
hope for long life
pray
love
have a wife
build a legacy
be present
be himself.

And for that we still
Mourn
Cry
Grieve still.

We remember…what we still can
Talk and tell his stories and ours
His amusing antics
We comfort each other
Honor and keep his memory alive
And we still allow ourselves that.

We are forever changed…still and always
He took shards of our souls with him
And he left bits and pieces that we carry still
But we’re here and he’s still gone every day.

So we love and honor and speak of him still
Still and always.

 

 

The Invisibility Cloak

There is something magical and wonderous about being invisible, tiptoeing undetected and taking a peek into other people’s lives, homes, dialogues.  Magic elicits curiosity and mystery; our jaws drop as we witness mastery of the unknown. But there is only pain, certainly nothing enchanting or powerful, about feeling invisible.

I believe myself to be grounded, rooted in reality, but what swirls around me is confounding and muddled. I have buried my son Gilad not once, but twice; in terra firma over 1900 days ago, and in my heart only recently. There is simply no room for everything that has taken up residence in my head and heart these past weeks, and Gilad has sadly disappeared from view.

Not everyone who exits this earth has the opportunity to leave a legacy behind, whether in the form of children, with a smile or beloved temperament infused into DNA, or manifest in accomplishments, published works, or recognized success. For some of us, all that is left are our memories, and when that is relegated to the back recess of our minds and conversations, our adored, beloved person dies again.  Moreover, as the people who are carrying the precious memories are – sometimes unknowingly – swept aside, they, too, become invisible, wearing not a diaphanous, magical cloth but a heavy, oppressive cloak.

I typically wear my badge of honor in memory of Gilad as proudly as I would a gold star, in my soul and on my sleeve. I bear what I remember of his essence so that his spirit remains with us in this world. To be without that is to feel bereft; to neglect a child – my own flesh and blood – from my past life is unimaginable. Gilad was not merely an ingredient of my life, he was his own force, singular and exceptional, sweet and caring and forever charming. He had the ability to put others at ease with his smile and his strong yet gentle disposition. Gilad was on the cusp of adulthood, with hopes and dreams, and in pursuit of life’s truths through rational thoughts and intellectual discourse. He had the potential to be an entrepreneurial businessman or a provocative philosopher or a ground-breaking engineer. He would have been a loving father and caring husband, too, and he inspired us with his life and his courageous and tragic battle with disease.  And if I do not continue to talk about and shoulder what remains of him within us, not only is the echo of his footprint gone, but my soul shrivels as well.

My life, at the moment, is crowded with others, and there are days where there is no room for me, speaking again to my sense of feeling invisible, unremarkable. I faintly disappear into the background when all the while I am fiercely keeping all the fires burning, the appointments kept, the work tended to, the food cooked, the laundry done, the phone calls to check on others, the needs met. I am in the throes of turmoil from many sides.

Eddie is recuperating well after his heart attack 5 weeks ago, and I feel blessed that he emerged relatively unscathed. I took back many of his household tasks and errands, and am only now gingerly and carefully returning them to him. I worry about him, but not incessantly, and I recognize that, although it seems we just stood under the chuppah and moved to our first apartment and started our family, we are now in our final chapter together.

Together we care for his declining mother, who is unaware of all that has transpired in the past month. And while I am grateful for her easy, sweet disposition, the unshared burden of meticulously looking out for both her present wants and needs, as well as her future, weighs heavily on us. My mother remains fiercely independent, yet needs some love and attention these days in the face of the overwhelming and unfair loss of yet another grandson. To say that I look out for her would be an understatement, and although she manages her daily necessities and weekly plans, I endeavor to help her with this and that, and hope to be her future support system.

Moreover, I am beyond sad that Judah is gone, and I am reeling from both a secondary tier and from a deep knowledge of grief and loss. My heart continues to break for my sister and her husband and children, even though there is absolutely nothing I can do for them. In fact, my mere existence is a reminder of something they cannot bear to look at; it’s innately and elementally and vastly different, yet at the end of the day it may actually be the same thing. But commonality only goes so far, and sometimes it causes more pain than comfort. So I reach for the cloak once more, and hide myself in plain sight.

My life is too much some days, but it’s mine so I have no choice. I am functioning in an overwhelming situation, and somehow, Gilad’s loss is buried underneath it all. Would be that I could crawl under the magical fabric of invisibility, clutch Gilad to my heart, and sleep the unconscious sleep until it all gets better.

Hearts Torn

The balance of my world has been off since Gilad left us. Nothing feels right; so much is askew. And now Judah is gone, too.

Our hearts are rent and torn, ripped to their core either by loss or physical malfunction. But how both can happen within days of each other is mind-boggling and puts voice to life’s existential questions, and the the dearth of answers often outweigh logic, joy, sanity. Gd may be orchestrating all of this, but I cannot even begin to approach why He is dealing so many heavy blows at once, testing not only our limits of faith and human endurance but our spirits. I am left feeling more boggled in the mind than usual, and we are spent beyond normal human tolerance.

There are many ways a heart can break, and losing a child is a wrenching and twisting of the heart and soul like no other experience. Before the brain can process what is transpiring, the heart is already weeping, breaking at a loss that speaks to a depth that is more animal than human.

Logic folds on itself, reversing the very nature of the cycle of the world. Bringing a child into this world is magical, hopeful, and is an arrow to the ego and heart of trust, the ability to nurture and leave a footprint of a better version of oneself behind. But more than the basic task of procreating, it is the both the ultimate and the most basic way to unselfishly give, offer love, and literally help grow another human being by supporting,  giving,  mirroring,  negotiating,  weeping,  assessing, reconsidering,  improving,  disappointing, laughing,  sighing,  loving. All of that and more.

And when the relationship ends with the child exiting exiting this world first, sometimes the only reaction is a visceral howl that neither words nor tears can properly capture.

But to have tragedy find a family not once but twice makes me want to interrogate Gd in a manner that is more vicious than I am. Our losses are so different, but 2 boys, cousins, grandsons are gone. My sister and family simply should not be in this pain, and my heart breaks and weeps and breaks again for the loss of sweet, beautiful Judah and for my sister’s heartache and her family’s void. This is not the age of famine or war or high mortality rates, yet my mother has helped both her daughters bury their sons. The grief is immense.

And then, a slight degree of movement of plaque in the heart is yet another pathway to catastrophe, although Eddie managed through chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath, jaw pain and profuse sweating to save his own life by calling not his wife – he calls me for everything tiny thing- but the professionals at 911 who kept him alive for me, for us.

I am drained, but there are people to care for, so I muster on. My husband needs me through his recuperation, and I believe I will carry a new fear about him for the rest of my days. And there is his aging mother, my mother-in-law, who needs a tremendous amount of care and management of her health that no one else can provide; Eddie’s sister is in Mexico and is not physically or emotionally present. Then there is my mother, who is quite independent and healthy, but is suffering from grief and why would I neglect the one person who taught me to love and nurture?  She has made me swear not to worry about her, and I agreed, as long as she feigns not to worry about me, either. And of course, my heart looks out for my children and grandchildren with each beat and breath.

Other than loving my sister, I am uncertain what to do for Nina, but I know she will forge her own path as she always brilliantly does. I wish I could hug away the pain for Gabe and Missy, make it disappear for Dara and Eric, and smother it with love for Ben. But if wishes were to come true we would not be here…

How many ways can a heart be wounded, torn and broken? There are many, my friends. There are too many to count.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rinse and Repeat

It’s all a blur and we are so very tired. The demands and needs are endless and cyclic, and we either forget or don’t have time to pay attention to ourselves. But regrettably, it’s not an adorable newborn baby we are caring for, where the beauty and wonder of a new life compensates for the sleep deprivation and fatigue. Neither is it managing the care and hope and life for a child, which, incredibly, I deeply miss all the time. This chapter is about the painstaking, daily effort to meet the needs of an elderly person, someone who sometimes knows where she is and fiercely defends herself, and sometimes believes that her son is her husband.

Rinse and repeat: We drag ourselves out of bed in the morning, act responsibly and professionally at work because other people are counting on us there, too, make calls on behalf of mom, and take hours from work to tend to her doctor appointments and other critical, sometimes emergent needs. At home we collapse, rinse, repeat and do it all over again the next day. Yes, we manage to insert meals and errands and exercising, and sometimes manage a night out with friends. But when the evening plan was filing or ironing, and instead becomes a trip to the ER or a quick visit to say goodnight, or a series of phone calls trying to explain who we are and where she is, there is simply no energy left for anything else.

We have been here before, transitioning to end of life. And maybe we’ll get better at it; perhaps I’ll stop complaining like my wonderful friend who lovingly takes of her mom without uttering a word. After all, this is a woman who deserves every ounce of care and attention she gave to others. But at the beginning and end of each day, my husband and I look at each other, bleary-eyed and weary of the heart, and wonder what happened to our life.

I am spent, and cannot begin to explain to others that my baseline of life changed irrevocably with our son’s final journey. Sometimes I fear (I know?) that no one can bear to hear about our loss anymore because it’s in the past, and we should simply move beyond it. We’ve had our stint of warm meals delivered to our home, unnecessary treats and gifts bestowed upon us, unrelenting awareness and attentiveness towards us, and prayers for the well-being of our son, our family. All of that faded along with Gilad, and sometimes I feel that we are expected to simply be as normal as everyone else. But the raw truth is that my entire perspective on life – and the hope life holds – was beaten and pummeled along with my heart. I don’t believe in anything the way others do or in the manner I used to. We expend conscious effort to be positive, and it takes significant planning to weave goodness and pleasure into our rinse-repeat cycle. My baseline is that life is heavy and it hurts and is arduous and too often hellish and it’s so damned unfair, and I wrestle with those overwhelming emotions every single day.

We are in our mid-50s and should be enjoying the freedom from tuition, the absence of child-care responsibilities, and simply revel in the quiet of an empty nest. But we have have aged and feel so much older than our years, so drained and worn out and diminished from everything we have been through and continue to face every day. We are emotionally exhausted from doing so much for others, going to and fro, getting this and that, rinsing and repeating.

Over 30 years ago I met the kindest man who I hoped to spend my life with. But it is not the life I ever imagined it would be. I understood that my choice of being a stay-at-home mom would have its downside; I knew that moving across the country would have its issues; I learned how to deal with the challenges of marriage and family. I accepted and appreciated those typical trajectories, but I continue to thrash at my fate. Yes, I have the blessings of children and grandchildren, but I am greedy and it’s not enough. I wanted to live to see every single one of my children grow up, take hold of their independence, marry, and continue the cycle of life and our family’s legacy and traditions. And I am forever struggling with that disappointment. Underneath my well-dressed armor, I am piggish and resentful, and I have coveted what others have and what I feel I deserve. And that, my friends, is that backdrop upon which we care for our mothers, one declining and the other still healthy and independent, but she will not live forever. So we spend our days rinsing, repeating, and endeavoring to find and recognize and savor the kernels of goodness and happiness and satisfaction in each moment, each day, each chapter.

Inspired to Pray or Praying to be Inspired?

It’s the eve of Yom Kippur and we are knee-deep in our holiday season. We menu-plan and shop and cook and freeze; we invite guests and polish the silver and iron the white tablecloth. As we welcome Rosh Hashana, there’s the tradition to gather new things for the upcoming year: a new fruit to introduce unique flavors, chic fashions to recharge our tired wardrobe, fresh flowers to bedazzle and grace the table.

But with all of that holiday prep, let’s not forget that the new year has meaning beyond the sumptuous meals and calculating vacation days at work. When it’s still summer-warm, the shofar reminds us to peek around the corner, guiding us to more somber days. The late Saturday night first selichot prayer forces us take notice that something momentous is about to happen. Back-to-school is not just for the children; an educational experience is in the air for us all. The little ones come home with projects, excited about what will unfold at home, but we owe it to ourselves to do the same.

This is the time of year to take a step back before we step foot inside the synagogue. We expend unusual time and effort to wish each other a good year, sending cards and posting messages; we reach out and call those we are not in touch with on a regular basis. The words slip off our lips easily, as we express our hopes for a good and sweet year, a successful and healthy one, as if wishing makes it true. But how do we get from the apples and honey to financial success, good health, and disciplined children? The shofar and the pomegranate and the squeaky patent leather shoes set aside for yom tov are but signals for us to pay attention to our lives, to heed the sounds, and think about the universe and who might be at the helm while we are busy running, doing, chopping, mopping.

And then, before we know it, we are seating on chairs labeled with our names, the white velvet cover is on the ark, the machzor is in our hands. And we realize that we forgot to take the time to prepare for this. How should we go about praying for long life, for the resources to pay our bills, to find a soulmate, to get along with our family? How do we daven for our own, personal good year, or simply to interact honestly and well with each other? What happened to the individualized thoughts that were swimming in our heads a year ago, ones that we vowed to pin down on paper and tuck into the siddur for next year?

When we flip through the machzor, where do we find those special words and how do we pray for that good year which we so desperately seek? Have you noticed that the tefillot on Rosh Hashana are not about us? Aside from Netana Tokef and Avenu Malkenu, the focus is actually not our hopes and wishes.

So, what is prayer, and what is the purpose of Rosh Hashana davening?  The tefillot have been standardized, but sometimes the printed words feel distant and hollow, the words as elusive as Gd Himself.

Our forefathers organically reached out to Gd, as people in pain are wont to do, and our daily – read formal – prayers today echo those conversations. Later, prayer ensured the continuity of connection in the absence of the holy Temple, which had afforded the community the opportunity to gather, celebrate life cycle events, or atone for sins. Traditions of animal sacrifice in the presence of Gd’s holy spirit was thus replaced by communal prayer.

Generations have passed since the oral word was scribed, and the written word became expansive when printing became wildly popular. But in the process we have lost our personal signature. With prescribed tefillot we don’t own the words, and our connection to them can be tenuous and diluted. For some there is a language barrier, for others reciting animal offerings feels culturally foreign to us. Perhaps we don’t want to thank the Almighty for being benevolent or healing the sick when that has not been our personal experience. Or maybe it’s that we are so intent on our own agenda that  praises to Gd don’t come naturally to us.

When we borrow someone else’s words we run the risk of sitting passively and waiting for inspiration, for the letters to be infused with meaning. Is prayer a vehicle for inspiration or should we naturally be inspired to pray? If we each have a unique kinship with Gd, shouldn’t we be creating our own moments, crafting our own personal tefillot, even alongside others in a communal space? We have every right to substitute our own words or tears, to pray in whatever form or language our heart takes us.

Yet, the machzor, our guide to these exceedingly important high holidays where we spend time in the synagogue for hours on end, is really about the fact that our life is not in our hands.  Pages and pages and paragraphs and more declare Gd as King of the universe and the Master of all beings. And who is making those statements? Why it’s us, of course.

I believe that the purpose of the high holidays is to set the tone for the rest of the year. We have been placed on this earth without our consent, and we exit with nary a choice. In between those fateful days, our life is ours to live with free choice. Or is it? The raw truth is that we are given not only guidelines from the Torah – as other religions have theirs – but the laws of nature direct us, as well. We have no control over time and space, or weather or sickness, or the genes that dictate our physical and emotional well-being. But in between the raindrops of those constraints is where we are free to live our lives. We can choose where to live and who to marry and what profession to pursue and how to dress or speak or eat. Our options are a thousand-fold for each minutia of life, but we need to be reminded by the shofar and the prayers that we are orchestrating only a tiny slice of life that resides layers below the glass ceiling. I believe that our Rosh Hashana is the acceptance that, although we can live with every fiber of our being, every passion to its fullest, and avail ourselves of every alternative, we are still but mice running in a maze designed especially for us.

During our son’s illness and in the aftermath of his passing, I probed within and without our religion, and demanded and wailed and begged for the meaning of life. A mere two weeks after we got up from shiva we found ourselves in the community synagogue, drawn there as we have always been and continue to be. And what I know is this: My life is but a speck in the sand of the universe, past and future. There is something beyond all of us and all of this, and only Gd knows what it is. This knowledge is etched in my soul, borne of burying my son. I see and understand things in a way I wouldn’t recommend to others.

Our season with Gilad, from the time of his passing at the end of the summer to his birthday in the fall, forms the bookends to our High Holidays. This season of holidays are enmeshed with our personal sorrow and no soul searching is required for us to think deeply of life and wonder at Gd’s presence in it, for that is our inner, daily battle with Gd.

Yet, prayer still leaves me confounded. I know that the power of prayer isn’t all that I want or hope it should be, and I’m disappointed and disillusioned by that. My life has not turned out the way I expected, and I struggle with the standardized words of prayer. But at least I am still in a conversation with Gd.

My Rosh Hashana moment in shul came when I heard my husband’s voice leading the congregation. That, and that alone, can move me to believe that connection and inspiration through prayer is possible. Whether I follow along with the written word or hum along with his father’s melodies, I am finally present for tefillah.  I may choose to mouth my own honest, no-holds-barred, sentiments to Gd or I may have the courage to join in the group prayer, chanting together as our single notes form a powerful cacophony that surely both Gd and Gilad can hear.

I will spend my days on this earth trying to understand what life is supposed to be about. But whatever form it takes, prayer is always a possibility.

Gmar Chatima Tova.