First a joke:
According to the Jewish Calendar, the year will be 5768.
According to the Chinese calendar, the year will be 4705.
That means for 1,063 years the Jews went without Chinese food.
Those were known as the “Dark Ages”.
Back to beginnings . . . This past week Jews all over the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This holiday begins the holiest period, known as the Days of Awe, a ten-day period of prayer and introspection. This is our time for deep thought and self-examination, a time for quiet celebration of new beginnings. This year, for the first time, the whole family attended services together. WineGuy and I had aliyahs, Torah honors, on both days. I recited Torah reading blessings on the first day, while he lifted the big Sefer Torah over his head. He recited a Haftorah (reading from the prophets) on the second day, while I raised the rabbi’s 300-year old travel torah over my head. We all heard the blast of the shofar (ram’s horn), heralding a new year.
For the first time in decades, I am enjoying synagogue services; I am finding spiritual fulfillment in worship and prayer. Why? Our fledgling Conservative congregation has a new spiritual leader, Rabbi Z. He is dynamic, enthusiastic, learned, modern, funny, and he can sing! His Orthodox ordination and modernist approach are exactly what WineGuy and I have been looking for in a synagogue since we were married. We have found a spiritual home that nearly resembles the congregations in which we were raised. Finally, we left the awful local Reform synagogue behind without a regret.
Rabbi Z’s Rosh Hashanah sermons were really d’var torahs (Torah teachings). His sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah centered on a reading from the first chapter of the first book of Samuel. Hannah and Peninah were the wives of Elkanah. Peninah had children, but Hannah did not. Hannah prayed long for a child, and Elkanah made twice the sacrifices to G-d to bless her with a child. Yet, she was barren. One year, when they were making their yearly sacrifices at Shiloh, Eli the Priest came upon Hannah deep in prayer; she spoke to G-d in her heart, but her lips did not move. Eli thought she was drunk and chastised her. Hannah answered him, saying she had poured out her soul to G-d, to no avail. Eli replied that G-d would answer her prayers. “And it came to pass, when the time was come about, that Hannah conceived, and bore a son; and she called his name Samuel (Shmu-el), . . . ‘I asked him of the Lord.'” Twelve years ago, I sat in Rosh Hashanah services, back in Pennsylvania, and read this passage. It called out to me. I wept openly in synagogue because we had been trying to get pregnant for over a year without any luck. I was desperate to have a child to name for my one and only grandmother, who passed away the year before. Like Hannah, I turned my prayers to G-d and asked him to bless us with a child. He heard my prayers. I got pregnant with Wizard two months later. The point of the dvar torah was that as G-d listens to us, we must all listen to each other.
Here I am on the brink of another year. I look back at my actions and words over the last year. I am not proud of them. I reflect on the Viddui prayer I will recite on Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur.
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi.
We are culpable. We have betrayed. We have robbed. We have spoken slander.
He’evinu, vehirshanu, zadnu, khamasnu, tafalnu sheker.
We have caused suffering. We have caused harm. We have behaved arrogantly. We have been violent. We have smeared with lies.
Ya’atznu ra, kizavnu, latznu, maradnu, niatznu, sararnu, avinu, pashanu, tzararnu, kishinu oref.
We have advised harm. We lied. We scorned. We have rebelled against rightful authority. We have shown contempt. We have been stubborn. We have sinned. We have transgressed. We have oppressed. We have been inflexible and stubborn.
Rashanu, shikhatnu, ta’inu, titanu.
We have done evil. We have corrupted. We have strayed. We have caused others to go astray.
Ve’al kulam, Elohai selikhot. Selakh lanu. Mekhal lanu. Kaper lanu.
And for all these sins we have named, O G-d of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
I am guilty of committing every single one of those and more. But, in the Jewish religion, atonement is more than expiation. “Atonement involves substitutions: substituting new habits for old, substituting awareness for denial, substituting repentance for shame.” [Rabbi Debra Orenstein] What do I want to change in myself? What do I need to change in myself? What positive, productive behaviors am I going to put in place of old, bad, destructive habits? I want to treat my children and my husband with more kindness. I want to take better care of my home and my family. I need to take better care of myself – be calmer, eat healthier, exercise, etc. Will I? Maybe in the beginning. The real challenge is consistency. Can I consistently remember to be calm when my boys have pushed my last button? Can I consistently remember not to drop curse words when I’m at the end of my rope? I can. I just need to try harder. Make the good habits replace the bad ones.
In a way, I have started this (school) year on a more altruistic note. I have volunteered my time to several different committees in the community and at school; I even stepped up to be a Room Mom in Moose’s class. One project I undertook will likely take me several months to complete: totally updating and revising the physicians’ auxiliary directory. [Despite recent publication, it was hopelessly outdated and wrong in so many places. I couldn’t stand it.] I never volunteered much before. I have lists of things that need to be fixed in this house, but I have to call a new handyman and put him on retainer. It seems like everything breaks at this time of year.
With two years to go until Wizard’s Bar Mitzvah, I need to get myself in shape. My rings don’t fit. Half of my clothes don’t fit. I’m tired of wearing that “slinkie” material for every occasion. I need a kick or a push or a drag to the weight loss center and the gym. Why can’t weight loss and fitness have one of these?
At this time of year, I have more questions than answers, more doubt than assuredness. At least I’m thinking about it all. It’s a place to start a new beginning.