Thursday, September 26, 2013

End of the Long Haul

If you’re Jewish, the last while has been quite a journey.  Much of the world knows that we celebrated Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, less than 2 weeks ago.  They might not know how much effort goes into getting ready for that, though… it’s not just Rosh Hashannah, you see.  It’s High Holidays, and the period includes… 2 days for Rosh Hashannah, a day for Kol Nidre, a day for Yom Kippur, 2 days for Sukkot, a day for Shemini Atzeret, Yizkor, and 2 days for Simchat Torah.  And a fast day or two.

And while it’s true that ultimately, the High Holiday period is one of a certain amount of spiritual fulfillment and even growth, it’s also true that some of it is tremendously difficult.  Kol Nidre, which refers to the annulling of vows made in the name of God, prepares us for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  By the time Yom Kippur comes, we are meant to have spoken with people we have hurt and to have asked for their forgiveness – “Be Rosh Hashannah yika teivun, u v’Yom tzom Kippur yeha teimun…”  On Rosh Hashannah, it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”  The “it” here is the Book of Life.  This is our chance to try to make right what we have done wrong, to heal where we’ve caused hurt, and to prepare our lives for a new year.

The Yom Kippur liturgy is a long one, and it’s difficult.  It’s difficult not only because we’re fasting (the fast begins at sunset, with the Kol Nidre service, the day before Yom Kippur), not only because we spend so many hours in synagogue, not only because so many of those hours are spent on our feet.  It’s also difficult because the litany on Yom Kippur is hard.  In community, we acknowledge our flaws – together, we say the words… “We have murdered (and I know that I, personally did not murder, so I am ok with that), we have committed adultery (nope, didn’t do that either, so I am ok with that one), we have stolen (nope, not that, either, so this is not so difficult to say),” and we go on… and then we get to “we have been unkind” (nope, I haven’t… oh, wait.  Yes, I have.  And that’s when it gets really personal.  And it’s really difficult, too.  At least I’m not in it alone.)

After Yom Kippur, after the last blast of the shofar, we shuffle off, exhausted, to break the fast, usually with something quite simple, often with dairy (it’s tradition).  And then we get some more joy, because we have Sukkot, another harvest festival.  We have Shemini Atzeret, a day for solemn assembly… our tradition explains the holiday this way: our Creator is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, the host has enjoyed it so much that we are asked to stay another day.   If Sukkot is a day to celebrate harvests for all the people of the world, then Shemini Atzeret is a bit like a special note from God.  But also on Shemini Atzeret is Yizkor, which is said following the Torah reading on the last day of Passover, on the second day of Shavuot, on Shemini Atzeret, and on Yom Kippur.  Yizkor is a memorial prayer, a time of remembrance, a time for us to remember as a community those who have died this year, and for us as individuals to remember our own personal losses.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might be thinking that two of the recitations of Yizkor have happened during High Holidays – once on Yom Kippur, and a second time on Shemini Atzeret.  And you’d be right.  It’s not the Yom Kippur recitation that gets to me most, though, because honestly, on Yom Kippur, I’m already fatigued, often hungry and thirsty, and sometimes Yizkor happens in a bit of a blur.  On Shemini Atzeret, though, we’ve moved past the most physically challenging part of the High Holiday season – so why am I so moved by the recitation of Yizkor on this day?

I’ve come to think that it’s because I’m somehow lulled into a bit of a false sense of ease following the ‘big’ holidays.  So at synagogue this morning, I prayed with my community, I listened to the Torah reading, and to the Haftorah.  This morning, after the Torah reading, our rabbi spoke about Yizkor, about why we say it, and how we might feel when we say it.  He acknowledged that it can feel sad, particularly if the death of a loved one has happened recently and is still a fresh wound.  It is not only new loss that hurts, though.  Both my parents are dead – my father will have been dead for 23 years this November; my mother will have been dead for 10 years, also this November.  I still miss them both.  I still have a tough time being in a card store on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.  I remember the first Mother’s Day after my mum died, realising as if it was a brand new thing (which it was, I suppose) that I had no mother to whom to send a card, no father to whom to send a card.  But back to Yizkor… so, our rabbi read a short poem by Merle Feld, and as I sat there quietly, listening and crying.  Crying?  Why was I crying?  Here’s the poem:

A new year beginning, and I can’t call you to say,
I’m bursting with wonderful news!”
Your arms won’t encircle me when I grieve, when I mourn,
You’ll never know now the unexpected achievements, the abiding sorrows.
And yet, as I stand here with this candle, I allow myself some quiet moments,
Until, once again, your face shines in my memory,
Until once again, I feel you blessing me.

And that’s why I was crying – because I miss, I still miss – all of those moments with my parents.  So when we stood for Yizkor this morning, it was really hard.  And yet, it felt absolutely right to remember my parents and to pray that my life might exemplify any good they had taught me, that I might be a credit to their values and ideals.

Tomorrow morning, it’s back to synagogue… it’s Simchat Torah, and we celebrate the Torah, we rejoice with it.  We really do – we dance it around the synagogue and everything.  Very upbeat, kind of fun.  But for me, this year, I’m still holding my parents so very close in my heart, and am grateful for a communal opportunity to pay them private tribute. 

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