by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Each year, as Rosh Hashanah approaches I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t feel ready.” Or, “The chaggim (holidays) just came out of nowhere. Are they early this year?” I include myself in this Greek chorus. Amidst high holiday planning, schools start, traffic gets 90% worse, and whatever is left of a summer lull officially disappears. It’s no wonder these expressions of dismay have made it into our canon of seasonal greetings.
This time of year, when daylight diminishes and eventually everything turns gray, I brace myself for our communal meditation on death. One doesn’t have to look far past the rallying cry of Unetenah Tokef, the white burial shroud (kittel) we wear on Yom Kippur, and the greeting you may already be using, G’mar tov, literally, “A good sealing.” In other words, “when-God-is-making-an account-of-everyone’s-life-and-deciding-each-of-our-fates, I hope your name is sealed in the book of life.” Perhaps our seasonal greetings of dismay are an expression of an existential unreadiness?
Last year, my Aunt died erev (the day before) Rosh Hashanah. It was an unexpected gift to be with her in those last moments, but I cannot say that I was ready for her death in any way. I will never know how my Aunt felt about it; she had stopped speaking several days before. Hours after her burial, I was sitting in Rosh Hashanah services, but I was nowhere to be found. Each line of the liturgical poem, Unetanah Tokef, pushed me further away.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
deflect the evil of the decree.
Last year, I was too angry with God to hear these words. I quietly resented a liturgy that implied my Aunt’s difficult illness and death could have gone differently if she had done more teshuvah, prayed more, or given more tzedakah. In my eyes, she was as upright a woman as they come. The words simply didn’t make sense.
Thankfully, time has softened (although not dissolved) my anger and the well of grief just beneath it. This Rosh Hashanah, I could listen to the words of the liturgy with interest, if not faith. At a meal with friends, we realized that we’d all had a good cry at some point in the last couple of days; I wasn’t alone in feeling the weight of the season. The conversation turned to the old theological conundrum, found in Unetenah Tokef, the Book of Job, and elsewhere, which is often colloquially summarized as, “when bad things happen to good people.” One friend shared a piece of torah about the call to action in Unetanah Tokef:
“It’s not that teshuvah, tefillah, or tzedakah are a guarantee against death and suffering. It’s meant to teach us that if we do those three things, our experience of the hardships we face will be vastly different.”
My Aunt was kind beyond my comprehension; she always sought my forgiveness if she’d been impatient with me. She gave whatever she could despite living off of welfare herself, and every conversation she had was punctuated with a reverence for God. Although she was home-bound in her final years, my Aunt’s prayers beside her Shabbos candles taught me something essential. First, she would quietly recite the Hebrew blessing. Then, with a steadiness in her voice that surprised me, she called out to God in Yiddish as though she had dialed in directly to her maker. Once, when we were lighting candles together, she heard me praying under my breath and yelled sweetly, “I can’t hear you!”
I can imagine a reality in which my Aunt’s habitual piety gave her strength in the end, even if I couldn’t hear her say so.
Next year I will likely still struggle with this existential high holiday unreadiness. Life is nothing but stops and starts, and each one brings its own chaos and order. As the daylight diminishes and the year begins, I am grateful for what our tradition says constitutes a life worth writing down. It’s a life in which forgiveness is possible (teshuvah), one in which we try to speak with holiness (tefillah), and tirelessly pursue justice (tzedakah).
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.