I didn’t make all 29 days of Elul this year. I was two short. This adds to my other failings and was one of the things I mentioned, with only a tiny smile, yesterday when I said my confession. I still want to do the two topics though and I was thinking a lot yesterday about God’s gifts; God’s gifts and mine.
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day marked on the Jewish calendar to say sorry to God. (Saying sorry to people is a separate thing, more important and should be done regularly; Yom Kippur is for those bits we forget to do regularly, as a reminder.) Before the day, people wish each other an easy fast day – really, they don’t mean that you shouldn’t notice the fact that you’re not eating – that it shouldn’t trouble you. That would defeat at least one of the purposes of fasting. They mean that you should have an easy time connecting to God, that the inspiration provided by fasting and praying – the insight into your life should be a clear and easy one.
It was not an easy fast. Some fasts are. I’ve had Yom Kippurs where I’ve gone in strong and come out stronger and more open, ready to face the world with a new tenderness. Some fasts are not. Sometimes, I pray and pray for God to replace my heart of stone with a heart of flesh, to find forgiveness in my heart for all the ways I’ve been hurt just as I want to be forgiven, to put others first. I pray for all the good that Yom Kippur should bring – and all I can think about is the hours until dinner. It is hard to reach that broken, open place on those Yom Kippurs; this year’s was one such.
I was angry and unforgiving, and it took a full day of hard work – hard prayer – to even make the smallest dent in that anger. I was angry at God, among others, because sometimes the questions She asks seem too hard, the challenges She poses too great. No, they don’t compare to Moses or Abraham. I’ve never been asked to free a nation from slavery or sacrifice my child on a mountain. Still, they seem insurmountable to me. And when I ask for help – because it’s what I do when things are too hard; I ask God for help – sometimes, there is no answer.
So, I was thinking yesterday about parenting and gifts. I was thinking that the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent is the thing I’m doing this year – giving space. We have moved far away from 3 of my children. I’m not there. I can’t help, most of the time. I can’t give any more concrete gift than my love, whispered again and again over the distance. It feels like the opposite of a gift. It feels like abandonment, cruel and harsh. Yet, they’re doing all right. They’re doing the things they need to do and learning the lessons they have to learn and they’re doing more than they would have if I was there telling them what to do and how to do it. They’re growing up, my babies, and this is a good thing.
It’s a hard gift to give, that of giving space. It’s a letting go that feels so contrary to the wishes of my heart, where I’d rather hold and help, support and sustain. I know it’s essential – that my children need the quiet in which to make their own decisions and find their own answers. I know that they even need to fail if they’re to learn. It’s my job now to give them the space they need. But oh, it’s hard. I want to give them more. It’s hard for me in all relationships – I prefer companionship, closeness, intimacy. If I just give that, however, I can become overwhelming and annoying. So, I must give the space people need and want. It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn, but it makes for long, long, painful Yom Kippurs.
It’s a hard gift to receive too. I’ve never been good at graciously receiving gifts anyway. “Oh, you got me a hideous whatchamacallit that I’ll never use? Why? I mean – oh, how nice, thank you for the lovely gift, it’s the thought that counts.” Receiving space – well, I’m not big on being abandoned. I want to scream, “I’m not ready, God. I still need support. I still need to be held. I still need answers to those questions I ask over and over again when confusion seems to overwhelm me.” How is this a gift? What is the difference between this and the complete abandonment it feels like?
It took me most of the day to feel the difference, to hear the whispered love that God was sending me again and again over the distance. It was not until Neila (the final service at the end of the day, where we ask for one last chance to pray rightly and have our prayers be accepted that day) that I saw the shape of God’s gift. This wasn’t an empty space God was giving me, this was a space full of quiet love and listening; the same kind I give my kids. There was assurance in that space and comfort, if I could access it. I wasn’t being abandoned, I was being asked to grow. This did not make it any easier – I still think it’s cruel and harsh and I’m not ready, actually – it was a hard fast. It helped, though, just a bit, to let me forgive some of my anger at God and others, to let me ask for forgiveness, at least in my heart, for all the times I haven’t given space when it’s been asked for or given it when closeness has been needed. I am not perfect so I can’t know the best time to give space or closeness like God can. All I can do is try and believe as hard as I can that God, at least, is doing it right.
I prayed all of yesterday for the grace to accept God’s gifts. Maybe I can learn to forgive and to live with the world I have. I have a lot further to go. I will spend this year learning how to give and receive space. Hopefully, like God, I can shape my silence, so that the love within it can be felt and heard; so that those whose questions I don’t answer realize that I am not abandoning them, I’m offering a gift. Maybe, next year, if I do it well, I will have an easy fast – but if not, maybe it will be once again a meaningful one.