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Omer Count – Day 19

Barukh ata Adonay, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sfirat ha-omer.

Blessed are You, Adonay our God, ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us this opportunity to count the Omer.

Today is day nineteen which is two weeks and five days of the Omer. Hayom yom tisha-es’re she hem shtey shavuot ve hamisha yammim laOmer.

Today is Hod be Tiferet, gratitude within beauty, humility within grace.

I am grateful for the ability to try again. I am often clumsy, awkward and badly managed. So, I make a lot of mistakes. It’s like a painting – sometimes I colour roughly and mess up the lines. And when I was little, if you colour incorrectly, the art is ruined. But I’ve been living with an artist, and I know that sometimes, she decides to make a change, or cover up some part she doesn’t like or even correct an error – and the paint allows for that and the result is still amazing. In real life, also, we can correct a mistake and make a badly coloured situation more beautiful. God allows us to try again and while the error is not erased, it becomes repaired and part of a new picture – an even more beautiful one.

Today, I am grateful for the ability to correct errors and make life more beautiful.

Kislev (or Elul 8 – Hear)

A kid teased another kid at school the other day, and thought nothing of it. It happens all the time – people calling each other names that target intelligence, ability, appearance, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation – you name it! From “you’re dumb” and “you’re ugly” to more subtle insults like “you look good, no homo” (“hey, miss, I was just complimenting him but I didn’t want him to take it the wrong way”) to clearly racist slurs like “immigrant” (he isn’t) and “terrorist”, from casual unthinking comments like “that’s so gay” to direct creative insults involving parentage and future, kids have many horrible ways to be nasty to each other and those about them.

 

They think nothing of it. As far as they’re concerned, it means nothing. Heck the kid that was being teased laughed. Everyone laughed. Only the teacher took it seriously. No-one knows why – probably because the teacher is old, and politically correct and soft and…so I gave this speech in school. I’m recording it here because it’s my response to the Pittsburgh shooting, and the one before that – and the one (and it breaks my heart) after, and the many, many others.

 

Did she laugh when you told her she should quit synchronized swimming because she now had water on the brain, or when you thought it was hilarious to call him Paco because he came from Latin America? Did they?  They told you the nicknames were funny? Maybe. Maybe what you don’t know is that they came to me after and told me how much they hated your teasing. Why would they tell you? You tease. You’re also their friend and they don’t want to lose that. So, they won’t tell you. Ever.

 

But I don’t want to talk about, for instance, the girl you called plump, who laughed at your nasty little make-up tips. I want to talk about the girl sitting silently behind her. See, you don’t know it, but she was teased in the same way in her previous school, so much so that she suffered depression and anxiety and finally left that school and came here to this one to feel OK. When you said that – not to her, even – she realized this school would never be OK either. She went home and cried herself to sleep. Maybe she turned to a form of self-harm, like cutting or restricting food, like drugs or alcohol. I hear from the kids who have made such a choice. They exist.

 

Why, you say, did she not go to an adult? Well it was because three of you had made a joke of it the day before, saying “miss, he’s bullying me” when someone wouldn’t lend you a pencil and claiming that the low mark I gave you on a test was due to me being racist – especially funny if the kid who says it is as white as I am. So, no, she didn’t feel it was safe to turn to authority either.

 

But never mind her. There was another boy sitting next to her. He heard your words too and you’re in a higher grade than him. Being in a higher grade, you have authority you know. It may be slight, and not very conscious – but people look up to you. As an older kid, that’s what you’re beginning to acquire – authority. Authority is another word for power, and that’s something you get more and more of as you get older, and as Spiderman’s uncle once said, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” What kind of responsibility? Is it your doing that the young lady turned to self harm? No, of course not! No one but her chose her path. Did you have influence here, however? Yes. Yes, you did.

 

So, that boy who heard you might have a little brother with developmental disabilities or a cousin who is gay or got any one of a number of people you’ve insulted in his life. And after your words, might see his brother or cousin just a tiny bit differently. Might be a little less likely to help. Might be a little more critical. Might say slightly less OK things himself. That didn’t do much to make the world a better place.

 

Or what about these three kids sitting at the side? They are popular and charismatic and they’ve already been teasing the person you just called a name. They now get a feel that this is OK. After all you did it, and you got away with it, and so, it’s no big deal to tease. And the poor kid getting teased is getting more and more angry all the time – and should he lash out physically, it will not be your fault if he or his opponent gets hurt. Absolutely not. But did you contribute to an environment where this kind of behaviour was possible? Hmmm….

 

But never mind them. There’s another kid in the class. He hates this school, just as much as he hated the last four schools he was at before they kicked him out, or he moved or left or whatever. He hates the teachers – they are all unfair and mean and nasty. He hates all the privileges the older kids get that he doesn’t. He hates how the younger kids can get away with just about anything. He hates all the other students – they’re losers and they either bug him or ignore him or whatever. He hates everyone. And your comment and people laughing was that final touch that told him the next thing to do was to get a knife or gun and come back to school….

 

What, you say? It couldn’t happen? It would certainly never happen here? Maybe not. But this last week I was at a vigil for 11 Jewish people who were murdered.  The man who murdered them did so because somewhere in his mind, he created a universe in which Jews were bringing refugees into the country and the refugees were full of Muslims who were terrorists who would kill him and his family. Thus, if the Jews were dead, he’d be safe. This man didn’t see himself as evil. He was, in his very horribly incorrect way, trying to protect family. What made him think that refugees were full of Muslims, that Muslims were terrorists, that Jews were paying for refugees to come?

 

These were all things he heard from the president. Now, the president does NOT, emphatically, see himself as antisemitic. He does not. Why, he has Jewish grand kids! He supports Israel! So, it is definitely not his fault. And yet…what kind of environment did he create? Who did he encourage and embolden with his remarks? How did people with different, possibly fractured world views hear him? Oh, I’m sure this was not a consequence he intended. He too, in his very horribly incorrect way, was just trying to protect family. But our words have consequence. We have power. And it is our job to use it with care.

 

Frankly we haven’t been. And if we, in our classes, haven’t been, that means I haven’t been doing enough. For if you tease, then I as your teacher have permitted this, have modeled this, have encouraged this in some way. That must stop. I say now that I am sorry – and will try to do better, to work harder at being polite to and about you. Oh, I’m sure I will fail sometimes as will you – but I will try. Hopefully together we can build a school where a person won’t need to turn to violence to protect herself or her family. Hopefully this will be a school in which violence – even emotional violence – is unthinkable. That’s the school I want to teach at, and you all being amazing kids – that’s the school I know you can create.

Elul 19 – Speak

I suck at saying “Oops. It was my mistake. I did the wrong thing. I’ll certainly do better tomorrow.” I *still * suck. I wish I was good at it. I wish I didn’t have the same face-saving needs that I had when I was 5. I also wish for a million dollars and to be 20 again, but having a decent character should be more achievable than the other two not less. It just feels like less. I’ve been trying for years and sometimes I wonder if I’m incapable of doing this.

It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s natural to make mistakes, everyone does it, ‘we are but dust blowing in~ the wind’ so how can we expect to be perfect? We aren’t.  It’s OK not to be. And one should be able to admit that lack of perfection clearly and easily as one apologizes. But I just can’t. The words physically get stuck in my mouth and I can’t say “I’m su-se-so-sorry, I was wr-wr-wr-wrong.” There’s two ways this happens. First is the righteous anger version. “I wasn’t wrong! I’m never wrong. I was right, darn it all. If only you’d have listened to me…” I find myself thinking I’m right a lot. I’m very clever after all. I know things. So, I’m not wrong. If there was a problem, it was your fault. Guaranteed.

The second is the embarrassment version. I know I screwed up, assume it’s really, really bad, feel horrid about myself, decide that the only way I can survive it is if no one knows and go on pretending that the world is a place where I’m never wrong. (See previous paragraph.) The secret shame grows bigger and then I feel bad that I’m covering something up and that’s not very good either, because then there’s no time to do the right thing and so I do the wrong thing, but it’s not my fault, really.

Both are problematic, but the embarrassment more so. I know how to deal with anger, and with sufficient prayer and journaling and meditation and all that other good stuff, I can admit that I’m wrong. The embarrassment one is more of a problem, though. No matter how hard I pray, I can’t seem to speak those words – they refuse to come out of my mouth.

Sometimes, I say the “I’m sorry” in my head. I commit privately to doing the right thing. That’s good enough isn’t it? I think to myself and praise myself for the job will done. And then there’s this kid who’s been asked to scrape a plate or finish the homework assignment or return the money or whatever. And she’s sitting here not doing it even though I know she should and she knows she should and I know she knows she should and she knows I know and so on. And then I remember that hot feeling at the back of my eyes, and that thought in my head that I simply couldn’t admit this in front of them, and I leave the room, and wait 10 minutes and come back in and what do you know, the plate is scraped, the homework is done, and the money is back. It’s all very mysterious and the best approach is not to acknowledge it at all even though I know and she knows I know and ….

But I’m not a kid any more! I have worked on this trait. Surely, it’s fixed now and I can stop working on it? But I can’t. I still have a hard time apologizing. I’m thinking I’ll go back to “a sorry a day.” It’s Elul and time to start making life changes after all. I haven’t done this in ages but clearly, it’s time to do it again. I will try, at least, to say a “sorry” to someone, every day, genuinely, with all the accouterments of sorryness. It’s an excellent spiritual practice, and as everyone knows, practice makes better. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe this isn’t a trait I can do much about. Maybe I went from being much to young to being a bit too old to do this. Nevertheless, I will make the effort. I will try to do it in small, relatively un-embarrassing situations, so that I get so much practice, it feels automatic.

Maybe it will, in time, be easier to speak those tricky “I’m so-sa-se-sorry”.  Until then, well, you know how it is. It’s all YOUR fault!

Elul 24

#BlogElul – Hope

I felt like writing about singing today. I love singing. I’m not a very good singer, but there’s something about the cadence and rhythm of a good song that just feels right to me. To me, singing is a way to connect to God, and to other people, to myself and to the world around me. I sing to best express a feeling, to find comfort in saying clearly what something is like for me. I don’t sing creatively – people who write music, you have no idea how lucky you are! But I do like to experience a song in depth, to really understand who I am through music. I like songs that are not too fast, with lyrics, so that I can sing along to them. I know there are other purposes to music, but it is the flow and bounce of words that attracts me, the many ways simple patterns can be put together to create beauty.

When my family feels together, I feel all is right in the world. Resentments begin to thaw, and fights melt away and I remember what it is I like about the people I’m with. As they sing, their energy emerges and it’s beautiful to see who they are and to see the divine within them. It’s almost like singing makes us angels for just that one tiny moment. Sometimes, we’re irreverent, funny angels, as some of the songs we sing are ridiculous, but even then, sometime it just clicks.

My favourite movies, are, of course, musicals. To me, musicals are *more* real than other movies. I know no one ever drops everything and starts madly dancing in circles. But it’s a clear, visible way to express feeling and engender it. So, I can feel what the characters are feeling, practicing that emotion in a safe way.

This is why for years, our slihot service has been a sing-along. If one’s apology is going to be generic and not specific to a situation, if one is going to apologize for general badness rather than lack of connection then really, that apology is different. That’s not a ‘sorry, I hurt you by doing such and such and I am working on changing who I am so I don’t behave that way any more’ apology. It’s more of an apology along the lines of ‘sorry, there is badness between us, and I’m sure a big part of it is my fault, but I don’t even know all that’s involved and I certainly can’t fix it all. So, I’m asking you to let go of all that so we can still be friends’. That kind of apology, inherent in the word ‘slihot’, which is both apologies and forgiveness, that king of apology is more of a connection. We try to reconnect, going around the broken bits, knowing that the work of cleaning them up and repairing them may still be there, but it can at least stop holding us back.

That’s something I can accomplish through song, much better than through mere words. By sharing those difficult, sad, happy, beautiful, silly, sweet and holy feelings, I do reconnect. I acknowledge that my fellow singers are just as bad at this ‘living a proper life’ thing as I am, and I keep from letting that hold me back. Through songs, I rebuild the bridges I need to manage next year, both with other people and with God.

Now, today’s word is ‘hope’. How am I going to tie that in? I guess I will express hope that I sing often. To me songs are full of hope, of love and connections, even the sad, despairing ones. I sing because I hope, and singing inspires me to hope more.

Elul 12

Elul 12

Forgive

Oh, I just have to write on the Avinu for this one. Avinu, Malkeynu, Haneynu VaAneynu ki eyn banu ma-asim. I know, it’s not exactly forgive, but it’s close enough and those who read my blog will probably forgive the stretch.

Avinu – our father – but not in a sexist, specific to the male gender kind of way – our parent, our mother, our source; we are praying to someone who takes care of us. When I ask God for forgiveness, I am vulnerable. I admit I messed up and didn’t live up to my expectations of myself. I admit I caused pain. It’s embarrassing. I hate that state of vulnerability so much that I am still, after near half a century of practice, still working on the art of apologizing. So, here, in a haunting melody, after asking God to understand that I am far from perfect and listing a litany of things I’ve done wrong, I accept that place of vulnerability, and I hope to be taken care of.

Malkeynu – our king; our ruler – I like the fact that apologies don’t take away the rules. They exist. People’s boundaries are real and when we break them, that’s something else to acknowledge. So, when I apologise, I’m acknowledging that what I did was wrong. Not just that someone misunderstood me, not just that I acted ok but they’re oversensitive, not just that there was an accident that somehow involved my body, but that I broke a rule, that they, as rulers over a space that includes themselves, had the right to make. When I say Malkeynu, I acknowledge how many times I tried to violate the basic rules that the universe operates on, and appeal for forgiveness to the One who makes these rules.

(Having kids truly showed me how often I cause those unavoidable accidents – if I was an artist, there would be two pictures, here. Picture one would have a kid balancing on a chair, which was standing on a pile of books, with a toy in her hand, trying to reach a high cookie jar on a shelf. Picture two would have the jar in pieces on the ground, with the caption, “it was an accident…”)

Avinu, Malkeynu – Our father, our king – this prayer reminds me that I’m not unique as far as mistakes go, and as far as needing forgiveness goes. We cry together in a definite acknowledgement that the prayer applies to all of us, because we are all imperfect. There is a comfort and strength to this, just as there is in the realization that by saying “our”, we build connection and relationship, both with each other and with God – God is ours. It’s OK to ask God for forgiveness. This is not the ‘our’ of ownership – this is the ‘our’ of love.

Haneynu – Have mercy upon us. Forgiveness is a gift. It’s not something anyone “should” do, or “must” do or anything but a place where I ask someone I’ve hurt to go beyond what’s right. What’s right is that there is this ick between us. I hurt them, they need to avoid me in this area. It’s ugly and ick. I can’t demand they change that – they run the risk of being hurt again. I can ask for forgiveness, however, and hope they choose to gift it to me, accepting that a “no” is just as possible as a “yes”. That’s part of the vulnerability, and an important part because without that gift, no repair is possible. What I say when I pray Haneynu, is that I know that God is good to appeal to for mercy. I hope to be granted the gift of forgiveness, not because I deserve it, but because God does that.

Va-aneynu – Answer us; reply; connect. Re-establish the relationship that I’ve ruined with my clumsiness or my selfishness, my uncaring or dishonesty, through fear or through anger.  This is an acknowledgement that apologising and forgiveness strive to repair a broken connection. So, part of my apology is an unspoken request for acceptance and reconnection. Also, this word prays for understanding. Don’t answer the people who we should be – we’re not them. Don’t answer in prayer the people you imagined us to be or hoped us to be or thought we were – not them either. Don’t answer the face we show the public – it’s fake. When I say “sorry”, I’m also asking for understanding. “I am this broken, imperfect person – I hope you can answer me, not someone else.”

Ki – because; since – we name our fault. An essential part of an apology is to name the fault. A generic “I’m sorry”, popular among folks at this time of year is too general to fix what’s broken. It’s like seeing a torn up picture and pouring a bunch of glue on top. You might fix the picture, but more likely, you’ll make a sticky mess. You need to see where the rip is to have a chance of fixing it well.

Ain banu ma-asim – we have no deeds; there are no deeds within us; we are deed-less. We apologise for having done nothing right. It’s that horrifying moment when I realize that all my best intentions mostly paved the road to hell, and that I actually have done nothing that doesn’t need some apology. I tried to be loving? Was I actually more pushy and annoying than anything else? I tried to be strict, but was I actually simply mean? How often did the limits that I have as a person result in me hurting? How often was that on purpose, as I reacted out of less than sterling intentions? Far, far too often. I realize how little I have to be proud of, and how much to be sorry for. I accept the vulnerability of an apology.

The Avinu Malkeynu always makes me cry. Standing spiritually naked and shivering, before someone who has every right to be angry and no reason to forgive, having stripped myself of all pretence and self-justification, I say sorry, and wait to see if I am forgiven.

Tishrei 1

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.

Elul 12

I’m a very forgiving person, or at least that’s how I see myself. I love forgiving others – it makes me feel all magnanimous and mature. I usually let things go after only a very minor, a token bit of an apology or even none at all.

Except when I don’t. And now and then, something hurts me a lot, and it leaves me feeling vulnerable and a bit broken and then – then forgiveness is a bit more difficult. In fact, basically, I don’t.

For me, it’s around trust. I have a number of attributes that could put me on the autism spectrum, and one of the biggest is that when I communicate, I don’t do a lot of interpreting of body language, or context for meanings and shades of meaning. Even when I think I’ve done an amazing job of telling two feelings apart although the words said were the same, and share this astonishing discovery, I find people looking at me with this expression which says, “yes, pink and green are different, aren’t you brilliant?” As for feelings that are as close together as violet and magenta, there’s no way at all.

People should know that by now. People shouldn’t trick me by saying one thing and meaning another. People shouldn’t lie to me. I am cautious these days, and have safeties up, and places where I don’t trust. Sometimes, however, those places are entered by someone to whom I offer closeness. Then, they lie about something emotional. When they do, especially when I’ve put all of me – my heart and soul – into a relationship, and then I discover that I’ve been thinking pink whereas actually they’ve been saying green all along – well, my heart breaks. It doesn’t matter if the person is a parent or a child, a beloved or a friend – it’s just, it’s just – it’s insuperable, that’s what it is. I can’t take it, I can’t fathom it and I feel like joining the autistic people in my life, and screaming, “liars! You are all liars and should go to the fields of punishment immediately!” as one child I know has been wont to do.

Forgiving that – that blatant disregard for my difficulty, that placement of a stumbling block before the blind – that is brutally hard for me. Oh, I know. It’s a misunderstanding, for gosh sakes! It’s barely worth mentioning. No one died, or even got seriously hurt. It’s an attitude problem having to do mostly with MY attitude. But yet – it hurts, and I can’t forgive it, and the pain keeps coming back again and again. Oh, it’s not that I actually want anything bad to happen to that person – in fact, I pray daily for good things to anyone I’m feeling this way – all hot and bothered and  resentful – towards. I mean, yes, the thought of “I hope someone makes you question the world and yourself and feel as hurt and sad and broken as you’ve made me.” comes into my head. I am not, however, a little kid, and do have the skill to tell myself what’s wrong with this approach.

So, I pray about it. I try to think of the people involved in positive circumstances and remember things they did for me or things we did together that were worthwhile. I remind myself that the misunderstanding is from my side as much as theirs, and I write and say and think words of forgiveness. Yet, in my heart is that knot, so difficult to untangle. This Elul, I own it. I say clearly, “I do not always forgive easily.” I accept that dark part of me. Right now, that’s where I am. With God’s help, may this month move me to a place where I can forgive the unintentional (and maybe, while protecting myself, even the intended) betrayals in my life.

Tishrey 1

You know what? Writing 29 essays for Elul is something. I start thinking I’m pretty hot stuff, actually. Then, I go to Shul. It’s Rosh HaShanah – and we’re singing Avinu Malkeynu,(our Father, our King) and I’m saying `ki eyn banu ma-asim’, ‘for we have no deeds’ and again, it hits me that I have no real deeds to bring from this year. The things  I did are so minor – so small. It’s not the realization of sin that hits me – I’ve been working with sin all month and I know how much I did that I could do better on (tons). No, at Shul, on Rosh HaShanah, it’s the smallness – the flower withering in the grass, the dust speck blowing in the wind – those contents of the other pocket  that got me. (You know the Jewish saying involved: Carry two truths in your pockets, “the world is created for me” and “I am but dust and ashes”.)

I work very hard to know as much as I can. I study and practice, I explore and think, I debate and analyse. It’s hard to realize that actually – all my knowledge is that thimbleful compared to the ocean out there. On Rosh HaShanah, that awareness was brought to me, not in a philosophical or intellectual way, but viscerally, immediately, overwhelmingly. I felt the emptiness of my hands as I reached out to God – a whole year of work, and what do I have to show for it? Nothing really. A certificate, some bruises, a few misunderstood words in a foreign language. I can see how much more there was to learn, to do.

There were so many opportunities I missed this year. There were times I surely could have worked a little harder, planned a little better, loved a bit more, focused on God rather than just on me. There were so many times when I could look back and say, “oh, if only I had taken care of that.”

My deeds are not enough to offer. That truth becomes so apparent, so obvious that I can’t hide behind my delusional belief in my own abilities. My abilities were never mine anyways, but gifts from God, so the achievements I have made are only partially mine to claim. So, on Rosh HaShanah, I offer empty hands. I offer broken-ness, and crying, and confusion and lack of answers. I offer what little I did – the certificate of training, the experiences, the mumbled words – even while knowing that it is not, that it cannot be sufficient.

I offer my smallness. “Here I stand, God,” I say, “and my hands are empty before You, and I have nothing better to offer than these empty, open hands.” It is my Avinu Malkeynu prayer. I am always amazed by the fact that despite my smallness, despite hands which remain empty no matter how hard I try to fill them, God continues to put up with me. Year after year, I keep feeling that closeness, that certainty that I am loved. Year after year, God accepts what little I did. Year after year, God takes my empty hands and heart and mind – and God fills them with light.

Elul 2

So, during the High Holidays we say the equivalent of ‘may no one be punished by You, God, because of something done to hurt me.’ That’s sort of kind of vaguely forgiveness of a sort. I was thinking about forgiveness – it seemed like an appropriate topic. Different rabbis talk about different levels of forgiveness, mekhila – letting go of any obligation between people, selikha – pardon, truly accepting the other person again despite mistake, kapara – granting atonement, reaching a level where the connection and relationship are fully restored. There are different words used and different ways of explaining forgiveness – release, exoneration, acceptance, forbearance, reconsiliation – and I found it all useful as a way of helping me through anger this year.

I have a fantasy of full forgiveness. The true apology, the reconciliation, that moment when I understand and am understood, when the fight was actually worthwhile and we end up closer than ever. It’s happened. I treasure the moments when it has – but it’s rare. There are few people who will stay through the pain and misunderstanding to reach that level, who will fight, even when it is irrationally emotional, to ensure that they are heard just because the relationship they are fighting about matters and must be maintained. Most people will back away, will take the space they need, will accept the preoccupation with the everyday and will never get to full forgiveness. Oh, but it’s beautiful on those rare occasions when someone is willing to go the distance, to truly understand and accept – to know the other. This is the forgiveness that says ‘I am glad you exist, and gladder than ever, and the hurt I suffered was worth the closeness I gained.’ It translates that Yom Kippur line into ‘don’t punish the one I love – I’m not angry any more and it’s better than it was.’ That kind of fighting, and the forgiveness that the apologies can then lead to; that is the key to trust and to love. I wish it could always be that way.

But it can’t. There’s children to take care of after all, and dishes to do and work to go to and besides, there’s the need for safety and protecting one’s pride and maintaining one’s boundaries…If one opens one’s heart with a true apology and it isn’t heard, why would one ever do so again with that person? So, the apologies become more guarded and more safe. “I’m sorry if anything I said there was hurtful – there was no intention…” There is forgiveness here too. It’s not that the relationship is back and stronger than ever. It’s just that we find a way to go on. Like the oyster, we wrap the problem in layers and layers of protective stuff so that it stops irritating us. We connect – but there’s an area where we ‘agree to disagree’. There’s space there and a break in our connection that wasn’t there before. I might choose to not mention that topic with a person whom I have this kind of forgiveness with. I might watch for signs that things are getting stressful and back away from confrontation. This kind of forgiveness says ‘Let’s have a good time together because there are many things we do well and I am glad to be with you – but let’s avoid this area because it’s a sensitive topic.’ The Yom Kippur line becomes ‘Don’t punish this person on my account even though I was hurt because I care about her and we’ve found a way to live with this hurtful situation or to avoid it’.

And what if there’s no apology? How can there be forgiveness then? It’s still important to let the anger go because anger and resentments are unhealthy – but oh, it’s not easy! The best I can do in those cases is just work on not thinking about it, not dwelling on the problem. Yes, I’m furious. But I don’t have to live there. I can accept that the person I’m fighting with is a person with his own problems, and that there’s nothing I can do about that. I don’t have to forgive him. I just have to be able to live in the same world, and to function without trying to think of ways to get back at him. The Yom Kippur line changes again and now it’s, ‘while emotionally, I might like a ton of bricks to fall on that schmuck’s head, nevertheless, she’s a person, and people don’t deserve bad things, so may God not punish her but instead bless her and keep her…far away from me.’ This is an internal letting go, for my piece of mind. It does nothing for the relationship except allow it function on a very superficial not-trying-to-kill-each-other level. Sometimes, this has to be done. It is never the best option.

I have used all 3 types of forgiveness (and coincidentally received all 3 – I put my foot in it more than most and I still have trouble getting out an ‘I’m so-o-er-um-o-um-orry’.) They’re all useful and necessary. I will not hide from that. However, I will say that I always hope for that first kind, actual reconciliation and growth. It’s rare, it’s hard to get to, it’s often loud along the way, but it is worth everything one puts into it.