I always liked the end of Yom Kippur. And no, it wasn’t because the fast was over.
I’m referring to the very end of Neilah, the apex of the service, of the fast day, and of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva — the Ten Days of Repentance — as a whole. The ark is open for the entirety of this final service, signifying that the gates of heaven are wide open to our prayers. Together, we recite the first line of the Shema. Then, three times, and uncharacteristically out loud, we recite “Baruch Shem…”
And then, finally, the culmination of the past 25 hours, my favorite part, we boldly declare, seven times, that our God is the only God.
The shofar sounds, we sing of next year in Jerusalem, and we all can breathe a sigh of relief for having survived the day. Even when I’m at home during Neilah, I can imagine the members of my shul, and of synagogues all across the world, reciting these final words together. I have always found this to be extremely powerful.
And yet I didn’t know the true power of this service — the Closing of the Gates — until last Yom Kippur. As we awaited my husband’s impending heart surgery, I found out, actually, that I was pregnant. Erev Yom Kippur, I made sure to say the kapara for a pregnant woman — at that point I was at the 6-week mark, though I had known about it for only two of those weeks. At that point, it was a seed of an idea I was just starting to get used to.
As Yom Kippur day neared its end, I walked to shul for Neilah, anticipating another meaningful experience. Another year, another Yom Kippur, another Neilah gone by.
I went to use the restroom first, and that’s when my breath caught. No, no, I reasoned, as I entered the sanctuary. It could just be some spotting. It happens all the time. I’m sure it’s fine. But as the Neilah service went on — my mind along with it — I began fearing for the worst. I started to reason with God, trying to think of something that might persuade Him — as if He would need persuading from the likes of me. And then reason turned to begging, as I recall saying or thinking or whatever it is that I was doing: “Please, please, God. He could be the next Kohain Gadol.”
Let me pause for a moment. Now, some might describe my approach to religion as modern, or philosophical, or spiritual, even — but messianic? But when a person is desperate, it seems all bets are off. Thought defies logic.
I started to think of my husband, who was standing across the mechitza, and then realized that maybe I hadn’t prayed enough for him this Yom Kippur. He was about to have major surgery! And, as I began to reason, he was a person — a fully formed human being, not a seed of an idea taking form. So then, I pleaded to God, well, if it has to be him or this life growing inside me, of course I would choose him! As if, at that moment, I even had to choose. Him or it. As if this was a test and I had to say the right answer.
Him or it. Was it really an “it,” though? This is something I still ponder. What constitutes life? I’d imagine anyone who has had a miscarriage would have her own take on this question. Is there a point in a pregnancy where grief over the loss of the creation inside is justified or not justified? Is it, perhaps, justified no matter what? Had it been further along in the pregnancy, had I not gotten pregnant again right away, had my husband’s surgery, God forbid, not have been successful — would I even be sharing this now?
And why am I sharing this at all? For a few reasons, none of which relate back to catharsis.
For starters, miscarriage is common, occurring in 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies. To my surprise, I discovered that the first four of five friends with whom I spoke in the weeks following Yom Kippur also had experienced miscarriage, some multiple times, some further along than others. As most of my friends often are very open, I was surprised that this was the first time I had heard of their experiences.
I think it’s important, as painful as it may be for some, to share these types of experiences, at least with friends. This past August, I attended the Fourth Annual Communitywide Yoetzet Event at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. The event was titled “Jewish Women’s Journey through Life: Am I the Only One…?” Each of the speakers took a matter-of-fact, sensitive, and even comical approach when addressing a crowd of hundreds of women about common occurrences in a woman’s life cycle that she may not realize affect others as often as they affect her.
Though miscarriage wasn’t really discussed, I was struck by the simplicity and truthfulness of the underlying theme. That is, when we think, “Am I the only one…?” it is isolating and takes away our sense of confidence. However, as Teaneck Yoetzet Shoshana Samuels relayed, when we think, “I’m not the only one…” the way that we look at these life events begins to change.
The two main points that I came away with were that, one, we are all in this together, and two, we need to learn better. We need better education and to communicate better. (This is true of a whole slew of other topics, as well.) And, through being in it together and proper education, we can build our confidence over time and gain strength.
That’s why — another reason I’m sharing this — it’s important to have support networks. In addition to speaking with friends, I think support groups and resources, like those provided by Nechama Comfort, can prove invaluable. This nonprofit organization, run by Reva Judas of Teaneck, is dedicated to helping family members who have experienced infant or pregnancy loss; it offers counseling, resources, support groups, and community education.
Lastly, the whole experience made me think a little more about life, and of death, and of how that might be weighed up in heaven. Of course, there’s no real way to know. But when I recently took a closer look at Unetaneh Tokef — my favorite part of the Rosh Hashanah service — I noticed something that I had until then missed. I always used to be struck by the line, “Who will live and who will die.” I never fully noticed something about the line before that, the precursor to the rest of the paragraph.
It says, “On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed, how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created.” The way I choose to read it is that when it talks here of life and death in one breath, it’s not talking about a person who will live or die, as is mentioned in the sentence that follows. It is referring to the lives that will leave this world and the lives that will be created into this world. It may not be a form of solace to anyone else, or to someone who was further along in pregnancy when she miscarried, but to me, this line offers a small level of comfort if I extend it to mean that a miscarriage in the womb is not so much death, as it is the absence of creation. Again, I won’t claim this is helpful for others, but it’s an idea that, for me, is worth holding onto.
As we approach this Yom Kippur, I don’t know how I’m going to feel during Neilah. Relief, I would imagine, that it will most likely lack the intensity of last year. But perhaps there might be something else there, as well — an appreciation for the meaning of the moment that I had never felt before. Not just the energy that accompanies the recitation of the final words, but the understanding of those words — that despite all that has happened, there is still something or some One to believe in. And the final shofar blast, just as the gates have closed, will serve as a reminder that hope exists in the year to come.