Today is the last day of the Jewish year, a holiday which yes, is for joy and togetherness, but also a time for reflection. Perhaps this is the real reason behind doing Tashlich at a body of water; we can stand there and literally reflect upon ourselves, the year past, and the year ahead. I just listened to a beautiful shiur [in Hebrew! Yay me 🙂 ] by Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein about viduy/selichot — confession. This was not the whole shiur, but in essence, he was saying that our confession for this time should not just focus on our sins this past year, beating ourselves up and feeling bad, but we also need to think about what we did right. Because yes, in a year full of challenges, we are going to make some mistakes, but we are also going to (hopefully) make some meaningful, positive steps forward. This positive outlook is one I am working on, and sometimes that in itself is a challenge.
When looking back, I also am reminded of a story of a poor Jewish innkeeper. (If you know where this is from, please tell me.) A rabbi stayed with him around the High Holidays, and was shocked to see the following ritual. The innkeeper pulled out two books. In one, he told the rabbi, he recorded all of his sins from the year. In the other, he recorded all the bad things that had happened to him in the past year (in other words, what God had ‘done’ to him.) He looked them over, he looked up and said, “Nu, neither of us did such a great job. Let’s both try harder this year!” Well, it is not up to us to hold God to a measuring stick. But of course when we look back, some of the glaring terrible events or personal difficulties of the year past stand out in our minds, and we may be inclined to say nu, both of “us” were wrong. Sometimes it is even hard for us to bless Hashem with the bracha ‘Shehakol,’ to say “May everything be as He says.” But if we stood in shul last year and were able to see that these things would happen, both the good and the bad (in our eyes), would we have given up the year? If people knew what they were going to suffer this past year, would they have already given up last fall? Yes, some people have suffered so much they can’t go on, but if we are not in their place, it is not ours to judge, but to give compassion and comfort as best we can. And then we pick up the pieces and continue to love, to reach out, and to live, even if it is hard for us too.
Last week, we were rewatching Evan Almighty, and the same scene struck me as powerful as it was when I saw it before. Premise of the movie: God talks to a new congressman and tells him to build an Ark. He does, in modern times, but it still gives us a taste of what Noah went through with his peers. In the movie, Evan’s wife seems to be religious and prays to God that her family could be closer. Later, when Evan starts building the Ark and things look difficult, she takes the children and leaves, ostensibly to protect them. On the road, they stop at a diner and, although she doesn’t realize it, God is her waiter. She starts talking to him (when asked) about things being difficult. He tells her that when a person asks God for something, like patience, God doesn’t zap them with patience, but gives them the opportunity to be patient. And when someone asks for their family to be closer, He doesn’t make them closer, but gives them the opportunity to help each other and become closer. This, of course, was her own prayer, and when she hears these words, she goes home to be with her husband despite his seeming insanity. This speaks to my heart, because when I hear it again, or think of it, it’s like that ‘oh’ moment; no, God hasn’t spoken to me in a diner, but I get that feeling that He is speaking to me all the time, if only I could hear it. Rabbi Frand (L’havdil) wrote a book I love, called Listen to Your Messages. He says that we are hearing from God all the time, and all we need to do is listen. Would we (I) prefer that God just zap us with patience, kindness, understanding or strength? Of course, because that’s the easy thing. But God is not a genie, to grant us our wishes. He gives us tools, and it is up to us to use them to make life better.
I think a lot of life is about perspective, about opening our eyes. I feel like this is preachy and that’s not what I’m trying to do, so let me explain. I don’t roll out of bed smiling to greet the day (most of the time). I say, ugh, gotta get up, get ready [thank God my kids get themselves ready! I suspect God knows how many challenges I can take 🙂 ], go to work. I have more work this year than I have had in a while, and the prospect is a little overwhelming, but I am adjusting. More than that, I am remembering how last Rosh Hashanah and all year, I was praying for more parnassah. Well, God didn’t zap me with it—He gave me more opportunity to earn it. So do I smile gratefully and get to work? Well, if I want to make that choice, I can. And it is a choice I try to make all the time, because it makes all the difference in whether I slump into bed exhausted and cranky or with a smile on my face. Heavy shopping cart? Thank God I could buy all this food! Thank God we have guests coming for chag! Lots to clean? Thank God I have a home to clean and nice things to dust!
Other opportunities I try to take advantage of: my kids are home? Don’t just ask them to do things, talk to them—about their day, their thoughts, anything. Among missed opportunities I think of are that I didn’t ask my parents enough about times I don’t remember in our family, in their own lives. Blessed to have your parents? Talk to them, be with them, love them.
We all struggle, every day. Recently Lara ( a wonderful person who I feel blessed to know) sent a picture that says that we have no idea the battles others are facing, so be kind. Remember that you are also fighting a battle, and try to be kind to yourself too. Yesterday I heard a shiur which pointed out that during this whole time period there are different minhagim (customs) about when to say selichot (prayers for forgiveness, confessing our sins), but that no one, not Ashkenazim or Sfaradim, is saying selichot on Rosh Hashanah. The Rav also said that Rosh Hashanah is a day for blessings, on which we make Hashem our King and ask for a good upcoming year. It is only by Yom Kippur, 10 days later, that we spend all day fasting and praying for forgiveness for all the sins we did last year. It seems to be backward. Shouldn’t we start by asking for forgiveness for last year, and then move on to asking for blessing for this year? I think it is to show us that thinking about blessings and being positive comes first. That only after we understand that God is our King, that He is the one who will help us to write ourselves in the Book for Good, that we can then allow ourselves to be judged, because we also can stand and judge ourselves less harshly after we know that God is the one who gives blessings, and sometimes seeing the blessing depends on how we look at it. If we reverse our perspective, if we look at something in another way, it changes everything. There is a poem going around which is not mine so I won’t copy it here, but it seems to say, when read from top to bottom, that everything is terrible, and that it’s all beyond our control so it doesn’t matter what we think, everything will be bad regardless. When you finish, upset, there is a note that says read it from bottom to top. Then suddenly, like a light in a dark room, you see that if you read the lines in the opposite direction, it says that our attitude is what creates reality, and that “when you take a closer look, there is something good in every day”. Yes, there are things in the world that seem terrible. We don’t know why they happen, and we don’t have the power to stop them. But we can give help where we are able, and we can change at least part of our own reality by working on seeing the positive, by feeling the blessings. Too much laundry? Thank God for my family. Too much cooking? Thank God for my friends, and for giving us the food for our table (and a wonderful husband who loves to cook-no, you can’t have him!). These thoughts will make all the difference in our day, our week, our year.
May we all have a year filled with blessings both seen and unseen, and wisely use every opportunity offered to us, “Shehakol Nihiyeh B’dvaro. I leave you with a great song for now and the year ahead. Shana Tova u’metuka!