Once upon a time, in what feels like a galaxy far far away, Rosh Hashana was all about the spirit.
Back then, I was that starry-eyed girl in shul, whose face was aglow with an inner revelation.
Now I’m the crumbs-covered, bags-carrying woman who squeezes her way around such girls, muttering “excuse me” and “sorry,” as she dashes after her kids.
Back then, “preparing for Rosh Hashana” meant carefully going over the prayers in advance, and coming up with insights and questions to think about in shul. Today, “preparing for Rosh Hashana” means packing snack bags, and toy bags, and whatever-it-is-that-will-occupy-the-kids bags, and hoping that the bag strategy will keep them busy for, say, five minutes? Ten? Dare I hope for fifteen?
Back then, I closed my eyes in shul and swayed to the rhythm of my inner experience. These days, I must keep my eyes open at all times, because two year olds can run FAST. And did you ever try to locate a disappearing toddler in a room full of people? So, yeah.
Back then, I focused on God as I prayed. These days, I keep putting Him on hold, as I shush and sooth and intervene (now, now, sweetheart, let’s play nice) and deal with emergency diaper situations.
Back then, my biggest challenge was finding meaning in the same old prayers. That was the essence of my efforts, the measure of my success, the secret of my relief once I experienced inspiration.
Today, the question makes me laugh, because the earnest girl I used to be didn’t understand the significance of her quest. She expected life to be an adventure and perceived repetitions as exceptions to the rule. A thousand diaper changes, meal-times and bed-times later, I know that routine is the rule, and seeking meaning in the repetitive is the project of life, not of the High Holidays alone.
Sometimes, when I see girls sway in prayer on Rosh Hashana, I miss the old days. I recognize the light in their eyes all too well. I can tell that they occupy some eternal holy space within themselves, and that their spirit is soaring far and away. As I make my way around them in pursuit of my kids, I can’t help but feel wistful. I can’t help but crave heights.
But then I recall all the other differences, the other ways in which my holidays are different now.
Back then, my religious experience and identity were completely individual. I followed my mind and my heart and didn’t care if my level of observance fit any given sociological group, if my opinions were consistent with any one hashkafa, if my deeply-held beliefs could ever fit in the same community as my style of head-covering.
My kids forced me to walk beyond this religious comfort zone. To raise my kids within Orthodoxy, I need a community. To educate them, I need to choose a school. And the bonds of society and doctrine, though still quite irritating at times, anchored me into my nation in ways that my purely individual path could never achieve.
My kids also taught me the value of religious practice. My Judaism was quite cerebral before them, a matter of reason and learning and inner experiences. But when your own body, and then your children’s bodies, demand so much of your time, matter begins to matter. At first, I felt frustrated. I am a mind! Why should I pay so much attention to bodily needs?
But with time, I learned that a touch, an act, can mean as much as a thought. And it means more, perhaps, to the people around me. One can’t teach kids to be anything by preaching. For the sake of their education, my faith must be there in my actions, ingrained into the details of mundane life.
And, perhaps most importantly, the mundane and repetitive in life no longer scares me. I can’t give it new meanings all the time. Sometimes, a diaper change is just a diaper change, just as a prayer is sometimes just a prayer. But at other times, meaning comes, a gift earned through routine. When my son hugs me and says “I love you,” when he finally overcomes a challenge we worked through for months, when he puts to practice the beliefs that we hold, life has meaning, and my world is aglow.
So when I stand in shul tomorrow, surrounded by parents and children and starry-eyed youths, I will feel the significance of the kahal, the community, in a way I couldn’t conceive of before I became a parent. I will join my prayers to the prayers of my community, and the joining will have a power of its own, a power that will go beyond my individual kavana…or its lack.
And as I chase my kids in our family-oriented shul, I will know that the very fact that we are there, doing something active, matters, even if I can’t close my eyes and think.
And when I pray, I won’t be anxious about finding meaning. I will take it all as it comes, ancient words and fresh diapers and precious children causing havoc all around. And I will trust that meaning will follow. It will grow out of it all, the fruit of repetition and devotion and sheer mess, and blossom in my heart.