Note: all non-English or technical terms appear in glossary at bottom
I don’t leave my house all that often. My job is indoors at my desk, which gives me the excuse I need to avoid leaving the house. Being away from live people—as opposed to the virtual kind on Facebook or at my virtual office at Kars for Kids—makes it kind of hard to be near live people. You lose the knack.
But sometimes a recluse has no choice but to leave the house and interact with others. The Jewish High Holidays is one of those times. Every year I must be with people in shul because I have to hear the shofar and pray. And every year, God tests me at this time in all sorts of ways, both big and little.
One year, it was the hippie Chassid woman who jumped up and down and clapped repeatedly, crying in a loud, high-pitched breathless voice, “Abba, Abba (Father, Father)!” as she prayed RIGHT NEXT TO ME. That seriously made me grind my Litvishe teeth. I flinched with every clap.
This year there were, as in every year, numerous tests going on around me in the synagogue. There was the woman to the right of me who apparently has a slight case of trichotillomania going down, or some kind of tic. She would take a strand of hair out of her head covering and run her thumb and forefinger over the hair, pulling, pulling, pulling. On the third pull, she’d come to her senses and rest her hands in her lap—for three minutes. Then the hair-pulling would begin once more.
It made me crazy sitting next to her—made me want to jump out of my skin. First of all, one is not allowed to pull hair on Yontif. Second of all, ARRRRRRRRRRRRRGH!
I solved this problem by moving my chair up and to a slight angle, putting her out of my range of vision. Problem solved.
Tapping Her Prayerbook
Except that the woman behind me, every time the congregation sang, maniacally TAPPED THE HARD COVER OF HER PRAYERBOOK with her fingernail, frantic to keep pace with the singing.
OH. MY. GOD.
No solution for this one. Inserting ear plugs would prevent me from keeping up with the service. Nothing to do but tamp down my anger and frustration and try the best I could to concentrate on the prayers.
Which by now I know is the point. These are my yearly tests, yissurim shel ahava, designed to make me shut down my anger at my fellow human beings, to see them as fallible, JUST LIKE ME, and to learn to coexist. I know it, even as the tests are coming at me, which makes it that much easier to bear.
Test Of Love
I know these are tests of love that are there to help me improve myself and be the best I can be. And when I’m not in the moment, I’m grateful. Really I am. It could be (chalila) so much worse.
My family has come to know this about me: my yearly tests in shul. After services, they will invariably ask me, “So what was your test this time?”
On the second day of Rosh Hashana, my husband didn’t even have to ask me what it was, because he witnessed it. I was standing next to the mechitza, the barrier that separates the men and women during prayer, and he could see I was there. On the men’s side, RIGHT NEXT TO ME, with just the flimsy barrier between us was a man who clapped VERY loudly in time to the singing and not with a shinui as should arguably be done on yontif, at least according to the way I hold. He was trying to get the rest of the congregation to join in. It wasn’t working. My husband could see me FLINCH, FLINCH, FLINCH, with each clap.
The Other Test
But Dov (my husband) didn’t even know about the other test that was going on at the exact same moment. I purposely chose a place to sit with extra room in front of my chair. On Rosh Hashana there’s a point in the service where we bow down all the way to the ground, something we don’t normally do. And one needs a bit of space to do it properly. So I got to shul early just to earmark my space.
Three hours later, right at the point where everyone bows down, a woman comes and stands in front of me, in closer proximity to me than she would have been had she been sitting in the row of chairs just in front of me. She effectively cut my bowing space to less than it would have been anywhere else in the synagogue, and there was not a thing I could do about this without seeming churlish. Especially since we were DAVKA at the part of the chanting where we sing, “Kulanu k’echad b’or panecha (We are all as one in the light of Your countenance).”
Could it possibly be any clearer that I was being tested?
And I have to admit, I’m getting better at it every year. I hope that doesn’t mean that *gulp* the tests are going to get incrementally more difficult, as I master each level. How much worse could it get???
I don’t even want to think about it.
Shofar-ram’s horn, a Jewish wind instrument
Chassid-adherent of a school of Orthodox Judaism imbued with mystical and emotional overtones
Litvishe-Lithuanian, the polar opposite of being a Chassid in terms of orthopraxy
Tricotillomania-a compulsion to pull out (and sometimes eat) one’s hair
Yontif-Yiddish for the Hebrew “Yom Tov,” or “holiday”
Chalila-short hand for “Heaven forfend”
Yissurim shel ahava-Trials, tests, or punitive measures dispensed from Above out of love
Mechitza-separation barrier between men and women in an orthodox service
Rosh Hashana-the Jewish new year
Shinui-a different way of doing things to help demarcate a holy day as separate from other days
Davka-doesn’t translate well, the approximate meaning is “precisely,” “on purpose,” or “to spite”