Better Late Than Never

These past few weeks, I have felt like a mixing bowl, probably because my hands have often been in one. It has been erev Shabbat, erev chag, erev Shabbat, erev chag — rinse and repeat, over and over. In Israel, we don’t even have the two-day chag to worry about for this past week and two days from now, but still it sometimes feels like too much. Too much shopping, too much preparing, cooking, baking, cleaning — and I am so glad and blessed to have help with this, a husband who likes to cook and children who help with cleaning. There is still plenty to do to physically get ready for all these holidays, that sometimes we can lose sight of the underlying reason we start the Jewish New Year in this way, which is to spiritually reconnect, to take a breath and think about the year that has passed, and about the new one we have begun. For this reason, I try to make it to shiurim (classes) about each holiday, so that when my hands are busy in the mixing bowl, I can contemplate all those ideas taught by the many wonderful Torah teachers I was blessed to hear. As I put together ingredients and knead challah dough again, I think about all the various ingredients that were put into the mixing bowl of my brain, and try to process them so they can find their way to my heart.

It seems strange to go back to pre-Rosh Hashannah now that it’s almost Hoshanah Rabba, and the holiday season is almost over, but a story has to start somewhere and this is the story of my months of Elul/Tishrei. Truthfully, as long as we are here, it is an ongoing story, a circle, and it starts at Pesach, but I didn’t realize that until last Shabbos’ shiur with Dena Freundlich. We think of these holidays, the New Year, as the start of the year, and yes, it is the time period that the world, that people were created, but if we look closely we see that Rosh Hashanah, the time when the number of the year changes for the birthday of the world, is not truly the Jewish New Year — because it is the seventh month. The true Jewish New Year started back at Pesach (Passover), when we were taken out of Egypt to become a nation in the desert. Dena explained that not only was that the real start of the holiday season which is coming to a close, but that all those holidays, both major (Pesach, Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Succot) and minor (the 17th of Tammuz) are connected — they all began in that same year, that same time period of the Jews coming out of Egypt. We were taken out, we received the Torah, we sinned which made Moshe break the luchot (tablets with the Ten Commandments- on the 17th), we had to atone (Yom Kippur), and then we “made up” with G-d, so we were given the mitzvah of building the mishkan (traveling Resting Place in the desert for G-d, which is related to our building of the succah), and we did it, showing our eagerness to follow G-d’s commandments again, which restored our relationship with G-d.

In a shiur by Shoshanna Judelman about Yom Kippur, she talked about the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. When Hashem took us out, we appreciated it, and then we accepted the Torah. But all of this was more like a business contract than a true relationship. Hashem did something for us, we did what we were asked- there was no real feeling involved. Only when we broke the contract by making the Golden calf, when we turned away from Hashem, did a relationship start. Because then Hashem turned away from us as well, saying we were a stiff-necked people, and wondering how G-d’s presence could rest among such a nation. Moshe asked on our behalf for another chance, and we were given Yom Kippur- a Day of Atonement. Shoshana also talked about what true Repentance is- it is the chance to turn back, to strengthen the connection, to become closer than just having a business contract. All relationships have ups and downs, times of being closer and times of being further, but a relationship that makes room for mistakes, and allows forgiveness, that is one that lasts. When we did atone, that was when G-d said okay, I am willing to try again- and gave us the mitzvah of building the mishkan-another chance to show we wanted to follow Hashem’s commandments. And when we did this, we showed that we wanted to do what G-d asked, wanted to mend the relationship and become close again.

In a pre-Rosh Hashanah shiur by Rabbi Ari Kahn, he spoke about the time of Aseret Yimey Teshuvah- the Ten Days of Repentance which encompass Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He pointed out that the Day of Judgement is on Rosh Hashanah, and most of us have already been judged; only those whose deeds are in question Omdim v’talyuim- hang in the balance. This brings to mind a vivid picture of a convicted person standing on the hanging floor, noose around his neck, waiting for that final push. It is scary, but Rabbi Kahn also used sources to show that actually, most of us have likely already been judged for good, for life-we just had to have more good deeds than bad. So, if it is all over, why do any more mitzvot between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Last year is over, the New Year has started, and there is nothing more we can do, right? No. He talked about the different calendars, the lunar and the solar. He showed how they don’t always match up, which is why we have to add a month every few years so the spring holiday of Peach will actually stay in the spring. But he also showed how the amount of overlap between what was the old solar year and the new lunar year, works out to be- 10 days. (I hope I am explaining this correctly.) That the “old year” and the deeds we did, whether good or not so good, is not over when the numbers tick up, that we still have time to add to our balance of good deeds for last year, to tip the scales in our favor, to stop the hanging in wait for judgement. We still have time.

When we talked about what Rosh Hashanah means to us at my house, one family member said that sometimes, they find it hard to pray at Rosh Hashanah — to ask for a better year. Another person said that we are not really comparing, not asking for better. In some ways, we need to see that the old year is over, both for good and for bad. What we are asking for, really, is a good year—that this year be good, no matter what happened last year. We ask for life, we ask for time. When Rabbi Shlomo Katz spoke on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, he pointed out that in our prayer Shema Koleinu, where we ask for Hashem to hear our requests and fulfill them, at the end, we bless Hashem for fulfilling our requests. But this is a bit of chutzpah- like by our saying that blessing, we are saying that we know our prayers will be answered. And yet it is true, because we are here, and we have that time.

Aseret Yimei Teshuva, especially this year when the solar and lunar calendars lined up so closely to the one of eight years ago, reminds me of the September when I was told my father was dying. I had come back to Israel from being with him in the summer, and really did not expect to see him again. When I got the call only days before Rosh Hashanah, I went back. I am thankful I had my husband and in-laws here to take care of the children, to be with them. I went because I was worried that if he was niftar (died) when the holiday had started here, I would even miss the levaya (funeral). So I went (with my oldest, who asked to go), and was beyond surprised when I got there and he was up, and sitting at the table, saying hi to me! Just as he had overturned the expectations of doctors, living with lung cancer for 10 years (generally unheard of), he clearly confounded the hospice nurses too. From this, I got a gift — more time with him, a few more days- to start that New Year with him, until he did finally end up in bed, unconscious, two days after Rosh Hashanah. But still he stayed with us, the whole Ten days, only leaving (punctually, as a Yekke would), at noon on Erev Yom Kippur- too late for a funeral, so we were able to have it on Sunday, and able to have time to sit shiva (at least a few days). The whole Ten Days felt very intense. When the holiday started, I prayed. When he slipped into the coma, I prayed. At times I didn’t even know what I was praying for. Peace for him, closure for us? But we didn’t want him to go.

My father’s birthday is in September, he celebrated 74 years that month. I was not there for it, but my sister said that he had wished he could make it to 75. At some point in his last few years, we had found out his Hebrew birthday, which was the second day of Rosh Hashanah. We then figured out that his English birthday, the one we had celebrated all his life, was wrong. Because my father was a Holocuast survivor, so young when they left, he only knew what he was told later by his older sister. He could not even get his birth certificate because, like with other Jewish families who got away before, Poland said he had never existed. He was not even completely sure of his age when they escaped to Russia, where his father died in the harsh Siberian winter, worked to death. So maybe, maybe he did make it to 75.

When I go to say kaddish on my father’s yahrzeit, I think about the Aseret Yimey Teshuva very strongly, I remember that year. The kaddish during this week is different, has small changes, which makes it a bit difficult when you only say it twice a year. Often, when I have his yahrzeit, I think about a friend from my high school years, from NCSY, whose brother was tragically niftar in a terrible accident- he also died erev Yom Kippur, also with the funeral and shiva after. I remember the shiva, sitting and wondering how you comfort someone who lost a sibling, what you say. This year, this month, I also went to a shiva for someone who lost a sibling. The answer is, as most mourners will tell you, you don’t start the conversation. You follow the mourners’ lead. Just be with them, and listen if they want to talk.

I remember the Simchat Torah after Avi’s brother was niftar, there was an NCSY shabbaton. On this holiday, we make a small change in our tefillot — we add a line where we pray for rain. That year, I attached this change to Moty, remembered to say it so that his neshama would have an aliyah. I only told Avi years later, but even this many years later, I still think of him sometimes when I say it, still do that mitzvah in his name.

Another idea Rabbi Ari Kahn told us was about judgement on Rosh Hashanah. It says ALL souls are judged. How can it be that even people who have passed on are judged? They can’t change anything anymore, can’t do mitzvot or even bad deeds. But their name lives on. The effect people have had on this world, and if people continue to do things in their name, their place, their closeness to Hashem, can improve. At this time, we also had the one-year memorial for a great person, whose name continues to echo through the rolling hills of Judea, and throughout the world.

My father was niftar on the 7th of October, which was the 9th of Tishrei. This year my father’s yahrzeit actually fell on the evening of October 7th. Ari was killed on the 7th of Tishrei, just one year ago, and this year, that Hebrew date was on October 6th. Instead of a sad event though, there was something more than a memorial — there was a celebration, a continuation of the good deeds he started in his lifetime. He wanted, for so many years, to have a travelling food truck, something that would bring treats and other items to Israeli soldiers. He fundraised for a long time, but did not get to see this amazing plan, this beautiful mitzvah, come to fruition. But this past year, so many people wanted to donate in Ari’s name, that the truck became reality., the Ari Fuld Project, is the site which shows all the many projects he had in mind, many wonderful charities that people can donate to in order to help see his ideas fulfilled. The one that he wanted to see remember his amazing friend, Yehoshua Friedberg, who volunteered as a Lone Soldier at a time when people were leaving Israel, came true, and now their names and faces will be Standing Together on the truck that takes care of soldiers. This is a true and lasting memorial that will keep the good going for, I hope and pray, a long time.

Last thoughts. The other kaddish I say is in Elul — a “regular” kaddish. Four years after my father was niftar, my mother followed, succumbing to her first and only major illness. This year, even before understanding the time connection that threads through the First month when we celebrate our freedom with Pesach, to the last Torah holiday of Simchat Torah, I thought again about the connecting months of Elul and Tishrei. Some branches of Judaism start saying selichot, the prayers of apology and atonement, from the beginning of Elul, the month immediately before Rosh Hashanah. We also say Tehillim (Psalms) number 27, L’David HashemOri v’yishi — By David: Hashem is my light and my salvation. In that tehillim, there is a line that has hit me since my father passed, and even more since my mother was also taken at this time. The line is “You have been my Helper, abandon me not, forsake me not, O G-d of my salvation—though my mother and father have forsaken me, Hashem will gather me in.”

Sometimes I wonder if both yahrzeits fall in these months particularly so I will have to be in shul at this time, to think about these things. Kaddish is not a prayer about the dead, about those who are gone. It is, instead, a praise to Hashem. Why is this what mourners say? Maybe it is to help us remember that, at our lowest times, when we feel abandoned and lost, Hashem is still there- we are not alone.

Selichot is said from Elul (or the motzaei shabbat before Rosh Hashanah) through Yom Kippur. For the last two years, I have been wanting to go with a friend to a musical selichot that takes place at Migdal Oz- I finally managed to go this year, on erev Yom Kippur. It was beautiful and uplifting, and an amazing way to go into the holiest day of Yom Kippur. The tehillim of L’david, though, we continue to say. Even though we say that we are Judged on Rosh Hashanah- no, there is still time, we have until Yom Kippur. Even though we say, as Shoshana taught, that at Neilla, the end of Yom Kippur, the gates are Manul-locked. The gates of Hashem’s palace are closed, we blow the shofar to signify the ending of Yom Kippur, the official locking of the gates, and we have to decide- this year, do we want to be “locked” into the Palace, closer to Hashem, or locked out, as the closeness that is available at this time of year fades? But. No- we are then taught that the tefilla of Tashlich, usually said on Rosh Hashana, can still be said- not until the end of Yom Kippur, or the begining of Succot, but all the way through Hoshanah Raba- the day before Simchat Torah. And tehillim 27-that, too, is said through Hoshanah Raba. It’s not over until it’s over, and we have not yet celebrated that ending which started with our freedom to choose to accept the Torah, continued with the celebration of getting the Torah, and ends when we finish the entire year’s cycle of reading the Torah every week- only to start again that same day of Simchat Torah. The holiday cycle started with the fear of slaves, and ends with a nation happily celebrating commandments which help us be better people.

On Rosh Hashana I was also thinking about a friend who is still with us- she is celebrating ten years of health after a serious fight with cancer. She is here, thanking G-d for the extra time with her family and friends, the extra time to do the good things she is doing.

Someone close to me told me a quote, that either all days are holy or none are. Even though the season of holidays- Holy days- is ending, I think that the answer is, while we have holidays, all days can be holy—if  we are able to look at them that way; it is in our hands.

We are still here- as Shoshana said- every minute we exhale a breath, this could be our final one. But every minute we are able to take another breath in, this is Hashem telling us, go on, you have another minute, another chance to do something good. Maybe we didn’t make it to every selichot-or any but the last one this year. Maybe we still haven’t said tashlich, throwing away our sins, trying by our own efforts to make this year a better one than the last. But if we are still here, it is not too late. If we have the gift of more time, as in my favorite quote from LOTR, all we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.

May the neshamot of all those who have inspired me, touched my life, and enabled me to do good deeds in their names continue to have an aliyah. May this be a holiday of true Simcha for everyone.

About the Author
Mori Sokal is a TWELVE year veteran of Aliyah, mother of three wonderful children (with her wonderful husband) and is an English teacher in both elementary and high school in the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem area. She has a Masters’ degree in teaching, and has published articles in Building Blocks, the Jewish Press magazine.
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