Eleven years ago, I ushered in what was to be the most difficult Rosh Hashanah of my life. After getting accustomed to a sense of awe around the high holidays and feeling naturally drawn to put my strength into prayer and spirituality, I was dismayed to discover that that year, I felt nothing.
No awe. No energy for prayer. No interest in the machzor that I took in my hands, which in years prior had seemed a gateway to an almost ecstatic experience of pleasure, aliveness, and truth.
Even as a child, I remembered feeling a greater sense of awe than I felt then, not to begin to compare with how I had felt while studying in Jerusalem for two years, devoting all of my energy to Torah study, good deeds, and prayer. Yet somehow, the three years that had lapsed since I had left my studies in Jerusalem seemed to have drained every drop of spirituality from my being. I was, it seemed, dead. My heart turned to stone, in the prophet’s words.
Was I surprised by the change? Not entirely. In the year prior, I had embarked on a very diligent effort to straighten out my mind—examining and questioning previously held beliefs, no longer taking my innate spirituality for granted, but scrutinizing and often doubting it. The previous Rosh Hashanah, I had almost mocked the day in my heart. I had resented what seemed like an unnecessary degree of seriousness and guilt attached to the high holidays, and so had kept myself apart, praying quickly and unemotionally, and refusing to feel any fear.
But even by Yom Kippur of that year, I relented somewhat, regretting my attitude and wishing I had made more of an effort to connect to God. Unfortunately, I found the road back more difficult than I expected.
By the following year, I had relented even further. I realized that authenticity is not just in one’s mind, but in one’s heart. And I had been inauthentic to myself—to my soul—by doubting what had been so central to my being for so long. But now it seemed that I had closed the door on spirituality, and I did not know how to invite it back. What was I to do?
The day was agonizing. I stared at the words on the page of my machzor, mouthing them meaninglessly, aware of how much they could mean and yet unable to access any of that depth. To continue to pray was torture. It was like staring at a picture of a lover one has spurned and now wishes to get back but cannot.
But the many teachings that had pervaded my life as a Jewish woman until then surfaced. And you will seek Hashem your God from there and you will find Him, if you seek with all your heart and all your soul (Deut. 4:29) It is possible to climb out of this hole. To give up would not be right. But what could I do?
Prayer to me has always meant several things. In part, it is a way to express what is in our hearts. It strengthens us—connects us to ourselves by reminding us of who we are and what we want. It focuses our intentions on what truly matters. It grounds us into whatever spiritual level we are in.
But it is also something else. It is a means of changing what is inside us. We use prayer not just to express and ground ourselves in what we currently know and feel, but to reach for higher feeling, to tap into unknown levels of consciousness by striving for something we can glimpse, but do not know.
To express what I felt in the present that year was pointless. Remember us for life, I found myself mumbling, even though I don’t really care for spiritual life. I didn’t want what the prayers dictated that I should want. So what was the point of saying them?
Somewhere, there, in this torturous state, I realized that I had to search for something that I could want. Some glimmer of feeling, which I might not feel, but which I could, in honesty, make myself feel. I searched and searched, picking up prayers, as it were, in my mind, and discarding each of them because no, that would not be true. At last, I exerted an effort to find the faintest spark of real feeling in myself. I don’t want spiritual life, I thought, but just a little bit, a tiny bit, I want to want it.
It was one of most draining experiences of my life. And by the end of the day, I knew that this tiny spark was to be my only true prayer that year. Everything else was empty, mumbled, meaningless. But in that small corner of my consciousness, I had found a poor offering to make to God. And I had offered it.
It is strange to think now that though that Rosh Hashanah was one of the most spiritually devoid high holidays of my life, it was also one of the most spiritually important ones. Because indeed, since then, I have found that a spark can be cultivated, fanned, and fed into a flame that burns if not as strongly as before—still, deep and strong.
Several years later, I sat with our rabbi of blessed memory, Rav Dovid Gindi, and he shared with me a Torah thought. The midrash on Shir Hashirim states, “Open up for me an opening like the eye of a needle and in turn I will enlarge it to be an opening through which wagons can enter.” (5:2)
Many people think this means that a small effort can ultimately lead to something great. But Rav Gindi explained the real point of the midrash. “Open for me like the eye of a needle,” he said, “means that you have to pierce through. You have to open up your heart—really connect—even if only in a very small way. If it pierces through, then He will help you open it wider and wider.”
This Rosh Hashanah, some of us will be standing in shul eagerly awaiting the chance to commune with our Creator. Others may be feeling a sense of numbness or confusion. We may not be interested at all. Wherever we are this year, we can all remember that the high holidays are days when we have the opportunity to pierce through. The point of the prayers in not to show fervor on our faces, or to shuckle with the greatest intensity. The point is to stand from where we are and strive to pierce through. To reach into our hearts and our souls—even if only in a very small way—to wake ourselves up to a level of spiritual reality that we are otherwise missing.
Wishing everyone a ketiva v’chatima tova. A year written and sealed for good.