As we go through the high holidays this year, many mothers of young children may be doubtful about what kind of experience they will have. Being tied to a baby or toddler, or even simply being on call for the needs of older children, usually means that long hours of focused prayer in shul is an impossibility.
I faced that impossibility last year as a nursing mother of a 6-month-old, already accustomed to surrendering myself to however the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might play out. Sometimes, it feels like the act of surrender is itself how we dedicate ourselves to God – by not insisting on a personally uplifting experience, but accepting the yoke of our children with humility and happiness.
And yet, I confess, I still really wanted to have some meaningful time in shul. But orchestrating such things (and yes, kids’ programs and babysitters can really help) still do not guarantee a period of focus in shul. Frankly, even when we do not enter the high holidays semi-shackled by young children, we face uncertainties that make any aspiration for an inspiring experience a question. Will I connect with the davening? Will the chazan go too fast or too slow? Will he sing the tunes I like? Will I feel uplifted as I have in previous years, or will it be difficult to connect? Wanting a meaningful experience, yet not being able to force one to occur, can be troubling. Is there anything we can do?
As we move through the period of selichos this year, I find myself recalling a beautiful moment from last year’s high holidays, which reminded me of a profound lesson.
Last year, seeking to imbibe at least some of the Elul energy despite the obligations of a young baby, I dragged myself out of bed on several mornings, following already interrupted nights, to say selichos while my kids were asleep. Every mother can, I assume, appreciate that though this was a relatively small act, it represented a sacrifice for me during that already sleep-troubled time. While stooped over the selichos text in exhaustion, I remember thinking – perhaps for making this effort, when I have more control in the situation, Hashem will give me a chance to daven properly on Yom Kippur, when so much will be out of my control.
Yom Kippur came. My husband took the older children to shul while I lit candles and then began the somewhat long-winded process of nursing and feeding the baby. Not knowing how much energy I might have the next day during the fast, when I finally finished, I loaded the baby up into the stroller and dashed out to shul, hoping that even with a somewhat lengthy walk ahead, I would make it for something meaningful.
As I entered the shul, the baby settling in her stroller, the congregation was opening the ark; they were, at that moment, preparing to begin saying selichos.
I felt exultant! The evening selichos of Yom Kippur were one of my favorite parts of the Yom Kippur service. But more than simply arriving in time for the section of the service that seemed, in that moment, particularly rewarding to my efforts – the energy in the shul was incredible. We had chosen a shul we’d never been to, but though it was small, every note of the prayer seemed calibrated to my own spiritual sensibilities. That period in shul saying selichos were the unparalleled highlight of my Yom Kippur that year.
Why do I share this?
Sometimes, I think, we try to control the wrong situations. At the same time, we overlook those areas of our lives where our control and effort are really called for.
Trying to control a Yom Kippur service (especially in the moment) is virtually impossible. Yes, we can choose to attend a synagogue (if we have choices available) where we think we will have the best experience. We can choose to go to a shul with kids’ groups, or to hire a babysitter to help keep our kids occupied.
But we can’t control whether someone will show up and start a lengthy conversation in the seat next to us. Or whether the chazan will sing our favorite tunes for the songs. Or whether our children will wake up sick, or be so needy that what’s happening in shul barely matters because we won’t be there anyway.
What can we control? We can control whether we make an effort in the build-up to Yom Kippur, to show Hashem that this period really matters to us. We can try to find the extra few minutes during the day to make a cheshbon ha’nefesh – or a reflection on what we need to work on. We can try to squeeze in a few minutes for davening here and there, or even just recite some chapters of Tehillim if that’s all we have time for. And more than anything, we can make the greatest, but also most subtle effort – in our hearts – to break out of the constraints of our natures, to make way for something higher.
Even us busy mothers can do this, if only in a small way. Sometimes though, a small effort, made with real sacrifice, can make all the difference.
May we all be sealed for a good year.