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Foreign language

The death of her son forever transformed the synagogue experience for her

My vision of the fall holidays is the warmth of family gathering as the weather chills, menu planning and multiple grocery store runs in preparation for mouthwatering family meals, and an attempt to buy everyone a new outfit, sweater, or tie. And, of course, there is the anticipation of the year to come, the traditions we uphold as we usher in a new cycle, hoping for sweet things, praying to be inscribed in the proverbial Book of Life.

Critical elements of the new year are prayer, charity, repentance, and looking towards the future with hope, and the promise to be better and do more. But prayer is where the uncertainty of life and my unresolved anger with Gd converge in an emotional impasse. During the course of the year I manage to sidestep the synagogue and avoid communal prayer, but this is the time of year — starting a mere 2 weeks after Gilad’s yahrtzeit — that I feel trapped and ambushed, called possibly by Gd himself to lay claim for my life. We are summoned to advocate for ourselves, to present defense against our sins, and beg for benevolence for ourselves, our family.

Hello Gd, it’s me: Are You not aware that I have been less than pleased with Your response to my requests? Am I the only one who recognizes that our relationship has been a contentious one?

Perhaps sacrificing an animal would be easier. I imagine the logistics: procuring an animal, prepping the accoutrements, planning the transportation to Jerusalem. It might be cumbersome and gruesome, but not emotional. Pack the ram into the back of the van, drive through traffic to the holy site, meet the coordinating Kohen, pay my dues and journey home feeling lighter, better.

As my emotions rise to the surface, I become busier still in the kitchen or run off to errands, anything to disentangle myself from the ram’s horn urging me to come pray, to atone, to join my community in the synagogue to chant and sing and recite and pray. This year’s plan was to stay home with the grandchildren so my daughter and her husband would be free of child-care responsibilities; other years I rode on the coattails of “I still cannot bear to be present, to ask Gd for things I know He won’t offer me.” It’s six years now, and I still feel uncomfortable in my own shul and spend very limited time engaging in tefillah b’tzibur. I was that person once, but that was a lifetime ago.

My excuse to be home and avoid the inevitable only lasted so long, and after words from my usually patient husband, I directed myself to the synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah facing the words I’ve seen my entire life, the liturgical poetry on the page waiting to be uttered. Just as when I was a child, it felt like the hours would only pass if we turned the pages, sang the songs, whispered the words privately or collectively. My body was there, but my mind was thinking only of my own private akedah, the sacrifice of my child to the Almighty. Was my mere presence within a holy community a form of religious observance, of connection to Gd? If I just hummed or listened to others reciting, would that be considered prayer? And why couldn’t I tap into the version of myself that claimed was no longer angry at Gd?

I did not — still do not — feel that those prescribed words speak to me, to my world or my life. These are foreign idoims, contrived and cobbled together by my ancestors from a long-ago age, an unrelatable time. The connection is fragile at best, held together by threads, worn and aged, and speak a language not my own.  Or — are they a touchstone to the part of my heart that is still angry, still weeping?

Don’t get me wrong: I still speak with Gd, often in my car or in the privacy of my home or here or there, but it that enough?

My conversations with Gd, weekly and often daily, don’t take place in the synagogue and my choice of words is far beyond a combination of consonants or sounds or vowels. Illness and the fear of a life cut short transform the very nature of prayer, stripping down expressions to raw emotions which mere words cannot convey. I am a mother who choked her own name in a prayer for the sick: heal my son, son of me. I begged and pleaded, offered myself in his stead. I prayed passionately and deeply, and communities stood behind and alongside me. Deeds were done, and kindnesses exchanged to benefit my son. I stood at that altar with my husband and prayed the true language of prayer, not one of words, but of aching hearts leaking blood, sweat, and tears.

So how, how can I transition from that experience to finding myself in a room with others who are chanting, singing, swaying, praying for reasons I cannot begin to fathom? Why is one paragraph chanted in a serious tone, transitioning the next minute to a hopeful and jubilant tune? How can I believe that mere prayer or good deeds can ameliorate devastating news, prosperity issues, health dilemmas? How can I be part of an experience that I have moved beyond?

I struggle and I thrash; I remain perplexed and in awe of those who can simply and fully believe in a simple algorithm of believe, pray, live. The printed words are just that: words written and uttered by others, but this mother’s heart knows a form of prayer no one should ever know, and I simply cannot go back to that reader, that primer of prayer I have graduated from..

I live and I believe, and perhaps my life is my prayer. A series of milestones laced with occasions, a dropped stitch here and there, formed the sometimes mismatched fabric of my life.

But — but — I purposefully and honestly allow Gd to be present in my life, now and always. Perhaps my acceptance and recognition of Gd can act as a tribute that may wield more power than any language of prayer.

I have stood at an altar, and I have sacrificed my son. I speak another language with Gd. I pray it is not too foreign.

About the Author
Michelle Schwartz is a wife, mother of 4 children (3 of whom are in this world), and savta! Michelle works at a local university in academic guidance.
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