(For the back story behind this blog, feel free to see my first post.)
For the first eleven months after Shira died, I spent most mornings in the daily minyan at B’nai Jeshurun. Joanne and I had very different approaches to this and I encourage people to read her article on the experience. But we shared two things. One was that the act of attending the minyan brought some badly needed order and routine to our lives, and the other was that the text of the Siddur was a minefield.
Let’s start with something obvious. We named our daughter Shira, Hebrew for song. Her name is all over the liturgy. It’s not there as a name, of course, but it was still grating, like squeaky chalk, reminding me of why I was there (as if I could have forgotten). Thankfully, my brain has since learned to distinguish between a song and my daughter’s name, but at the time, one place in the liturgy that jabbed was right after Mi Chamocha, when we say that the newly redeemed Israelites sang שירה חדשה, a new song. Why did we need a new Shira? The one we had was just fine.
Another spot that was a bit much to take was during the weekday Amidah, when we ask God’s forgiveness: “Forgive us our Father, for we have sinned.” Really? I was in neither a contrite nor forgiving mood at the time, and changed this around to “Forgive yourself, our Father for You have sinned.” I realize it takes a lot of chutzpah to accuse God, but I figured that God could take it. The notion is hardly original, but unlike others who have travelled that road, I was not so ready to forgive, and left that to God to do for Him or Herself.
Another alteration I make to my Amidah, and this I do out loud, is that I do not thank God for giving life to the dead. I use the forms from Reform and Reconstructionist liturgy, thanking God for giving life to everything. Unlike those movements, I don’t advocate the change to the prayer book. My objection is not theological. My protest is purely personal, not communal. If God wants me to recite that bracha as written, then there’s one way to do that. Do the deed; send her back. Until that happens, no dice.
Tone can be an issue. I worship in a wonderful community, and Shabbat at BJ is all joy, all the time. Even in deep mourning, I could deal with that because it was Shabbat. The weekday minyan, however was another story. While the minyan is not just for mourners, one reason it’s so important to maintain a daily minyan is because people need a place to say Kaddish. The presence of mourners is a constant in any weekday minyan, and the tone of most that I’ve been to reflect that reality. Bringing a lot of Shabbat freilichkeit to the table (including by banging on it energetically) is just not OK. Fortunately that was not common during our year. For the most part our wonderful community wrapped us in their love and helped us mourn in something resembling peace. But there were moments, and they are something to be on guard for.
At the time, I was increasingly alienated from the text of the Siddur. I davened with a fairly mechanical fervor, and wore tallit and tefillin largely as a social norm. I mentioned this to an Orthodox colleague. “I hope you won’t be offended, but I have to say that I’m finding the text that I recite to be almost totally meaningless.” He looked at me and said “in your condition, I imagine that the only part of the prayer book that has any meaning is the part that says you have to say it every day in a group of at least 10 Jews.”
He had that right. Jewish mourning practices wisely require that you be in the community every day. You have to get out of bed, get out of the house early and be somewhere where there are other people. By the end of the minyan your pain is still there, but you are in a better position to go into the world and deal with other people. The text doesn’t matter; the community does.
In the last blessing before the morning Shema, we gather the four tzitzit of our tallit together while reciting “Gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth.” I haven’t done it that way for a long time. To this day, I gather three of my four tzitzit, (although I leave the text alone since on Shabbat we sing this together so beautifully.) I do this to acknowledge that my world is broken beyond repair. One corner of my world has literally been cut off forever, and I leave that fringe hanging. Perhaps I should instead be trying to gather her up with that fourth fringe, but I am in a relationship with the universe and the Divine where I hold exactly none of the power to do that. My world is broken and I can’t fix it. The only way I can live with that is to own it, which I do by acknowledging the missing corner.
In loving memory of Shira Palmer-Sherman, z”l