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Gentle waves or a tsunami: what will the New Year bring us?

A devastating diagnosis, a ruinous fire -- these can sneak up on you. I know, they struck my loved ones, and here's what I learned
Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash
Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash

“May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year,” we say to each other during the High Holidays.

The ‘Book of Life’ is a meaningful image for me, but it’s not the only way I think about the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

For a long time, I have also thought about it this way. I see us, every human being, standing in an endless line along an imaginary shore. We face the sea, holding hands with the people most precious to us. We cast our eyes over the water. We scan the horizon.

We bring with us the difficulties from one year that carry over to the next. We brace for the waves we know are coming, even if the sea is momentarily calm. Our feet sink deep into the sand. Our hands entwine with our loved ones’ hands. The waves hit us, they soak us, they stagger us, but we hold fast and stay upright. We knew those waves were coming. We were ready.

What make us tremble during the Days of Awe, and especially when the final shofar sounds on Yom Kippur, are not the waves we expect.

It’s knowing that far out at sea there might be a wave coming straight toward us we could not foresee at all.

A wave so powerful it knocks us clean off our feet. Down into black water we plunge, sinking, swirling, choking, drowning. Sometimes the strong hands of our loved ones can pull us out. “What happened?” we gasp. “Where did that come from?” we sputter, as we try to get our breath and our bearings.

Over the past ten months I’ve witnessed how two families withstood waves they could never have seen coming. These tsunamis of heartache demanded enormous reserves of strength, faith, and courage, but they required something more. No one regains their footing in a crisis without the strong uplift of many, many hands.

Last year, as Yom Kippur ended, there was a wave far out at sea aimed at my brother and his family. A fire that started from a Hanukkah menorah burned their house down in a matter of minutes. Thank God, the family survived. But their home of 34 years and all their possessions were gone. Their daughter, son-in-law, and young grandchildren were living with them temporarily. That family’s belongings went up in flames too.

For my brother and his family, the shock of those first terrible days gave way to a profound sense of loss. Furniture can be replaced, but your grandma’s handwritten recipes? No way. You can fill your walls with new art but the ketubah you and your bride signed 37 years ago? Gone forever. Most heartbreaking of all was the loss of two pets that perished in the fire. Their surviving dog kept searching for her buddies.

Yet, even in this tidal wave of anguish there were strong hands pulling this family up out of the waves. An entire community rallied around them – family, friends, friends-of-friends, and many strangers. Every act of kindness contained this message: You are not suffering alone. In that space there was holiness.

That support, along with their own deep reservoir of strength, propelled them forward.

In late December, two weeks after the fire, another wave hit. Our son had just ordered an engagement ring for his girlfriend. While he was waiting for the ring to arrive, his girlfriend’s mother was diagnosed with an extremely serious, life-threatening form of cancer.

As the family was grappling with shock and searching for the best treatment options, the ring arrived. I witnessed how a newly engaged couple navigates a time when their hearts are simultaneously bursting with joy and breaking in anguish. There is no script for this. The wedding planning guides don’t cover it. But when your values are in the right place they are all the guide you need.

The couple put their wedding plans on hold while the mother-of-the-bride began a long, grueling course of treatment. In early June, a window opened – a few weeks break between treatments. Our son and his fiancée seized it and set their wedding for July 7.

For any couple who think they need a year to plan their wedding….well, this bride and groom have something to teach. Their priorities were clear – each other, family, Judaism. The rest of the details fell quickly into place.

Their wedding was a triumph. A radiant bride was escorted to the chuppah by her equally radiant mother and proud father. Our son was euphoric, his feet barely touching the ground. The air was thick with emotion, the kind that is part of every wedding and those emotions that are reserved for weddings held under extraordinary circumstances.

It was a day for which the shehecheyanu prayer was written.

Whose hands pulled this family out of the churning water? Start with doctors who looked at a challenging case and offered a path forward, saying: We have had success with this. We can handle it. There is hope.

Count the rabbi who rearranged his family’s plans in order to officiate at the wedding, and led a soaring ceremony.

Then there were the loved ones who dropped everything to make it to a wedding on short notice. Devoted family and friends hosted celebrations afterwards, totally embracing this ‘non-sequential’ wedding (even the bachelor party took place after the fact!)

Now, the turn of the year is almost complete. The month of Elul is here, a time when our ears are attuned to signals from a frequency we often ignore. When we perceive something transcendent, hovering a breath away.

During the first week of Elul the mother-of-the-bride underwent life-saving surgery and is recovering well. There is every reason for optimism.

My brother and sister-in-law are building a new house on the site of the old one. In a few months it will be ready. It will be a home filled with laughter, family, food, and new memories.

The Days of Awe will soon be here. What will the new year bring us? Gentle waves or something more? No one knows. No one ever knows. In our profound vulnerability we pray that God will be merciful, inscribing us for a year of blessing.

Meanwhile, we stand together, looking out over the sea, holding each other tight.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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