Every year after Tisha B’Av, I begin thinking of the approaching Jewish holidays framed inside boxes of a secular, solar calendar:
The holidays are early this year! The holidays are late this year!
Flawed orientation, says my friend Aaron: This year, Rosh Hashanah begins on the first of Tishrei, just like it does every year.
It’s all about orientation.
In the diaspora, we turn our calendars to September and calculate how many days will be missed for work or school. We consider how work will get done, challahs baked, food prepared. Secular time and personal time collide with Jewish time.
Add personal grief in Elul to the time-tango of Jewish and secular time, and one is left disoriented and overwhelmed.
Since the death of my husband, Stu, in September, 2017, I imagine the calendar on its hands and knees, slowly crawling from Av to Elul.
It is at this time of year that I envision the Book of the Jewish Calendar fading into view. A colossal scholarly text, the book rests on the table of a vast library, illuminated by a nearby window in dusty golden sunlight.
I position myself for maximal leverage and lift the leaden page of Av, intentionally guiding it toward the other side of the book. The intentionality is unnecessary because, really, where else can this page go? It is secured and centered by its binding and its own calendar inevitability.
The Book of the Jewish Calendar is a constant, grounding force.
The page of Av lands with a hazy thump, the sound resonating off the library shelves. Elul stares back, in echoed silence. I feel the rumble of a subway train beneath me, and with it, the familiar unsteadiness that has accompanied Elul since 2017.
Here comes the dislocation and unease, the racing heart, and the strange dreams.
Here comes Elul, the month when Stu passed away.
Elul is a month that is dancing in so many directions at once, with traffic and noise, with calendars and to-do lists. Which way to turn off the round-about? So many roads, and I have to choose a way. The subway train continues to rumble beneath me, leaving me unsteady.
After the weighty page of Av lands in the Book of the Jewish Calendar, it’s quiet. The subway stops trembling under my feet.
Through the library window, the sound of a shofar softly blasts through the quiet of Rosh Chodesh, Elul, 2020.
“A still small voice is heard.”
The shofar washes over the confusion and noise, echoing memory and promise.
I walk over to my own library shelf and pull out the Chabad calendar titled September, 2017: 10 Elul 5777 – 10 Tishrei 5778. Wiping the dust from its plastic sleeve, I release the paper calendar and toggle between August and September. The calendar boxes tell a story with simple, stark purpose:
chemo schedule, blood work, emergency room, solar eclipse [you sit in a driveway chair watching the cloudy sky], chemo crossed out [no longer an option], emergency room [again], meeting with Dr. Kaplan, kids fly home, hospice, family visits, friends visit, Rabbi David and Ali come, Stu takes his last shower, all the kids are together sitting on and around the bed, we sing songs, we try to ease the physical pain, I sit near-by, while the kids stay near you, watching home movies and the Phantom Tollbooth, Stu moves to the hospital bed in our library. We have Shabbos dinner upstairs. Late Shabbos morning, the 18th of Elul, and Stu dies.
The September sun, lower in the sky, pours through the southern window of the library.
The calendar square of September 9th – the 18th of Elul – is filled with a heart, drawn in pen, STU in capital letters nestles inside the heart in the calendar box.
This is the nexus: Solar September and lunar/solar Elul overlap in sync on this day.
(But, for the next few years, they will be torn apart, adding to the heartbreak, doubling the unsteady days.)
Funeral, shivah, and two days later it’s Erev Tishrei – Rosh Hashanah, 5778.
How do I make sense of this? I don’t even try.
I put the Chabad, 2017 calendar back in its plastic sleeve, place it on the library shelf, and return to the start of Elul, 2020.
Personal grief softens and shifts, but never disappears.
I’m back at the round-about ready to make a choice. Instead of taking Robert Frost’s road less taken, I choose the road marked “Elul”.
It’s not a road less taken; it’s the road Jews have taken for millennia.
Although September and all it represents cannot and should not be denied, I make a Jewish choice.
Taking a deep breath, I orient myself to a new Jewish year and to the Jewish calendar that awaits.