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The Last Minute – between the candles

There’s a saying in English, don’t wait until the last minute to do things. The truth is, except for lighting candles for Shabbat or Yom Tov, or other times where we know what the deadline is, we don’t often know what the last minute – our last chance for something – will be. We are aware when something starts, like a new job, a new year, a new move; things we have some control over, or that are in our calendars. But often, we don’t really know when it’s “the last minute”- our last chance for something. Often, something happens for the last time and it’s only months or years later that we look back and say wow, I didn’t know that was the last time: that I would see that person, that I would read a bedtime story to my kids before they got too old to need to be put to bed, or that I would pick up my child before they got too big- and I only realized it when they got big enough to pick me up.

September heralds the beginning of autumn, and also the start of the new school year. Sometimes I find it exciting- yes, I was one of those kids who enjoyed getting new school supplies and starting a new school year. But fall also marks the end of summer, the end of free time. 

Yes, I know most adults have year-round jobs and can’t relate, but for those of us who, for whatever reason, decided to spend our whole lives in school, the clock ticks differently as we start the year anew in the fall. For Jews, this month also coincides with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. So the fall feels significant even for Jewish adults who don’t work in the educational field.

The High Holidays of the fall give us a chance to look back at how we spent the past year, and to think about if and how we want to do things differently. Maybe we want to change some of our behaviors for the better, or just to make some other choices that will hopefully improve our lives.

This September first marked my own return from a partial sabbatical year. I was worried I’d have a hard time returning to work, but even though it has already been a bit exhausting, it felt nice to return to work, at both my schools. This September 1st also marked a different first and last: our youngest started 12th grade. As she said to me the day before school started, this was her last first day of school (in the lower education system). Yes, I did tear up, but it also felt good to celebrate this well-earned milestone for her.

As a child, even though I loved summer which included going to the beach, riding my bike, and not having schoolwork to do, I loved the fall more. The changing autumn leaves, going apple-picking with my family, all of the Jewish holidays at this time. It is strange to think that we have hit that time, given the current heat wave in Israel, but some of the past few evenings have brought a nice breeze in the Gush, and I can almost feel autumn in the air.

Somehow, fall didn’t stop being my favorite time a number of years ago, when it first became a time of mourning and remembering for our family. Life is a roller-coaster, and there are days when we have to go to a funeral in the morning and a wedding at night, and we have to learn how to let ourselves feel both the joy and the sorrow in their times. In the Jewish tradition, the holidays aren’t just celebrated for their own meaning but are also connected to the times of the year, which is why we add a month to the Jewish calendar every few years, so that the spring holidays stay in the spring and the fall holidays, well, fall out when they should. What that means is when the time period rolls around again, we feel as if we are back there, with the first time the holiday was celebrated. I find this to be true also for those dates and time periods when I lost people I love. 

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, is meant to be a month for introspection. So I am thinking of days past, and people lost, and if I would have done anything differently if I knew it was my last minute with them. I think of all of the big and small things I keep putting off, waiting until the last minute. But how do I know when that will be? We don’t know how many minutes we will have.

On the Hebrew calendar, our family lost my husband’s grandfather, who thankfully our children got to know, on erev Rosh Hashanah. A few years later my father passed, and his funeral was the day after Yom Kippur- a day that until then, we had celebrated for seven years as our Aliyah anniversary. Four years later, my mother passed in Elul, the English date falling out shortly before the new school year. Two years after we lost our mother, a former student of mine took his life on September first. The English date of his passing is 3 days after my mother, but the Hebrew date of his yahrzeit is 3 days earlier. Since that day, now 5 years ago, when school starts, he is often on my mind. Gilad’s kever is flanked by two other soldiers. He made it to 21, they only reached 20 years old. My own middle child just turned 22, just passing Gilad’s age along with Gilad’s younger brother who was in my son’s class. We say age is just a number, but when we have to stop counting birthdays it hurts, no matter how high the final number.  I think of how Gilad may have known when his last minute was approaching, or it may have been less planned. I don’t know. I think of the year that I quickly went back to America to see my father on Erev Rosh Hashanah because the hospice nurses said it’s time, and then he was with us (even conscious and at the table) through that last Rosh Hashanah and stayed until Erev Yom Kippur. A few years later when my mother was nearing the end, she wanted to keep fighting. She had a doctor with a good heart, who told her in July sure you can make another appointment, I’ll see you soon- but that was the last time he saw her. However, she made it almost another month, and she managed to sit with us at the shabbos table for my daughter’s 10th birthday, and to say her blessing over the candles that day: none of us knew it was her last time.

I think of Ari Fuld, also lost in September during the Ten Days of Repentance, just one year after Gilad. Ari was at the shopping center when he was killed by a terrorist, and somehow found the extraordinary strength to chase down his attacker after he was stabbed so he could prevent others from being hurt before he succumbed. He was just going food shopping, like any normal day- but it was his last.

I think about priorities, and what is important, to me and to others. 

I wonder if I would change anything if I knew when my last minute would be, or if I would just procrastinate even more. 

I know I’ve included this before, but it still resonates with me, and when I keep it in mind, it helps me focus on what’s important: in the Fellowship of the Rings, Frodo says he wishes the ring had never come to him, and that none of this had ever happened. Gandalf tells him that all who live to see such times feel the same way, but that is not for them to decide. He says “All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” I am trying to do my best with the time I have been given, I hope what I am doing is good. And yes, sometimes there is ‘try’, when that’s all we can do.

We have all been living through some difficult times, each of us carrying their own burden. I think my mind has been a bit off the hook for a while, with so much weighing it down. But every New Year, every new day, really, is a chance at a new start and for us to make better choices. We don’t know what our last minute will be, but we can make the next one our first minute. 

Even though we still have a month until Rosh Hashanah, some people were wishing each other a Shanah Tova- a Good Year on September first. I like how we wish each other a Good Year, not a happy one. Each person’s happiness is different for them, but if we are able to see the Good, maybe we can also achieve a measure of peace, as in Hebrew we wish each other a Shabbat Shalom every week- to have a Sabbath of Peace. 

Last night I lit a candle for Gilad, because I was thinking about the light we lost with him. Thursday night I will light one for my mother, who didn’t get to do everything she wanted to or to see some places that she wished she had seen. However, she loved us and we knew that, and we loved her back, and I think that’s a good legacy to have left behind. Sometimes it’s not about the places you go or the things you do, but about who you spend your time with.

As I sit here between days of yahrzeit candles, trying to replace the lights we lost, I ask that God grant me the chance to use my minutes wisely and well this year, and to focus on the good. And to not wait until the last minute to appreciate all my blessings.

Wishing everyone a good New Year.

L’iluy nishmat Rachel Devora bat Yitzchak v’Deena Yehudit z”l and Gilad Amichai z”l

About the Author
Mori Sokal is a FIFTEEN year veteran of Aliyah, mother of three wonderful children (with her wonderful husband) and is an English teacher in both elementary and high school in the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem area. She has a Masters’ degree in teaching, is a copy editor, and has published articles in Building Blocks, the Jewish Press magazine.
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