Sally Abrams
Here's How I See It

We never know what lies ahead: An Elul reflection

Photo: Courtesy

The light of late summer in Minnesota tells me where we are on the Jewish calendar. More than crunching acorns on the ground, more than the early morning chill, those slanted, golden rays are the surest sign the High Holidays are approaching. The time to turn inward has begun.

There is so much meaning to be found in these days of preparation. The month of Elul by its very name–an acronym for the Hebrew “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine”—invites us to draw closer to God. It’s a time to think deeply about our relationships and our behavior. It’s when our vulnerability as flesh and blood human beings is unavoidable. Will we be inscribed in the Book of Life? Will our loved ones? What lies ahead?

These questions about life’s uncertainty are at the forefront of my mind this year because the High Holidays are being celebrated just a few months after the mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, IL. Attending that parade is an Independence Day tradition for one set of our Chicago kids and grandchildren; my husband and I have joined them several times in the past. A sweeter, more wholesome celebration of America would be hard to find.

This year we did not travel to Chicago. “Be sure and send us pictures from the parade! Have fun!” we said to our kids. Around 10:30 AM on the Fourth of July my phone lit up with a text message. I assumed a couple of cute photos awaited me. Instead, there was a message from our son, informing me there had been an active shooter a few blocks from where they were seated. Our son and daughter-in-law grabbed the kids and ran for their lives, finding shelter in a nearby store.

Highland Park, IL parade route, after people fled a mass shooting. Photo: By permission

My reaction to the message was both horror at what happened, relief that my loved ones were safe, and dread over the likelihood that someone else’s loved ones were hit. In the ensuing hours the scope of the carnage emerged. Seven people killed. Among them were a young mother and father, their toddler son orphaned on the spot.

There were also many people injured. One of them was an eight-year-old boy whose spine was severed by a bullet. A child who walked (or more likely, ran) to find a spot on the parade route is now paralyzed from the waist down. Updates from his GoFundMe organizers provide a candid, heartbreaking account of this child’s physical and emotional pain and the impact of the crisis on his family (especially his twin brother). As well, each update expresses profound gratitude for all the ways people are reaching out to help.

“Injured” is a tricky word. In a mass shooting like this we naturally and correctly focus on those who lost their lives. The injured are, thank God, still alive. However, having your spinal cord severed by a bullet is a devastating injury that changes life forever. I hope with all my heart there will be a way to repair this kind of injury someday soon. Meanwhile, I pray this boy and his family will have the strength and support they need to cope with the catastrophe that has befallen them. Help has poured in; a community is rallying around them. How could anyone carry on in such a crisis without the uplift of many hands?

Relief and gratitude that my loved ones emerged safely from this horror will always be entwined with anguish for those who didn’t. Life can change in a split second, forever. How do we keep going when we can never know for sure what’s coming next?

This question is the focus of a luminous and acclaimed memoir, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives, by Mary Laura Philpott. Like me, the author is both an optimist and life-long worrier. Her book has been my companion these past couple months, and especially as the month of Elul exerts it’s pull on my soul.

“I grew from a child into the adult I am now while constantly looking and listening, filing away information as preparation and protection,” Philpott writes. But that store of knowledge became its own kind of burden. “What do you do once you come to understand that loss is limitless, that it can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere?” Still, Philpott navigates life with sunny cheer, humor and gratitude… and keeps herself braced for a crisis.

A crisis indeed arrives. A sudden, terrible sound awakens Philpott in the middle of the night. She finds her teenage son unconscious on the bathroom floor, his body convulsed in a seizure. He is diagnosed with epilepsy, begins treatment, and moves ahead with all the resilience you would want a teen to have. Philpott must manage her protective instincts so that her son can flourish. She must find a way to contain her fears and live with uncertainty. She writes, “Years ago, I started holding my breath, and I let myself believe I could exhale as soon as “the uncertain part” of life was over.” Alas, all of life is the uncertain part, Philpott concludes.

It’s “the uncertain part” that grips us when we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Again and again during the Days of Awe we will recite the Unetanah Tokef prayer—who will be born, who will die, who by fire, who by water. When the final shofar is sounded at the end of Yom Kippur (or according to some sources, when Sukkot ends), the Book of Life is sealed for the year ahead. We hope we were inscribed for a year of health and blessing, but we cannot know for sure unless and until we reach the next High Holidays. Then, we look back on the year concluded and know we were, indeed, inscribed.

When Philpott was a child, her mother taught her to always say, “Thank you for having me” at the end of birthday parties. As an adult, this phrase has come to express her gratitude for life itself.

Thank you for having me. That we are here at all is a miracle. Our lives are, indeed, a wonder. While uncertainty is built into life, “Thank you for having me” serves as its counterweight.

For me, these words transform to a prayer. “Thank You, God of Life, for having me, and for having all those I love.” This prayer will be front of mind for the High Holidays, and I will strive to keep it there for all the days that follow.

As the New Year begins, may our sense of vulnerability always be outweighed by gratitude for the treasure of our lives. May we be sensitive to those who are suffering and provide comfort where we can.  No one can help everyone but most everyone can help someone. And may we reach the High Holidays next year, look back, and know we were, indeed, inscribed for a year of life.

About the Author
Sally Abrams is Director of Judaism and Israel Education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has taught thousands about Israel and/or Judaism in churches, classrooms, civic groups, and Jewish communal settings.
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