Nina B. Mogilnik

Where the Light Gets In

We went from dinner at home with several of my daugther’s friends erev Rosh Hashanah, to nothing much at all the next day, the first day of the holiday.  We listened in for a time to an online service, but I never find those fulfilling, and the lengthy sermon left me distracted and deflated.  I’d come into this holiday season more discouraged than usual.  Which is saying something, since I’m often incredibly depressed this time of year.  The downward spiral into what I will call near-despondency had been happening for months, and the start of this new year felt as awful as the ending, and much of the content of, the last year.  It was a new year according to the Jewish calendar, but rather than looking forward to new beginnings, I just had a desperate hope that things wouldn’t get worse.

I decided, in spite of all that, to take my autistic son to the shireinu service for families and loved ones with special needs, a unique offering at a nearby synagogue, Rodeph Sholom.  I had been before, with my husband and son, but not since before the pandemic.  We didn’t participate when services went virtual.  My husband didn’t join me this day.  He went to work, with our daughter.

So it was just my son and me.  He made some predictable protests about not wanting to go, but I used my reliable, shameless technique of reminding him of all the things I’ve done for him, and how he was going to do this for me. Noah came out of his room wearing a three-button rugby-style shirt and sports pants.  I told him that he needed to change his pants for shul, which he did.  I’d already set aside his blue suede dress shoes, unworn since the last time we were at a shireinu service.

It was a beautiful morning.  I had set Noah’s phone alarm, so he woke with ample time to do his job–emptying the dishwasher–have his breakfast and take his meds and his vitamins.  We walked across the park together, and I tried not to think or stress about how Noah might react to being back in that synagogue space after so much time away.  When we exited the park with time to spare, I worried a little if getting there too early would be a problem, since he might want to leave right away.  We went down to the lower level space and Noah predictably asked to leave.  But not aggressively, and his asking subsided pretty quickly.

Rabbi Ben sketched out the order of the service, asked us to set our intention for the morning, expressed his own gratitude for being back with shireinu families in person, thanked his predecessor as senior rabbi for supporting this program, and so on.  Just lots of good vibes.  I found myself holding back tears.  We have struggled mightily to hold the creaking ship of our home life together for many months now.  It all felt so overwhelming in that moment, being in such a warm, welcoming space.  It might seem weird, but when you’ve lived in a battered state, feeling fearful of and traumatized by everyday life, something good and kind can feel so unexpected and unfamiliar, even a little scary.  Maybe it’s a bit like overfeeding someone who’s been starving.  The body rebels.  For me, my spirit was so parched that I just felt unprepared for something good.

But I managed not to cry.  Noah chose seats for us up front.  I heard a voice behind me.  “Nina?”  I turned around, having no idea who in that space might know me, and of course thinking it must be a different Nina.  But no, it was a lovely woman I know from the bakery program Noah attends.  She was there with her husband and son.  We hadn’t seen each other in several years.  We had a brief catch up chat.  Then it was back to Rabbi Ben.

He began with hinei ma tov, which Noah immediately responded to by saying, “Hey, that’s not it,” because the tune the rabbi used was different from the one we used to dance to in our house on Friday nights.  But then Rabbi Ben actually sang the version familiar to Noah, and from there things just got better.

During the course of our being there, Noah gave Rabbi Ben several hugs, which were warmly returned.  Noah borrowed an umbrella prop, turned it upside down, and generated the laughs that make him so happy when he’s silly.  When Rabbi Ben suggested we each turn to one another and offer a blessing, Noah turned to me and gave me the blessing, in Hebrew, that we give to our daughter on Friday nights, “May God make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”  And I gave Noah his blessing, asking God to make him as Ephraim and Menashe.

All was over in about half an hour.  It was a perfect half hour.  I saw Noah go up to the Torah as Rabbi Ben chanted, to watch.  I saw him smile broadly during the service.  I don’t know which things prompted his smiles and it doesn’t matter.  I felt again what I’ve felt before:  the shireinu service might be the only truly spiritual space I’ve ever been in.  And the only one where I have ever felt that there might actually be this thing called “God’s presence.”

Noah was of course eager to leave once the service ended, but I told him that I wanted to make one stop on the way back.  We crossed back through the park and made our way to the turtle pond.  Rabbi Ben had announced that tashlich would be held there.  I had no bread and I wasn’t sure if we’d make it in time, but I thought we should at least try.

Lo and behold there was a sizable group gathered there.  I saw a congregant with a much diminished challah in a plastic bag.  I asked if he could spare some, as I had a lot of sins to get rid of.  I tore off some bread and walked with Noah to the water’s edge.  I had no idea how this would work with Noah, and frankly no expectations that it would.  But worst case, he would just wait for me to mumble my made up prayers, since I couldn’t pull up the tashlich prayer on my phone and didn’t have a prayer book.

But I took a chance and told Noah that we were there to get rid of our sins, to let go of things we have done that might have been bad or hurtful.  “Is there anything you’ve done, Noah, that you don’t want to do again because it was not good to do, or was hurtful?”  And in a moment of sheer magic, Noah took pieces of challah and rattled off a whole litany of things, tossing a small morsel of bread into the water with each one.  He wasn’t going to push his sister, hit his sister, lick her, or pull her hair.

I had thought, honestly, that it was absurd to ask a child who is without sin to fess up to sinning.  But being wiser than I am, Noah knew, even with his profound limitations, that he is as human, as fallible, and as capable of being and doing better, as any of us.  But he far surpasses me in bringing a pure intention to all he does, including letting go of sins.  And while I frankly doubt that he will live up flawlessly to his promises regarding his sister, everything about this second day of Rosh Hashanah was about having expectations shattered in the most profound and illuminating way.

I came into this holiday season weary, broken, and feeling utterly defeated.  I was always willing to grasp at any and all signs of promise, of possibility.  But every one of those signs has been quickly overwhelmed and overshadowed by something grave and heartwrenching.

What shireinu gave back to me, even just for a brief time, was breath and possibility.  And the tossing away at tashlich reminded me that everyone is capable of letting go of something.  And maybe it’s in the space made by the letting go that little shards of light and hopefulness can seep in.  There is gratitude beyond words even for that tiny possibility.  And for the ways shireinu gave this one mother, and her special son, that staggeringly beautiful gift.

About the Author
Nina has a long history of working in the non-profit, philanthropic, and government sectors. She has also been an opinion writer for The Jewish Week, and a contributor to The Forward, and to The New Normal, a disabilities-focused blog. However, Nina is most proud of her role as a parent to three unique young adults, and two rescue dogs, whom she co-parents with her wiser, better half. She blogs about that experience now and again at
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