I sit, alone with my thoughts, on a late August morning. Anticipating the upcoming holidays, awed by their immense significance and unsettled as they will again necessitate adaptation due to the pandemic. I feel unworthy of the task. Is that a basic truth of human nature, or predisposition of my character? Regardless, I know this feeling, I recognize the voice telling me I am not capable, nor worthy of the task at hand. That voice is me.
It echoes the liturgy of the High Holiday prayer “Hineni,” in which the leader makes a personal appeal to God prior to offering prayer on behalf of the community. She announces her sincere commitment to properly engage in prayer, for herself, for her congregation and for God. It is a private moment, though on public display. The prayer we have inherited is intimate and intense, empowering… and yet imperfect. It presents the thoughts of one unknown person, living five hundred years ago. It’s placement in the mahzor has codified it as “the way” for a prayer leader to enter the climactic sections of the liturgy. It states:
Here I stand, impoverished in merit…I come to represent your people, even though I am unfit and unworthy for the task.
With deference to the generations that came before me, I must admit, I don’t like how the statement makes me feel. I don’t need to be reminded of my imperfections, I am sorely aware of the scope and magnitude of the ways in which I feel unworthy.
It is, for any leader, difficult to recite the words of “Hin’ni,” opening herself up to vulnerability by announcing “I am unfit and unworthy of the task at hand.” I appreciate the inherited text, an example of bearing one’s soul—to community and God. It is an exercise in humility and a recognition of the flawed human condition.
To live, in this year, has meant experiencing grief, encountering fear, and suffering exhaustion. Constantly bearing witness to rising death tolls, wondering if my loved ones will be spared, if I will be spared? New challenges, new failures. I know that I am impoverished in merit, lacking in deeds. God and I have discussed this, on more than one recent occasion. And what I need now is not a recapitulation of my deficits, nor a reminder of the inherent failures of humanity.
I need a different message. Instead of drowning under the weight of my shortcomings, to be my best self in the most sacred and solemn of moments, I need the still small voice inside my head to adopt the role of supportive coach, reminding me of who I am and what I can do. I need the voice to say:
You are enough.
This is what I told myself to prepare for these high holidays. And it is what I want you to hear, what I need you to hear. You are enough.
I recount two decades of high holidays in which I have served as the leader of a community. Twenty years of my life, effectively constituting the entirety of my adulthood to date. I recall, I reflect. I remind myself, “You are enough.”
I turn to my first year in rabbinical school, September 2001. I carry that horrendous Tuesday morning in September, need only close my eyes to hear the sirens and smell the debris-laden smoke. I remember, only days later, walking across Central Park to synagogue. Entering the building through metal detectors, then a foreign experience. A summer’s worth of planning for activity, discussion and prayer for the large teen population of the congregation left me ill-prepared to lead in a newly post-9/11 world. And yet, I successfully navigated those holidays. Through engaging in familiar liturgy, drawing strength from communal singing. Through changing planned activities to make space for confusion, grief, anger, despair and the myriad emotions that filled the still tainted air. I recall the holidays of 2001, and the world that unfolded in the days and years that followed. I recall the young, young woman evolving into her rabbinic self. And I turn to her, for she is still me, and say, “you are enough.”
Ten years later, I am a new mother. It is erev Yom Kippur. A tiny, colicky infant screams in my arms as the new nanny tells me, after only a week, that she will be moving out of town. Tomorrow. It has been two months since I’ve slept for more than two consecutive hours. My husband is out of town and I am alone. All of the confidence I built over the past decade begins to shrivel. I knew how to be a rabbi, but in this moment, I heard that awful voice telling me that I had no idea how to be a mother. You are not nurturing. You don’t produce healthy amounts of milk. You required invasive medical intervention to conceive. You required invasive medical intervention to give birth. You are not worthy of motherhood.
And yet, hin’ni, Here I am. The difficult infant has moved “ten times round the seasons.” He is inquisitive, passionate and compassionate. And he sleeps through the night.
I recall the holidays of 2011, and the echoes from two years later, with a different newborn, who would complete our family, in tow. I recall the young, but rapidly ageing woman, evolving into her maternal self. And I say to her, for she is still me, “You are enough.”
In July, we took a family vacation. It was those few, brief weeks when I was filled with hope. Coronavirus numbers were down. We had turned a corner. How I miss those days! In the evenings we turned on the television, finding that the Summer Olympics were really the only appropriate watch option for our family. I am not a sports fan. My concerns about the Olympics—this year and in general—are manifold. But I have a soft spot in my heart for women’s gymnastics. I have followed it since the 1980’s, watching Mary Lou Retton win gold in Los Angeles, cheering for the “Magnificent Seven” as they won the heart of the nation in 1996. And women’s gymnastics was certainly a substantial focus of discussion in Tokyo. Simone Biles, gold medalist and absolute superstar, would not compete. She had stumbled in practice, and knew that her mind and body were not working together…could not execute the twists and turns of her rigorous routines. She left competition, disappeared from the floor. A few minutes later, she returned, no longer donning her competition uniform, cheering from the sidelines, supporting her team. It was the greatest moment of inspiration that I encountered this year—perhaps ever. For twenty-five years gymnastics fans carried the image of the amazing Kerri Strug in the arms of her coach because she could no longer walk, having competed after becoming injured. Simone came to tell us, “no.” Pushing through the pain is not always the answer. Trust yourself. You can take a step back. No matter what, you are enough. This was the lesson my children needed. This was the lesson that I needed. Thank you, Simone Biles, you are a true champion…for reframing our understanding of strength, redefining courage, and reminding each of us, “you are enough.”
To sum up the hardships and challenges of the last eighteen months in a few words or sentences is impossible. Books will be written, some already have, addressing this still present era through the lenses of psychology, ecology, sociology and politics. I am not generally one to cling to silver linings on the darkest of clouds. This experience has changed me, teaching me to find and appreciate the blessings in my midst. The depth and breadth of my relationship with my two children have expanded in ways previously unimaginable. I worry about them, about all children, and the countless ways they have been affected by the pandemic. They will carry this time in their core, formative memories that evolve to create personhood. My daughter entered the pandemic as a six-year old. Yesterday I watched a third grader walk onto the bus, strong and wise beyond her years. She helped the kindergarten neighbors, while my son moved toward the back of the bus, where the fifth graders sit. They are going to be okay. They are enough. I am enough. You are enough.
Here I am God. It is Rosh Hashanah 5782. And I ask you to recognize me in this way, at this time:
Created in your image, possessing your holy sparks, touched by divinity, I am enough. See me in this light, see Your people in this light. Encourage us to encounter the reassurance and resilience found in these words. We know we can improve–individually, communally. But that is not the sole emphasis for our focus today. Today we need space for what we have endured, what we are enduring. What we really need—hugs. But of course, those are few and far between. We don’t touch in the age of Covid. We lose touch in the age of Covid. Bring us together, even when we cannot gather. Gracious, awe-inspiring God, I pray I might seek compassion for myself, and from myself, that this community knows your compassion, and models it in their deeds. Identify not my sins, despite my countless transgressions. See, instead, our concerns, our compassion, our courage. Transform our afflictions to gladness, life and peace. May I not be my own enemy. May I allow no obstacles to stifle my prayer. May I live each day recalling that I was created in Your image, and may knowing this remind me that I am enough.