#BlogElul 29: Return

#BlogElul 2013We’re a military family. We move around a lot. In the six years before our most recent PCS, we davened (prayed) at High Holy Day services with five different communities.

  • Corpus Christi, Texas (Reform, with some Conservative elements thanks to the then-recent congregational merger)
  • Norfolk, Virginia (Conservative, with a true renaissance man for a rabbi)
  • Northern Virginia (my in-laws’ vibrant Conservative shul)
  • Reno, Nevada (a Conservative shul who took us in when we were in town for Tailhook)
  • Annapolis, Maryland (The Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel at the United States Naval Academy — chaplain-style services are the best!)

This evening, at Erev Rosh Hashanah services, we will add a sixth congregation to our list.

We have almost never spent Rosh Hashanah with the same community twice (our Yom Kippur list is just Corpus and Norfolk; we tend to stick to our local shul for that one). Even so, each Rosh Hashanah has felt to me like a homecoming of sorts. Wherever we find ourselves on this Yom Harat Olam, the Birthday of the World, we join our fellow Jews in turning toward our Source.

When the sun sets on 5773, we will welcome 5774 in a place we’ve never welcomed a new year before. We will begin anew with our visiting family and with friends we’ve made in our few months here and with people we have yet to meet. Even though this is our first year with this congregation, we are returning nonetheless.

L’shana tova, everyone — may your year be as good and sweet as the the feeling of coming home.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.


#BlogElul 28: Give

#BlogElul 2013

Chances are, there is something that you do particularly well, a knack you have that other people don’t. We talk of certain abilities as “God-given talents,” and we call children who show unusual academic aptitude “gifted.”

We all have our gifts, our special areas of natural facility. Also natural is our pride in our talents. When you’re good at something, there is an undeniable pleasure in knowing it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being proud of an innate flair for writing or mathematics or athletic prowess. The problems start when we become content to sit around and brag about clever and talented we are without ever using our abilities for the good of our world.

Like clouds, wind—but no rain— Is one who boasts of gifts not given. (Proverbs 25:14)

I am grateful for the talents I have been given. I can take no credit for the combination of genetics and upbringing and soul that made me pretty darn good at some things. Even so, a big part of my identity is still wrapped up in being “the smart kid.” I was labelled “gifted and talented” in kindergarten, and I spent my entire childhood being praised for the fact that schoolwork came easily to me. I’m sure kids to whom athletic ability came without apparent effort got the same kind of acclaim for being so good at sports. With that kind of reinforcement, it’s easy to start thinking that the world owes us merely for existing, just for being smart/artistic/strong/what-have-you.

We all have our gifts. The question is, Do we wear our gifts like name tags, mere labels that tell others what we are? Or do we take our gifts as a cue to give of ourselves, to use our talents for tikkun olam, repairing the world?

If I do not give of my gifts, I am a storm cloud that blows and rumbles and puffs itself up with accumulated rain that it never lets fall to the parched earth. If I do not give, I help nothing in this world to blossom.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

#BlogElul 27: Intend

#BlogElul 2013I don’t know how successful I will be, but I intend to practice mindfulness during services during these upcoming Days of Awe.

Distraction seems almost as much a part of High Holy Day services as the distinctive nusach, melody, or the presence of certain prayers we say at this time of year. The synagogue is likely to be as crowded as it ever gets, and we will be surrounded by families and friends greeting one another in what they seem to think is a whisper. There will probably be a few kids running around, perhaps adding their own punctuating remarks to the service — I still smile when I think of the heartfelt “Yaaaay!” that issued from a tiny person at the conclusion of a long prayer one year at the Naval Academy’s Jewish chapel.

Services are often noisy, they’re long, and the sanctuary is packed with more people than it sees all year. The liturgy is different, we haven’t heard the melodies since last year, and the English translation paints a picture of kings and judges and sin and redemption that may seem archaic to our modern Western sensibilities. It’s not easy for me to get into a prayerful state of mind.

This year, I intend to try something a little different. Instead of getting frustrated when my attention wanders to the miniature family reunion happening two rows over, the kid in a kippah and a necktie making faces at his sister, or speculation about the lunch menu, I am going to try to simply notice that my focus has drifted. Then I will gently regather my thoughts and bring them back to the prayer service. I’ll probably have to do this many times.

I’m very curious to see whether/how this mindfulness exercise will change my experience of the service. By acknowledging that my attention is going to wander and that when it does, I can gently pull it back, I hope I can get away from viewing every inevitable little distraction as a crack in my brittle concentration. I intend to cultivate a springier sort of focus, one that allows me to take in all parts of the synagogue experience — including the “whispered” chatter, the fidgeting people, and the way the light flows in through the windows. I want to be present as fully as I can.

That’s my intention, anyway. We’ll see what happens when I actually walk into shul, pick up a machzor, and join with my people in welcoming the new year.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

#BlogElul 26: Hope

#BlogElul 2013Perhaps I ought to be writing a post about grand, world-embracing hopes. You know, stuff like peace throughout all the lands, spiritual enlightenment, freedom and justice for all — that sort of thing.

I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who came here looking for something noble and inspirational, but I’m afraid the hopes that are noisiest in my head right now are not nearly so high-minded. They mostly boil down to, “I hope Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner goes well.”

As I related in my first #BlogElul post, we are having a few people over for dinner to welcome 5774. We don’t have much experience hosting dinner parties, but we jumped in and invited people over anyway. That was all well and good, but still firmly in the airy-fairy realm of the theoretical up until this weekend. It’s all starting to get real now, though, with my husband’s folks arriving at the airport this evening and the big grocery list coming together in earnest. I have a lot of hopes, mostly aligned with those obnoxious what-if scenarios that plague me with vivid images of all that could go wrong.

I hope the brisket isn’t tough.

I hope my father-in-law’s allergy medicine and our vacuuming are enough to keep the cat hair from making him miserable.

I hope the challah dough rises properly.

I hope my round challah doesn’t turn out as derpy-looking as my practice attempt a few weeks ago.

Challah fail.

Challah fail. (It still tasted good, at least.)

I hope I don’t spill red wine on the white tablecloth (or in anyone’s lap).

I hope we don’t miss anything egregious in our pre-guest cleaning.

I hope our grocery run this morning includes all of the stuff we will need, because those last-minute panic trips for that one missing key ingredient are no fun.

Most of all, I hope we all have a joyful evening together with friends and family. Everything else is secondary, I know, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hope for smoothness and perfection. Even if we run into some bumps, though, I hope for the wisdom to appreciate that the most important thing at the table is not the decor or a magazine-cover-worthy meal.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

#BlogElul 25: Begin

#BlogElul 2013The sun is going down here in Pensacola, its descent about to usher in the fourth and final Shabbat of Elul. The moon is already past its last quarter phase, and it will wane over the next handful of days until it becomes a tiny sliver of a crescent, then disappears from view entirely.

That sounds like a lot of endings, but it feels to me like the real beginning of the High Holy Days.

If Elul is the long, slow, ominous clickity-clacking ascent up the roller coaster’s first hill, then we are almost at the top. We have a fabulous view of the world below. Wow, this feels higher than it looked from the ground. Our hearts are beating a little more quickly. We take a few deep, nervous breaths (or I do, at least). In just a few moments, the car will crest the hill and gravity will do its job. It’s far too late to get off, and only now, nearly at the end of that agonizing climb, are we beginning to wrap our minds around the ride we’re in for.

At this point on a roller coaster, a big part of me is usually wondering what the hell I was thinking, strapping into this farkakte machine in the first place. Why do I do this to myself? Why didn’t I stay on the ground? Instead, there I am, subjecting myself to the sheer, dizzying inevitability of the moment before the plunge.

Click-click-click-click... Photo by Gwen's River City Images (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Click-click-click-click… Photo by Gwen’s River City Images (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Another part of me is as taut and eager as a leopard ready to pounce. Soon, that part of me says, you finally get to scream out loud.

The Days of Awe are the emotional pinnacle of the Jewish year. All the work we have done during the long slog of Elul, all the soul-searching, all the times we wanted to quit soul-searching, all the faltering steps toward teshuvah, toward repentance and return… it all comes together when we all come together in congregations around the world. Together, riders on the same roller coaster, we will cry out along with the shofar, flying high and diving into the depths at wind-whipping speed.

We aren’t there yet, but I can see the top of the first hill from my vantage point here, on the cusp of the last Shabbat of 5773. When the climb reaches its apex, then the ride will really begin.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.