I hosted a crowd at my home for the Rosh Hashanah holidays. Add that to me, my husband, kids and grandkids, and we were quite a house full. Lots of people to house, feed, and keep happy. The basement was set up with guest beds and a crib. My daughter offered to move out of her room so we could give it to my mother. My daughter then moved into the bedroom of one of my sons who already had invited in another brother. Two on beds and my ten year old slept on a mattress on the floor. Two of my girls stayed in their old rooms, back now with husbands! Thankfully my husband and I got to keep our room! It gave us a place to escape the pleasant but harried business of round-the-clock hosting.
For days before the holidays I washed linens, borrowed mattresses and planned menus, made shopping lists and cooked, cooked and cooked some more. Made sure I had the special sugared cereal the little kids like, lots of salads for the vegetarians in the house, and main dishes and side dishes that would present a pretty plate. I labeled and juggled all the pans and dishes in the refrigerator and freezer to make room for the bounty. And I counted out the dishes I had in the cabinet for dairy and meat and convinced myself that it would be okay to use paper goods for the meals.
Throughout all the preparations I kept telling myself that I had to stop figuring out different ways of dressing a chicken and new ways of preparing potatoes and focus on the holy days. I wanted to know when it was going to hit me that we were about to usher in two of the most holy days in the Jewish calender.
It hit at candle lighting. Every Shabbat as I say the blessing over the candles I ask G-d to bless my family. But this holiday night was the eve of Rosh Hashanah- the Jewish New Year. The time that God prescribes what kind of year each Jew will have! And as I said the blessing I kept my eyes squeezed shut just a bit longer, picturing each person in my family. Will this year be the year my fourth daughter finds a man to share her life with? Will this year find my boys remaining so enthusiastically positive about their Bible studies? Will my husband continue to find the time to incorporate his volunteer work with his full-time job? Will I be able to keep finding the strength to hold them all together? I think of the power G-d has, holding our future in His hands and I tremble, for how worthy are we truly?
I remember as a child my kindergarten teacher explaining G-d’s weighing our merits against our sins. She brought in an old fashioned scale with a metal bowl hanging on each end of a chain. For the week before Rosh Hashanah every time one of us would do a good deed she would put a weight in the “Good” side, showing us how G-d is actually up there, measuring our actions. And it is in our power to tilt the scales in our favor by every thing that we do. He sees all, and I find that both petrifying and reassuring.
On our way to synagogue that night, as we pass our neighbors in the street, we nod and address each other with the customary, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” Again… an image from my childhood that remains strong. G-d, with a big book opened before Him wherein he writes the decree for each of His children. What a thought! To realize that at the beginning of the year G-d decides who would perish in a tsunami, in a car crash, by scuds, katyushas or a drowning at the beach.
I’m glad I get to the synagogue before services start because my favorite prayer is one that is meant to be said silently and privately before the holiday actually begins. It is called Tefillat Zaka- the Prayer of Merit. Its premise is that G-d only forgives our transgressions against one another if we first approach that person and ask him for forgiveness. And we try. We call friends and relatives to wish a good year and ask pardon for any wrongs we may have done against them through the year. But did I truly ask my mother to forgive me for sometimes speaking to her without the proper respect due her? Did I truly look into my husband’s eyes and apologize for not making enough time for him? This prayer proclaims that anyone who has wronged me and has not approached me for forgiveness is automatically forgiven in my eyes and should therefore not be punished by G-d because of me. I try to mean it. I try not to be petty and to think of those people who have wronged me towards whom I still feel unkindly. The prayer also goes through every part of the body and enumerates the sins we have committed with them. The inappropriate places our legs led us to, the slander our lips uttered, the impure thoughts our minds had. And it offers the alternative. To use our legs to run towards a House of Worship, to use our lips to utter praise to a child, and to use our minds to study G-d’s words and ways.
Back at home the feast begins with symbols. The foods are carefully chosen to add blessing and meaning to our meal. We dip apple in honey and chant, “May we be granted a good and sweet year.” We bite into a pomegranate and intone “May our merits be plentiful like the seeds of this fruit.” And we point to a head of a fish, placed on the table and say, “May our people always be at the head and not at the tail.” And we nibble on the fish and say, “May we multiply and be many like the fish of the sea.” This preamble to the meal is taken very seriously by the children who find it easier (as I admittedly do myself) to have something tangible to express the solemnity of the day.
I remember when my children were younger, I would drop my little ones off at our communal babysitting group… mothers who decided that they want a chance to pray without the inappropriate distractions and interruptions of their cherubic but disruptive children during Services. We would borrow a local kindergarten room, promise to keep it neat, and do a babysitting rotation, getting a shift of watching everyone’s children in return for having the rest of the two days to sit in synagogue and pray. Before the afternoon service I run out to the local playground to get my two small grandsons, wanting them to be part of what comes next. And I make it back just in time. The cantor calls out the name of the note and the Rabbi lifts the ancient ram’s horn, the shofar, to his lips and blows. I watch their eyes widen in a thrill of awe and I hold them tight, trying to absorb this tender ability to be moved. Oh, the sweet innocence of children. I remember the story told of a child who was uneducated, could not read or speak Hebrew, and never learned the words of the Services. But he wanted to serve his G-d and pray with the congregation on Rosh Hashanah. He entered the local synagogue and hesitantly approached the Holy Ark which housed the Torah Scrolls. He stood there, the congregants staring at him, unsure of his intentions. But he clasped his hands before him and called out the only Hebrew he knew—the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Everyone in the synagogue was moved to silence by this boy’s pure desire to return to God and the gates of Heaven opened that moment for these prayers. No one should ever be afraid to turn to G-d. For He is ready to welcome us, always. The plaintive moan of the shofar interrupted my reveries as it trumpeted its call to repent. Its repetitive bleating sounded like wailing—perhaps G-d was weeping for the error of our ways. The sharp tone cuts through me and I take it as a call to arms of sorts. I WILL be better this year. And I turn to G-d and ask Him, in spite of my poor merits, to bless me, my family, my land, and all the people of Israel and of the entire world with a year of love and peace.