"Coming to Yom Kippur through yirah is like a mafia sit down with an IRS auditor"
looked around, trying to “read” the room the way Cliff Grantes says we should, looking for the signs of engagement — eye contact, straight head, loose limbs. A lot of women had shown up to this Aseres Yemei Teshuvah Panel. The view from the dais was unforgiving.
Fifteen super-short sheitels on young women. Must be the new trend. I touched my own sheitel, which grazed my shoulder, then shrugged and leaned forward. Better listen, almost my turn. Blah blah blah blah, I was sure she was saying something beautiful and inspiring, but there were so many big words, I lost her. No worries about repeating her, at least.
The words Rosh Hashanah echoed suddenly from the mic, must be an audio blip. The rebbetzin speaking — I was pretty sure she was from Shaarei Ohr — jumped, tittered, then continued. Was Rosh Hashanah really over? It was all such a blur.
“And now we turn to Rebbetzin Chana Schwartzberg,” the moderator said, looking at me. The Shaarei Ohr Rebbetzin passed me the mic.
I sat straight. My turn to sound smart. What were we up to? I hoped it was something I’d gone over with Avrumi.
“Just reminding the audience that the question we’re addressing now is ‘How do you hope your community will grow in the coming year?’ ” The moderator was addressing the crowd but she might as well have directed it to me. Phew, saved for the moment.
I stifled the throat-clearing urge, Cliff literally loses it if we dare even purse our lips together. The mic felt sweaty in my hand. Were the other rebbetzins nervous too? Just start already, Chana. You prepped this answer. I adjusted my posture again.
“I hope this year we each bring a little more silly in our lives. Y’know, turn the music up in your car and dance along.” I demonstrated with jazz hands. “Until you realize the lady in the car next to you is watching and thinks you’re crazy. When you let yourself be silly, you let yourself be. It’s an act of self-acceptance — it says none of us are perfect, look how nutso we are. And when we accept ourselves, we end up being more forgiving to everyone around us.” I paused to let my words settle.
“Go look in a mirror and make a bunch of funny faces, it’ll make you laugh so fast. Do it with someone else and you won’t be breathing for the next hour. It’s a small exercise and sounds silly, I know, but it makes a difference.
“And, of course, all of this comes back to our relationship with Hashem. Everyone should be able to love Hashem and feel His love. Some people are already there. But for those of us who aren’t, loosening up, relaxing, can help us to get there. Our ego, our obsession on self-image, and how we appear all interfere with an honest self-assessment. If we can come before Hashem honestly, we can hear Him better. Like Rav Nachman says, one cannot be b’simchah without a mili d’shtusa.” I picked the mic up and stood, walking to the front of the dais. We weren’t supposed to, but Cliff says people are more comfortable with speakers who move, and besides I literally couldn’t sit anymore. I hoped the other rebbetzins didn’t mind too much.
“Y’know, there are some people who fly into a panic when Elul comes. They’re terrified and quaking and totally hating themselves. And then there are those of us who know we should be quaking because we’re far from perfect, but it’s just too hard and scary to focus on.
“But I think we could all be doing this a little differently. We’re approaching our relationship with Hashem through yirah, not ahavah.” I paused again, then shifted topics; Cliff had taught us this move.
“How many of you here are momtrepenuers?”
I scanned the room, more hands than I’d expected. Good.
“So how’s that going? Rough, no? No matter if you’re over the hump, starting a business is capital-H hard. And I’m sure some of you have either called in a numbers guy to help you figure things out, or been audited. Both guys are looking for every error you’ve ever made, but one guy you bentsh, the other you hate. What’s the difference?”
I pointed to one woman who’d raised her hand.
“The auditor is terrifying, and the numbers guy is also terrifying, but exciting too.”
Other women nodded.
“Yes!” I agreed. “Coming to Yom Kippur through yirah is like a mafia sit down with an IRS auditor. You’re quaking in your boots, hope they don’t find anything, you’re thankful when it’s over and hope if there’s a penalty it’s not too bad. It puts you into your place, but it’s easy to fall into a pit of self-loathing with this approach.
“When you come to Yom Kippur through ahavah, it’s like when you invite the numbers guy in. You knew something wasn’t right in your business, you knew it could be better, but you didn’t know what. You hope he finds stuff, you hope he finds everything. Because everything he finds is an opportunity for growth. When you walk out of those sessions you have your work cut out for you, but you’re empowered.
“We can only approach teshuvah from that place if we help put ourselves in that place to begin with. A place of simchah, a place where we can loosen up. And that’s why I suggest adding some silliness to your life — it might help you grow in your relationship with Hashem.”
I sat down, feeling a little weak. I’d never gone so deep into anything, I’m usually fluffier. I gotta give Yehudis credit, this course is giving me the tools to structure myself and take my speeches further.
“Thank you, Rebbetzin. Your words are so inspirational,” the moderator said, then moved on to the next rebbetzin. I looked out at the audience. Many women were looking right back at me, some nodding. One woman was rolling her shoulders, probably because this program was so long. They had listened. It felt so strange.
I looked down to the first row, Yehudis Schloss was sitting front and center. Arms crossed, legs crossed, eyebrows might as well be crossed.
I hope it wasn’t something I said.
“How do women do this more than once?” Leah kvetched from the couch. I was sprawled on the loveseat.
“Eh,” I flicked a wrist. “This is nothing. Second trimester is the easiest.”
“Easiest?” Leah’s voice rose an octave.
“Yup.” I sat up and looked around. The other kids were playing outside or taking Shabbos naps, we could talk freely.
“I’m still so tired. My back kills. My legs feel weird, like I can feel them, does it make sense, how is this supposed to be easy?” Leah whined.
I tried not to laugh. “Just wait till your third trimester, where rolling over in bed takes four-star general military-grade planning.”
“Ha,” Leah said.
She reached for the chocolate covered almonds on the side table between us. Her hand brushed the dish clumsily and it tipped, almonds cascading to the floor.
“Blech.” Leah got up and began collecting the almonds.
“See, if you were in your third trimester, you’d just leave them on the floor. If you were desperate, you’d ask Pinny to do it for you. There’s no way you’re getting up for lowly almonds.”
Leah looked up.
“Look, if you wanna play the kvetching game,” I continued, “my back is killing me, and I can’t stand for more than 20 minutes at one go. The doctor has me walking a half hour every day, that’s why I’ve been going to the library so much. But that doesn’t help the heartburn. I’m like a fire-breathing dragon.”
Leah settled back on the couch. She looked ahead at the door, avoiding my face. The bowl of remaining almonds was on her lap and she took one after another mindlessly.
“Can I have some?” I asked. Leah put the bowl back on the side table and got up.
“I’m going to lie down.”
“What happened to commiserating?” I smiled at her. She didn’t return the gesture.
“It’s kinda weird commiserating over pregnancy with your mother.”
She climbed the stairs.
Well, that didn’t work. I thought commiserating would help us bond. But she still walked away
.to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 701)
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