| Musings |

The Island

After years of facing a closed door, I now stand on the other side


in shul, the same one I’ve always davened in. Same table, same white tablecloth, same people sitting in their time-honored places. I’m davening out of the same machzor as last year and the years before that, but somewhere at the beginning of Mussaf, it hits me that everything is different.

I’m standing for Shemoneh Esreh and around me I hear sniffles, people pressing their faces into their machzorim, a cloud of intensity hovering above the women’s section. I’m saying the words slowly, unhurriedly, and it dawns on me that I’m not caught up in the intensity. I feel light and calm. There’s none of the desperation I usually associate with the Rosh Hashanah tefillos; I’m not trying to push my own pleas into the words that speak of His Kingship.

Everything is different. I’ve been helped. I’ve been touched by His mercy. I know He can help. After years of facing a closed door, I now stand on the other side.

I recall past Rosh Hashanahs, gripping the machzor with clammy fingers, feeling alone in a crowd of congregants. Far out at sea, storms and tears and flailing emotions, whispering the same urgent plea over and over again. And then comes the vague guilt: Is Rosh Hashanah really a time to pray for our own personal requests or is it solely about crowning Hashem as King? And my assurance to myself that I can resolve the conundrum by putting the two together, saying, I’d be able to serve You better if only You’d grant me... But, if I’m going to be honest, in the face of pain, all thoughts of His Kingship slipped away, and there was only the plea for a life preserver as I foundered.

Now as I wait for the rav to bang on his shtender to signal tekias shofar, there’s none of that. I’m so heady with my fulfilled prayers, I don’t feel the need to ask for anything else. I stand there, feeling Rosh Hashanah transformed.

Whereas usually I’d mentally run through my bakashos while waiting for shofar, now I stop to look at the words, read over the translation, consider the explanations. I don’t beg, don’t plead, am not beset by my desperation. I’m in a space of calmness and light, and anything can happen. When I leave shul, I’m walking on air.

I never do have another year like that.

Life hits. There’s always something else to ask for, I realize, standing in the same spot the next year. I’m out at sea again; new waves, salt and spray and weeds.

I’m trying to find that calm and surety inside, but again I’m consumed by my needs and urgent wishes. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment; when else is the time to implore and beseech for the year ahead? If it’s intense, it’s because it should be, I tell myself.

But maybe it needn’t be? This year, as I pack my machzor and snacks for the kids and see what davening time I can try to finagle in shul, I think back to that Rosh Hashanah in shul a couple of years back. It had been a reprieve of sorts, a chance to catch my breath. A chance to experience Rosh Hashanah with childlike wonder — what are we saying now, we’re crowning Hashem King….

It was a reaction maybe, a shedding of the overcoat of the years that preceded it. I reveled in the feeling of not having to ask, not having to press and invoke and plead. It was a one-off.

But as my bakashos list looms large and I shudder and tremble at the thought of what will be decided on this day, I wonder if I can bring in some of the serenity from that other Rosh Hashanah — if I can step out of the sea and find an island where I can focus on the Malchus, on the day, instead of making it all about me. If I can reclaim some of that heady confidence, that childlike, secure sense of not having to beg because you know: That He listens, that He’ll answer you, that He can help in the biggest of ways.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 811)

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