Last year and the year before, the Jewish High Holy Days brought an especially welcome respite from the stress I felt in my daily life. Now, I’m trying to make my daily life a respite—that’s my self-styled Mary Oliver Challenge. So Rosh Hashana felt different this year. It was warm and communal, as always. But instead of providing a break from busyness, the holiday itself felt busy.
It was on Wednesday morning, after the two-day holiday ended, that I recognized this most clearly.
The previous two mornings, I curtailed my usual stretching-and-yoga practice so that I could get to synagogue—and I paid for that choice in the form of achy muscles. On the morning after, I indulged in the full practice, and my body thanked me for it. Then I put on my tallis and tefillin for my solitary morning prayers.
It took a long time to settle in. Thoughts kept running through my head—many of them good thoughts, feelings of gratitude, useful insights. I felt the privilege of sitting on my deck, in my beautiful backyard on a glorious late-summer day, with a cup of the delicious and fortifying coffee that I’m trying to wean myself from before next week’s Yom Kippur fast. I felt the privilege of having that time to devote to my self, my psyche, my soul. And as my thoughts gradually came to rest and I settled into myself, I realized how much I had missed that reflection time during the previous two days.
Rosh Hashana is a time for heshbon ha-nefesh, soul-searching. Yet as I sat in services at shul (synagogue), I found myself missing exactly that ability to go inside myself. Before I can connect with God, I have to connect with myself. And for that I need solitude, or at least the solitude of my thoughts. I need not to be engaged in something else.
Now, let’s be honest: lots of people find High Holy Days services to be skull-crushingly boring. Much has been written on that subject, and I won’t add to it. I’ll just note that at my shul—which I really, truly love—Rosh Hashana services are more participatory, less of a spectator sport, than in many synagogues, but less participatory than during the rest of the year. Unlike Shabbat and daily services, the High Holy Days have stretches where I don’t feel engaged. I could take the opportunity to tune out and meditate or follow my thoughts. But then along comes a melody I want to join in, or a sermon I want to listen to, and there goes my chance for introspection.
I’m not really advocating for services that are more boring. I’m not really advocating for anything. I’m just . . . well, reflecting.
Why do that out loud? I’ve already written about it in my journal and spoken about it with a couple of people I’m close to. What is my purpose in blogging about how I achieved less introspection on Rosh Hashana than on the day before and the day after?
As I considered that question, I realized that my need for a daily quiet time in which I can listen for the still, small voice affirms my decision to undertake this Mary Oliver Challenge—my decision to leave my job and live, for a while, without the stresses and rewards of daily expectations and accomplishments.
More: I suddenly realized that my morning routine—which I so often feel an urge to rush through so that I can get on with my day—is actually the most important part of my day. It’s where I find myself. Or, at least, it’s where I find my roots, which need daily tending before I can grow outward and upward into the world beyond my backyard. And this realization affirms the gift I’m giving myself by turning my life into a daily respite. It affirms that my struggle with too-much-freedom and not-enough-goals—my struggle, in the poet Mary Oliver’s words, “to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves”—is worthwhile.
I couldn’t ask for a better way to begin my new year.