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.
One thing I ask of the Lord; I will seek it: To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
It is the season of t’shuva, commonly translated as repentance but really meaning “returning.” Starting on the first of Elul—the Hebrew month before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year—we hear a daily wakeup blast from the shofar, and we recite Psalm 27, including the lines above. And I ask myself: what does it mean to live in God’s house? Not in some hoped-for afterlife, but here and now, all the days of my life?
As a child in a devout and open-minded Catholic family, I believed in God as I believed in my parents: unquestioningly.
At age 18, I suffered a crisis of faith. I had been taught in church that there was an Old Testament God—wrathful, vengeful, violent—and a New Testament God, the one we followed, who was generous, forgiving, and endlessly loving. Lacking sophistication and spiritual guidance, I couldn’t square these ideas with my belief that there is only one God. If the Old Testament/New Testament split is at the heart of Christianity, I decided, I could no longer consider myself Christian. It was an agonizing conclusion. But I still believed in God, unquestioningly.
Some 15 years later, when I decided to become Jewish, the beit din (rabbinic court) asked me about my observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws. They asked about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. They asked what I thought about Jesus. (My reply: I don’t think about him very much.) If the rabbis had asked whether I believed in God, I would have said yes. But they didn’t. After the beit din, I went to the mikveh and emerged as a Jew, my faith in God still unquestioned.
A few mornings ago, as I wandered around my backyard draped in my tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (don’t ask), I felt the urge to finish up my prayers so that I could get on with what I’m supposed to do.
That outlook was bad enough when I had a schedule to keep. Prayer is what I’m supposed to do, I would remind myself. It’s the way I’ve chosen to start my day. It’s not something to get out of the way so I can commence with the real stuff.
Now that I have quit my job and am not “supposed to” do anything, my impatience is just plain ridiculous. But the other day, the thought struck me from a different direction: I feel the need to finish counting my blessings so that I can start earning them.