Finding My Spiritual Safety Net in Synagogue
I led Rosh Hashanah services while awaiting my mom’s diagnosis and was reborn before the congregation
The rabbi was explaining how this day is about renewal, talking about fresh starts, rebirth. Every year, we get a chance to reevaluate, to change, apologize, grow, to understand things a little differently. In the third row, where they always sat, my family looked up at me. My grandmother was next to my brothers; my grandfather had died around the time I started college. Mom was beaming at me, but Dad wasn’t there yet. His blood sugar had been too low that morning, so he needed to stay home until he was well enough.
I got through the morning blessings, but I was gripping the podium hard, waiting to fall to pieces. The words felt foreign in my mouth. I couldn’t lift my eyes from the page, because I was sure I remembered nothing, that I had committed nothing to heart. And then, so soon, the rabbi was giving a grand introduction to Ha-melech, my first big moment in the service, taking plenty of time to set the stage. I tried to collect myself but found there was nothing to collect—I had scattered too far. Here was my cue and the sanctuary filled with sudden silence as everyone waited for me to sing.
I opened my mouth. I closed it again. Abruptly, it felt like the entirety of Rosh Hashanah was riding on my next breath and that if I stopped, the holiday would stutter to a halt with me. My heart was pounding. I can’t do this, I thought. I don’t understand any of it.
I looked out, and someone sneezed and someone whispered to someone else. And then I saw Dad, who had just come in. Our eyes met and suddenly he stuck his tongue out at me. I almost laughed but caught myself.
I began to sing. I let my fingers soften. I sang up the curve of the melody and my voice in the silence was a bright, soft ribbon, unfurling upward, shivering toward the sky beyond the roof. I pictured it as deep red against the humid air. I looked up from the words on the page.
The whole congregation was stretching out in front of me. My family had faded into the crowd.
And then, strangely, something shifted, the way things shift miraculously in stories about belief. All of those upturned faces blurred together until they were indistinguishable. Until instead of an expectant audience, they became an enormous safety net, spread under me. They were lifting me up. Their voices were supporting my voice. I remembered the way I had felt when I had finally relaxed during my first Rosh Hashanah on the bimah. When I felt history swell under me, and I was a part of something sacred. The remnants of ancient love. Music that transcended life and death and the complications of our delicate bodies. Something that might just last forever.
I closed my eyes and sang, and I remembered the words. I felt for a moment as though I might be able to find my way across the uncharted territory at the base of the cliff.
The next day, my mother’s blood test came back. It was nothing serious, after all. I didn’t thank God. But I felt somehow as though I was being given another chance. A little more time. As though there had been some sort of rebirth here, at the time of the birth of the world.
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