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To Begin Again

When I found out I was pregnant, I had mixed feelings. The Jewish holidays helped me navigate the difficult emotional journey that followed.

Danya Ruttenberg
May 02, 2016
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The baby that I wasn’t sure I wanted to have was due around Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah on Sinai. A time of revelation, of divine bestowing.

And yet, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be bestowed upon. Part of me was drawn to the prospect of raising a third child; I loved the first two beyond words, and when I squinted really hard I could envision an extra laughing face at the breakfast table who could bring us all more joy. But another part of me wasn’t so sure. Caring for the two kids I already had felt like it demanded my all my available bandwidth; with a third, what would become of my work? My selfhood? My sanity? Where would a whole extra person, full of his or her own demands and needs, fit into the chaotic, multidirectional pull that so often characterized my parenting moments?

But my husband desperately wanted another kid, and part of me did, too. Would it be wrong to try to choose the love that seemed to be there, deeper down, despite the panic that was so much closer to the surface? After a year of agonizing, I decided to hold my breath and leap.

I had hoped that I would be less ambivalent after seeing the two lines on the drugstore stick. I wasn’t. Instead, I sobbed, terrified, in the bathroom.

This was right around the first day of Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar—a time of inward reflection, a time to understand what kind of person we have been so that we can make different choices in the year to come. I had become a woman who wasn’t sure if she had just made the biggest mistake of her life.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I prayed to find hope amid the dread, nausea, anxiety, and fatigue. As difficult as it was to access optimism about my situation, though, I knew one thing: what the baby’s name would be. It was a beautiful name, one fitting the season of divine receiving into which she or he would emerge. It was a name for a baby I wouldn’t regret.

The eight-week ultrasound was scheduled for the day before the first night of Sukkot, the first major festival of the year. I had been nervously awaiting the appointment, hoping that when I saw the actual real human person in there, my heart would finally open as I needed it to.

The section of the Torah in Deuteronomy that tells the Jews to observe Sukkot instructs us, v’samachta b’hagecha: You shall rejoice in your festival. It’s the holiday of the autumn harvest, the last ingathering before we hunker down. During the week of Sukkot, Jews eat and sleep in fragile, temporary dwellings—made of a few wood beams, fabric walls, leafy-branched roofs—in order to remember that, even at a time of great bounty, we are vulnerable. Just as we’re poised on the precipice of winter and its great uncertanties, that’s when we’re commanded to be happy. “Season of our joy,” the liturgy calls it.

My husband and I arrived at our midwife’s office at the appointed time and were settled into the ultrasound room. There was the usual ritual of paper sheets, goopy gel.

I glanced at the monitor, and immediately I felt it, somehow like a jolt and a warm bath at the same time. I loved that baby. Already. The feeling had been there all along, waiting to rise to the surface once I had burned off all the fear. Tenderness coursed through me. I silently whispered the baby’s name. This was already someone—my someone.

Then the ultrasound tech looked up at us. “I’m afraid there’s no heartbeat,” she said. “I’m sorry.” The eight-week-old fetus had stopped developing at six-and-a-half weeks. Sometime between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, the question “Who will live, and who will die?” had been answered.

We sat, numbly, in the midwife’s office and she explained our options to us. It was a Tuesday. The soonest they could get me in for a D&C was Friday, the second day of Sukkot. Techincally it was a holy day in the Diaspora, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was a legitimate override of the usual prohibitions on work. It didn’t exactly feel in the spirit of things to observe this particular holiday with my dead fetus in my body, waiting for nature to take its course in slow motion. I could barely breathe knowing that I had to walk around and eat and sleep with a baby who would never be a baby inside of me; I needed to be done having my miscarriage as quickly as possible.

None of the sadness and grief that I was experiencing felt like productive, useful sadness and grief, the kind you push through in order to find the light again. Where I was could only be understood as aninut, the stage of mourning between death and burial. I was trapped between pregnant and not-pregnant; nauseated and bloated, still full of all the hormones that the body produces in order to gestate and nurture, but not giving anybody life. There’s a reason that Jews bury their dead quickly; you can’t grieve or move on during the awful long limbo. V’samachta b’hagecha: You shall rejoice in your festival.

I spent the next day, before the holiday started, stoned on movies and sugar. The present moment only offered a pain without healing, a pain that just had to be endured. The first day of the holiday, though, my kids were off school. We’d been invited to a huge lunch event in some friends’ sukkah; most of our extended community would be there.

I walked with the kids over to the lunch. There was no moment in which I was not aware that there was a dead fetus inside of me.

I could have told people, certainly; I just didn’t want to.

Instead, I asked after acquaintances’ work, vacation plans, home renovation projects. I put hot dogs and challah on my kids’ plates for them. I helped clean up.

V’samachta: You shall rejoice.

Some traditional commentators ask, how can you possibly command a person to be happy? They note that the passage in Deuteronomy actually reads, “And you shall rejoice in your festival: you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates. You should hold a festival for God your deity for seven days.” Rejoicing, here, it turns out, involves performing an action: showing up to a celebration, being with others. As is the case in so many ways in my tradition, how you feel isn’t nearly as relevant as what you do. The Talmud simplifies things even further: “One fulfills the obligation of rejoicing by clean clothes and aged wine.”

That Thursday, I sat in a sukkah. I had managed to get clean clothes on. I made small talk with people in my community. I drank a glass of chardonnay. Technically, I guess, I rejoiced. But there was no joy.

The wait at the hospital on Friday morning was agonizing. On all other holy days I turn off electronics; on this holy day, I played Candy Crush on my phone to focus on something, anything, until the anesthesiologist arrived.

Six nights later began another holiday: Simchat Torah—literally, “rejoicing with the Torah.” It marks the end of one cycle and the start of another—the last passage of the Torah scroll is read, and then we re-roll the whole thing and begin a new year by reading the same book, section by section, all over again.

On Simchat Torah we leave behind our mourning of Moses’ death, leave the Israelites poised on the border of the Promised Land but not actually entering it, full of an anticipation that never comes to fruition in Deuteronomy itself. Simchat Torah is a time of dancing, of singing, of moving into the possibilities of a fresh year and of starting anew with the creation of the universe itself.

I didn’t make it to synagogue that night. I couldn’t. I spent the evening sitting on the floor, drinking wine, and weeping. I wasn’t ready to begin again, not yet.

I would be, though. Eventually.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, named by Newsweek as one of 10 “rabbis to watch,” is author ofNurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting.