“I’m not ready!”
Maybe it’s human nature to put off the inevitable, because everyone I know approaches the final few days leading up to the Jewish New Year with the same lament:
There just isn’t enough time.
Not enough time to cook all the briskets. Not enough time to juggle and reschedule work projects. And certainly not enough time to get into the proper frame of mind, as the days of self-reflection, penitence and atonement loom.
For me, it’s always been the opposite. I have too much time.
Months before Rosh Hashanah, I start thinking about it, whether I want to or not. Actually, I did more than just think about it. I dreaded it.
It goes back to my childhood in New York City, when my father worked in a large Manhattan synagogue as the Ritual Director—the nuts-and-bolts guy who makes sure everything runs properly, so everyone else can focus on praying.
As you might imagine, the High Holidays are the Super Bowl for synagogue employees, and the weeks preceding Rosh Hashanah are the busiest, the most challenging and the most stressful time of the entire year.
My dad didn’t handle the pressure very well, at work or at home. Normally an affable sort, he’d grow increasingly tense, his temper would get shorter and sharper, and every now and then, for no apparent reason, he’d explode, frequently at me or one of my siblings. We kids would half-jokingly try to predict the next time “Mount Rosenberg” would erupt. Mostly we just wanted it to be over.
I’ve held onto those feelings as an adult, so even in early summertime my head begins to fill up with old memories and thoughts of my father. A lot of it is bitter. But some of it is sweet.
Especially when the big day finally arrives.
Among his many synagogue duties, my father was the designated Torah reader for all the services. One of the sections we read on Rosh Hashanah concerns the Binding of Isaac, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. At the last moment, with Abraham literally holding the knife at Isaac’s throat, God stops him, saying, in effect, “Don’t kill your son Isaac!”
Every year without fail, when my father would chant those lines in front of everybody, he’d break down. His voice would crack. He’d choke up. He’d have to stop for several seconds to compose himself. Most of the 1000-plus worshippers had no idea what was going on. A few knew.
Dad survived the Holocaust, but his family didn’t. He lost everybody; nine brothers, a little sister, both parents. His father’s name was Isaac.
As a little kid sitting in the back of the shul, I felt embarrassed, for me, and for him. Now I just wonder how he had the strength to do it, to stand there and read that story of a life saved and not scream, “What about me? What about my Isaac?”
Later in the service the cantor chants a section that extols God’s eternal and benevolent memory. One of the verses comes from Jeremiah, quoting God’s love for one of His children:
“Is he not beloved to me, my darling son Ephraim? As often as I speak of him, I do earnestly remember him still; My heart yearns for him.”
My father didn’t hug us very much and he never said, “I love you.” But once on my birthday he gave me a Jewish book for a gift. Inside the cover he’d written, in Hebrew:
“Is he not beloved to me, my darling son… Abraham?”
I still puddle up when the moment comes. The verse is sung in a beautiful, delicate melody filled with exquisite high notes, and I swear it sounds like someone in Heaven is talking just to me.
As emotional as those two moments are for me, they’re not my favorites. I look forward to one particular line at the end of a rather obscure poem we recite early in the day, before most of the congregation has even shown up. It’s a quote from the long-suffering Job, who marvels at the fact that “God suspends the universe… on nothing!”
Imagine. This giant Planet Earth, this perfectly-balanced spinning rock weighing six and a half sextillion tons and sheltering seven and half billion people…
And it’s all just out there, hanging in space…. on nothing!
Whether you’re a person of faith or not, this one reality has to make you stop and think. We go through our daily lives, walking on this rock, touching the green grass, drinking the water, breathing the air, eating food that grows out of that black stuff at our feet. We take it for granted because it feels so… normal!
Sorry, it doesn’t feel normal to me. It feels miraculous. And the more science I learn, the more miraculous it feels.
Take lightning, for example. Over the course of a year lightning strikes about 1.2 billion times around the world. There’s almost never a time when lightning isn’t striking somewhere, which turns out to be a very good thing, because each lightning bolt triggers a chemical reaction that turns oxygen into ozone, forming a protective shield around the Earth that filters out the sun’s deadly ultraviolet radiation.
If that process were to stop, even for a little while, we’d all be toast. Quite literally. But it doesn’t stop. It keeps going, actively protecting this giant rock, hanging on nothing.
I like to think of it as a bubble of God’s grace, and our Rabbis tend to agree. When they crafted our daily liturgy they wrote that “God, in His goodness, renews daily the works of Creation.” They didn’t believe that God created things for six days and then sat back to let evolution, Mother Nature or whatever take it from there. Rather, He is still creating, still maintaining, still protecting, still taking care of us, and like a father taking care of his kids, the job never stops.
Maybe with my father-son issues I couldn’t help but think about God as a parent, but it’s reassuring to see it turn up repeatedly in the High Holiday prayers. And funny thing, it’s taking some of the dread away.
Growing up we were taught that on Rosh Hashanah we’re supposed to emphasize God’s role as a King. And yet, over and over again, when we ask forgiveness, we put another term first. We always say Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King. The phrase comes from a Talmudic story of a sage who ended a crippling drought simply by saying the words, “Our Father, Our King, forgive us!” This sage, who was undoubtedly a parent himself, understood a basic truth:
Parents forgive. What else can they do?
If you have children, you don’t need me to tell you this. You already know. So do your kids. When one of them messes up and you want to punish him, what’s the first thing he says? I suspect it isn’t, “O great ruler of this four-bedroom Colonial, forgive me!”
Probably it’s more like, “Dad… Daddy… please?”
And of course you cave. Yeah, you take away the iPhone for a week or whatever, but you still cave, because parents forgive their kids.
So we put God in parent mode, and we don’t just ask forgiveness. We expect it.
Perhaps that’s why we carry this idea all the way through to Yom Kippur, very late in the afternoon, when we tell the story of Jonah and the whale, how Jonah questioned God’s decision to spare the sinning people of Nineveh. God’s explanation is stunningly simple. They’re my children, he says. How could I not forgive them?
The power of parenthood.
Would a king go to all the trouble of hanging a perfectly-formed universe in the middle of nothing and create such a complex shield around it and actively maintain it around the clock, to make sure no harm comes to us? Maybe. Would a parent? Are you kidding? Is there anything you wouldn’t do for your kids?
So we say Avinu, Father, before we say anything else.
Because it comes from the heart. It comes from the soul. It’s at our very core. It’s why folks like me lose it on the High Holidays, and if Jonah is right, and I think he is, it’s why God HAS to forgive us.
And that feels good. It’s reassuring. We know everything’s going to be OK.
And just for good measure, at the very end of Yom Kippur, we double down, tossing off one last, long string of “Our Father, Our King” pleas… over 40 of them!
Sometimes I can almost imagine God looking down at that moment and saying, “Don’t worry. You had me the first time you called me Dad.”
And maybe, just maybe, my Dad is smiling too.
And I’m ready.
Abe Rosenberg is a writer living in Los Angeles.