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5780: Did we turn the corner?

I don’t know about you, but I could describe the last few months of 5779 as some form of: hanging on by my fingernails.

That’s how it felt – for months!

I don’t know why, it just seemed like so many things were kind of permanently stuck, permanently dragging, permanently pointless. It was hard to get out of bed… It was hard to stay focused once I’d managed that part… It was so hard to keep going, to keep doing stuff, to keep my house clean, to keep making food for Shabbat, to keep saying my morning brachot, to go out for a walk.

Everything was such an effort, such a drag.

We are in to the fourth day of 5780, and what I can tell you is this:

The energy of this year is totally different from what came before.

Even Rosh Hashana felt so different this year.

Usually, I hunker down on Rosh Hashana, and wait for the feeling of oppressive din, and panic, and yirah to dissipate a little, so I can come out of hiding and stop holding my breath. The last few years, Rosh Hashana has been mostly difficult, for a whole bunch of reasons.

This year, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I can say that I came close to actually enjoying Rosh Hashana.

Me and the girls were out for two meals, home for the others, and none of us were stressed and fighting. Nobody was moaning that my husband was in Uman. No-one was stressing that they didn’t have the right thing to wear, or that their hair looked horrible (I’d like you to believe that last statement is referring to my children….)

We didn’t feel lonely, we didn’t feel out of place, we didn’t feel lost in the world or lacking.

Even more amazingly, I managed to find a body of water that the Jerusalem municipality couldn’t turn off for Rosh Hashana, to prevent residents from chucking their challah into it at tashlich.

So for the first time in at least five years, me and my girls all managed to do tashlich, and to actually do it on Rosh Hashana itself.

I spoke to someone yesterday who has also had quite a challenging few years here in the Holyland, and they said the same thing: there was a great feeling floating around on Rosh Hashana 5780.

There is hope in the air again, there is a light illuminating the path.

Dawn has finally broken.

That’s how it felt.

Now, I’ll guess we’ll see what happens next.

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So, when I went to London, I thought I had two weeks to go until Rosh Hashana.

And the truth is that I did a week and a half ago, when I was planning my trip to the UK.

So when I got back just now and saw that Rosh Hashana is FOUR DAYS AWAY I freaked out.

I am completely not ready for a new year right now. I feel like Elul passed me by in a blur, blotted out by my mid-life crisis and my kids both starting new schools. There’s been precious little cheshbon hanefesh going on, precious little formal teshuva, precious little looking back over the year to see what I need to really atone for or fix.

Spiritually, I’m all over the place at the moment, still trying to figure out who the real me is, religiously.

And now it’s Rosh Hashana again, that most dreaded, awesome, and for me plain awful time of year, when everything is hanging in the balance for the future.

How can God judge me favorably this year, when I spent the first three months of it crying my eyes out and sketching out mental plans in my head to move back to the UK, (God forbid) so I could start to feel like a human being again?

That darkest night of my soul coincided with Rav Berland being falsely locked up in an Israeli prison at the end of November, and there’s an idea that when you’re connected to the Tzaddikim in any way, you kind of experience a very small fraction of what they’re going through.

So with each milestone of the Rav’s slow redemption, I’ve been feeling better.

When he finally left prison for house arrest at Hadassah hospital, the gloom lifted a little. When he returned to Musrara, the gloom lifted a lot.

But I have to say that since Shavuot, when he came back and I’ve been trying to pray with his community once a day, I’ve been hit by an internal ‘Hurricane Rivka’ pretty much every day. I seem to get so much inner work to deal with when I’m by the Rav, and it’s blowing away so many of my certainties, flooding me with humility (and occasionally a deep sense of shame), and fusing all my ideas about who I really am and what sort of spiritual level I’m really standing at.

Sure, it’s all for the good, because as Rav Dessler taught, the problem isn’t so much that people do bad things, because we all do bad things all the time. The problem is that we don’t acknowledge our bad, and try to pretend that we’re someone and something we’re not.

And at least for me, that option has been taken off the table the last few months.

And now, it’s Rosh Hashana 5778.

What’s going to be?

The honey cake isn’t made, the menu isn’t planned, the shopping isn’t bought – and now it’s two days away. That lack of external prep seems to be mirroring the lack of internal prep.

What’s going to be?

Whatever it is, it’s clearly going to come as a present this year. I can’t throw all my good deeds at the Lord this year, and proudly proclaim my piety. I’m a mess! I’m relying on God’s mercy 100%.

But maybe, that’s the way it should be?

The last few years, I’ve really dreaded Rosh Hashana.

Now, before you start jumping up and down and blaming that on the fact that my husband goes to Uman, let’s be clear that the last few years I’ve had massive issues on pretty much every religious holiday, not just Rosh Hashana – and the bloke’s been home for the other ones.

A big part of it is that I still have no-where to daven where I feel I’m really part of something, which is usually really only an issue on Rosh Hashana. Yom Kippur I fast (badly…) so I generally always just spend most of the day in bed, and daven at home.

But Rosh Hashana is different.

Rosh Hashana, we’re meant to listen to 30 shofar blasts (minimum), and preferably 100, together with our community. And that’s a huge bone of contention for me, because I still don’t belong anywhere.

The first year I was in Jerusalem, I dragged my two kids off to try and find a synagogue to pray in, in the Old City. I went to what I thought was an ‘Anglo hotspot’ – except all the Anglos had gone back to the US for the high-holy days, and the three women left behind all had bullet-proof tights and stern expressions. The Yom HaDin made flesh.

Also, the air-conditioning had packed up, so one of my kids started to feel hot and flustered, and then pulled out her ‘I’m about to have an asthma attack’ get out of jail free card, which gave us all the excuse we needed to leave in a hurry and try to find somewhere less suffocating.

So then I tried the Kotel, but I couldn’t find anyone to daven with, and I couldn’t hear anyone actually blowing the shofar, so I said the Amidah service by myself, standing at the holiest site in the world and surrounded by hundreds and thousands of Jews, but feeling so cut off and disconnected from everything and everyone.

The next Rosh Hashana, I tried a different tack.

I told my kids that they could pick the shul, and I’d tag along. At that point, they were both in school in the Old City of Jerusalem, so they went where most of their friends went, to a gorgeous newly-built synagogue tucked just behind the Wailing Wall in the Muslim Section.

As I tripped down the stairs of the Arab Shuk on the first day of Rosh Hashana, taking the short-cut that only fool-hardy tourists or Arab-inured residents use, I suddenly stopped in my tracks as a squad of Israeli riot police blocked the path in front of me.

Clearly, some sort of fight was going on, and as the Arabs all nipped upstairs to get their CNN-quality video cameras shouldered to record yet another ‘injustice’, I looked around and realized that I was the only civilian Jew there, standing in a sea of smouldering Arab hostility.

After five minutes, I was allowed to pass on, but the violence continued over the next two days. While the shul was gorgeous, the davening nice enough and the people friendly, I had to stand up in the middle of the service on the second day to shut the windows to try to drown out the guttural Arabic chant of ‘Kill the Jews!’ coming from outside.

What a way to start the year.

There’s an idea in Judaism that once something happens three times in a row, that’s a very strong portent that it’s somehow got ‘stuck’ or ‘fixed’ in your life. God forbid, that I should have such drecky, awful, lonely, horrible Rosh Hashanas until I croaked!

So last year, the third year, I got so terrified about how bad, miserable and lonely I was probably going to feel on Rosh Hashana – the beginning of the new year!!! When you’re setting the pattern for the whole rest of the year!!! When your whole life is hanging in the balance, being decided!!! – that I tried to run away from my life and go to a hotel in Tiberius with my children.

The upside of doing that was:

1) I didn’t have to cook (another bone of contention…).

2) We could spend the chag with other people who also clearly didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere else.

3) I could join the hotel minyan for davening, which suited me just fine and also was very easy for my two kids, when they were ready to put in an appearance for shofar blowing.

The downside of doing that was:

1) It was REALLY expensive.

2) I set the tone of being kind of ‘absent’ from my real life for the whole rest of the year.

I only realized that last one a few weeks’ back when I was pondering on 5777 and I realized that I was kind of AWOL in my own existence the last few months. Life’s been passing me by like a blur, and I haven’t been able to grab hold of any of it.

Why?

Because I ran away from my real life on Rosh Hashana, and I’ve been doing that all year.

And I thought I’d got away with it, mostly, except today we’re three weeks away from Rosh Hashana, and that familiar sensation of feeling incredibly miserable, and alone and out of place has descended upon me again.

God, not another year going into Rosh Hashana like this!

I really thought I’d vanquished most of these poor me, sad feelings, but hey, at least today they’ve come flooding back again as I try to figure out what’s going to be with Rosh Hashana.

I have a ray of hope. Rav Berland is here for Rosh Hashana, barely two minutes’ walk away, and I have a feeling there’ll be an Uman-esque vibe around Musrara, where I live, for the Chag – but what that actually means in practice, I have no idea.

Only, that things will be different this year, somehow.

Because they have to be.

This year, it’s more important than ever to send your husband to Uman for Rosh Hashana.

I know, I could give you the whole big shpiel about how if you send your husband to Uman for Rosh Hashana, it will bring world peace, and speed the coming of Moshiach, and help to rectify the whole of Am Yisrael.

And that stuff’s all true, and all described in detail in various Breslov sources. But girlfren, really? You should send your husband to Uman for Rosh Hashana because between you and me, I know how annoying that guy can be, at least occasionally.

Yes, he’s sweet, and good-hearted and hard-working and often quite loving and generous. But he’s also half-earth, and that ‘earthy’ bit of him is far to drawn to making money, and cheering on the team, and spouting off ridiculous opinions, and spending too much time watching movies or surfing online.

I know how hard you’ve tried to get him to make more effort with the kids, and to get him to stop walking around like an egotistical stuffed-shirt, and to get him to open up and to be ‘real’ about what he’s really feeling, and what fears and worries he’s got that are really causing him to act and believe the way he does.

I know all this stuff makes pulling teeth (the old fashioned way, with a piece of string and minus anaesthetic…) look like a walk in the park, which is why I’m here to tell you straight what works to get the guy back on the right spiritual path. And it’s spelled:

U-M-A-N.

Like so many of the Uman ladies out there, I don’t send my husband for an expensive, inconvenient jaunt to anti-semitic Ukraine just for the heck of it. I encourage him to go because I know how much spiritual help he’s going to get by Rabbenu at Rosh Hashana, that’s going to carry him – and me – through all the challenges we have to face in the coming year.

I know that sending my husband to Uman for Rosh Hashana means he’s going to come back with a drop more humility, a tad more introspection, an ounce more gratitude and generosity, a page more of learning, a bissel more emuna.

The guy goes to Uman, and he comes back and realizes all by himself, without me saying a word, that he needs to spend more quality time with the kids, or that he needs to stop worrying about money so much, or that he needs to start playing soccer again. (Hey, not every revelation you get in Uman is easy to predict…)

When our blokes go to Uman, they come back better husbands, and nicer dads. They come back with a lot more of a clue about their real path in life, and how best to travel it. And most important of all, they come back with much more appreciation for their homes, families and the good cooking of their loving wives.

And this stuff is priceless, never mind all the other spiritual ‘saving the world’ stuff that goes on there at Rosh Hashanah time.

There’s still time to book his ticket and lodging, and to make it even easier for you, I’ve pulled together some numbers to call. Try:

Derech Tzaddikim: +972-2-541-0100 – www.zadikimtours.com

David Bargshtein Tours: +972-2-999-2955 – david@dbtours.co.il

Netivim Tours: +972-2-633-8444

Glatt Tour: +972-2-547-7600 – www.glattour.com

I know it’s not easy to pull the money together, I know it’s not easy to manage without him over the High Holidays for a few days, I know it’s mamash mesirut Nefesh (self-sacrifice) for the ladies who stay behind with their challenging broods.

I’ve had some years where I have absolutely dreaded the logistical part of sending my husband to Uman, because it means I’ve been stuck alone with my kids over a three day Yom Tov. Before I moved to Jerusalem, I’d at least get regular invitations as an ‘Uman Widow’ to break up the time, and I had a regular place in the local shul.

But since I’ve lived in the Holy City, Rosh Hashana each year has been quite a struggle. I don’t know where I’m davening (or sometimes, even if I’m davening…), I have no invitations, I have to deal with stroppy teenagers who think I’m retarded all by myself, without my husband acting as their foil.

But you know what? It’s still so worth it. Why do I say that?

Let me end by sharing the story of a lady I met a few years’ back, who was adamant that her husband shouldn’t go to Uman at Rosh Hashana, because Rosh Hashana was family time.

She was experiencing some serious difficulties with him, and his behavior, and no therapist or counsellor could touch them with a barge pole.

So, I suggested she send him to Uman for Rosh Hashana, and I got back a very stony stare, and a big explanation of how Rosh Hashana was a time when the family should be together. As the marriage continued to head South, each year I’d call her up in July and suggest that maybe, just maybe, this was a good time to send her husband off to Uman.

Each time, she emphasized how important it was for her family to stay together, and there was nothing I could say or do to change her mind.

Then last year, she got divorced.

It really was so very important for her family to stay together, and maybe if she’d sent her husband off to Rebbe Nachman, they’d have had a better chance of making that happen.

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Rosh Hashana is never an easy time of year for me, as I usually feel the ‘din’ in the air and I spend a lot of time in a state of advanced internal stress.

That my husband goes to Uman really helps my peace of mind, because however ‘bad’ an experience I’m having at home, at least it comforts me to know that my husband is over by Rabbenu, getting the judgments sweetened on our family for the coming year.

But still, even with all the sweetening that’s going on in Uman, the last three Rosh Hashanas have been so hard for me and my family that as Elul began a few weeks’ back, I could already feel my stomach sinking.

Elul is here…which means Rosh Hashana will soon be here….which means two days of pure torture as we all just sit in the house feeling lonely, or try to find a shul somewhere with a tune I recognize…or I start thinking back to all the ‘fun’ Rosh Hashanas I seemed to have had back in galut, when I had a nice house and a big circle of friends…

The problem is that your mindset on Rosh Hashana sets the tone for your year, so if you’re feeling down, lonely, lost, victimized and ‘bad’ it doesn’t bode so well for the next 12 months.

My girls have also had difficulties getting into ‘happy’ mode on Rosh Hashana, as all of their friends disappear to do family things, and the three of us are left sitting at home and staring at each other, trying very hard not to feel too sorry for ourselves.

But this year, God gave me an idea to do something different. This year, I found a hotel in Tiberias that was meant to be catering to the Israeli Chareidi crowd for Rosh Hashana, and we booked to stay there.

A huge weight fell off my heart to know that this Rosh Hashana, it was going to be different. I had no idea if it was going to be ‘nice’ or ‘enjoyable’, but at least different, and that was a good start.

Tiberias is much, much hotter than Jerusalem, but given that it was already October, I wasn’t so worried.

As we got in the car to head up North, the temperature slowly climbed until it hit 40 degrees… WHAT?!?!? Even in the Summer that’s rare and a heatwave. Tov. I told myself and the kids: ‘Whatever God is going to bring us on this trip, we’re going to be happy with it.”

After a massive traffic jam, we finally got there an hour before the Chag. I ripped toilet paper. I made up the third bed in the room for my daughter. I went out on to the balcony to read my ‘Seder Vidui Devarim’ looking out on to the Kinneret, and I nursed a secret hope that this Rosh Hashana would be much better than the last few.

We went downstairs to the lobby to wait for supper, and were quickly surrounded by Jews of every type: Sephardim with the standard ‘Tunisian Savta’ in a wheelchair; Chareidim with a bunch of kids; the odd tattooed, tanned woman in a tank top who looked like she’d been dragged there against her will, to be with the mishpacha.

There seemed to be a few single women there too, older types who either wanted a break from all the cooking and / or just wanted to be somewhere around people for Rosh Hashana.

To cut a long story short, despite the rattling aircon in our room, the very hot, humid weather and the fact I was staying with two teenagers (!) we actually had the best Rosh Hashana for a very long time, baruch Hashem.

Watching all the complicated family dynamics playing out all around us worked a treat to make me see how spending holidays with ‘family’ is usually a bittersweet experience. My kids loved the 8 desserts – and better yet, hated the 8 desserts by the end of their stay as they realized that while it all looked so good, it made them feel like they wanted to throw-up afterwards.

I realized my cooking is still pretty darned good (a huge thing for me…) and also, that my life, my kids, my family is also very nice exactly how it is.

As a couple of bonus treats, God arranged for us to somehow find Rav Dov Kook’s shul in Tiberias, so I got to see him from the women’s section and hear some shofar blowing there. And on the next day, we managed to track down the ‘Tomb of the Imahot’, where six of our righteous women are buried, including Moshe’s mother and wife, Bilha, Zilpa and Elisheva, the wife of Aaron HaKohen.

The feeling I got by the holy mothers was so nice, I stayed there for 45 minutes saying some Tikkun Haklalis.

Towards the end of the Chag, I noticed one of the signs the organisers had posted up on the wall telling guests that their mood on Rosh Hashana was a good indication for the sort of year they were going to get. For the first time in about five years, I felt good on Rosh Hashana, and calm, and at peace, and happy.

Yes, it cost a lot of money to go there. But it helped me and my family go into the new year with feelings of gratitude and contentment, instead of feeling lonely and dissatisfied.

And getting a good start like that was worth every single penny.