Shalom Friends & Shanah Tovah!
What an honor to share the new year with you and feel the warmth of our Jewish community! Thank you for your presence!
This is an inspiring personal story I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s about a woman I’ll call Devorah who was born into a religious family in Israel. She is one of 8 siblings in a family of Haredi Jews, in an insular neighborhood in Jerusalem. She is what’s referred to as “FFB” Frum (Orthodox religious) from birth. Her life, like that of her parents, siblings, neighbors – basically everyone she knows – was guided by a regimented protocol. School, marriage, children, work – all within the boundaries of Shabbat Jewish holidays and Jewish law. Not much wiggle room and not much personal choice.
As a grade schooler, Devorah started to have questions. She asked about God and rituals and the whys behind their Jewish practices. She didn’t get answers. Neither her parents nor her teachers were equipped to discuss her questions let alone provide any helpful responses. So Devorah lived in fear. She always felt she would get in trouble for speaking her mind and be outed for not having perfect faith. She felt trapped; but even as she got older, she couldn’t see any way out. So Devorah pretended.
Devorah got married, had many children, worked to support her family. She lived a fully Orthodox Jewish life. From the outside she said people complimented her on what a beautiful, strong Jewish home she had created. Yet in private, she had become less observant. Checking her phone on Shabbat, reading secular books and news, secretly dipping her toe into the outside world.
Finally, after decades of living in fear, Devorah couldn’t take it any more. The fear of being caught cheating on her religion was greater than her fear of confessing. So she told her husband. It didn’t go well. He blamed, he accused, he reprimanded, he couldn’t understand and he couldn’t forgive. So she left her home, her family and her community. There is no happy ending to Devorah’s story … yet … as far as I know it is still evolving and she is still exploring who she wants to be.
I think about Devorah a lot these days. Here we are in this Jewish new year and to some degree we are all evolving and figuring out who we want to be. I think about Devorah’s fear and the courage it takes to break away from things we know. I think about listening to our inner voice – to our neshamah – and allowing that seed of self to grow and blossom anew each year. And I think about change and what is really possible – how we change and to what degree. And I think about guilt, shame and forgiveness and how to find some healing and safety amidst difficult experiences.
Rosh Hashanah brought us the mitzvah of the shofar. Often it is referred to as an alarm clock meant to wake us from our inattention and our busy rushing on the treadmill of life. This year to me, however, the familiar shofar blasts sounded more gentle and less jarring. Less wake up and more calm down; less hurry up and do better this year and more reassuring that what is already enough.
The shofar, along with so many Jewish rituals, can peel away many of the layers of distraction, and get us back to the basic questions. Who am I? In what areas do I want to evolve and in what areas am I content? What do I need and what can offer? What is my neshamah gently, lovingly, urging me to do?
I wish you calm and clarity on your journey into this new year.
Rabbi Amy Rader