Last Thursday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Early last week I had it in mind to write a post about the impending holiday, but for reasons described elsewhere, I didn’t. Now that the first of the High Holy Days has passed, and with the impending arrival of Yom Kippur, some of the thoughts I have been turning over in my head have coalesced. First a little background on the Holidays.
There are four major holidays in quick succession this season starting with Rosh Hashanah, then comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, followed closely by Sukkot, and ending with Simchat Torah. Rosh Hashanah is the head of the year, a time for new beginnings, reflection on the past year, and anticipation of a good, sweet year to come. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe. On Yom Kippur, we fast and pray for forgiveness for any and all of our misdeeds, omissions, commissions, wrongs we have done others, and forgive others who may have wronged us. It is the holiest and most solemn day of the year. Many Jews who never go to synagogue any other time come for at least part of Yom Kippur. Observant ones spend the entire day praying. A few days afterwards comes the joyous holiday of Sukkot. It is the Jewish “Harvest Festival”. We build a sukkah (booth), a temporary shelter roofed with branches to remember both the impermanent dwellings we lived in during the 40 years in the desert after the Exodus and the structures farmers built in the fields to provide shelter during the harvest. We are commanded to “dwell” in them for seven days. The sukkah possesses a spiritual power and peace during those seven days that is quite remarkable. We usually take all our meals there, hang out during the day, and have gatherings of friends and families. It is really one of the most lovely holidays, my personal favorite. Immediately after the last day of Sukkot is Simchat Torah. On this day, we complete the reading of the Torah for the year, and because Jews are eager to continue studying Torah, we re-roll the scroll and begin reading it immediately. It is a time for great joy, dancing with the Torah, and in the Chabad custom, plenty of L’chaim (drinking).
Up to now Rosh Hashanah has been a very festive holiday. We usually have friends and families gather for a festive meal the evening before. We celebrate the coming new year, dip apples in honey, and wish each other a sweet new year. This year the holiday, as with all holidays now, Jake’s passing has sucked the joy out of it. For the first time I can remember, we didn’t have a dinner with our friends and family. We didn’t celebrate, we didn’t go to shul; we left town. We fled to Ojai for solitude and whatever solace we can find now. In fact, our normally lavish Rosh Hashanah dinner was take-out pizza we ate at home because we forgot the keys to the Ojai house, had to return to Venice to get them and then drove back up the mountain that same night.
On Rosh Hashanah, our Sages tell us, the great Book of Life is opened and the events of the coming year are inscribed. Who will live, who will perish, who will succeed, who will fail and so on. Naturally, we ask to be inscribed for life, success, prosperity, health and happiness. On Yom Kippur, this Book is sealed for the year. Theoretically, before it is closed, we have a chance to change the decree. This is why we spend all day atoning, confessing a litany of sins, repenting, and asking that we be granted a favorable inscription. So my question is, last year at Rosh Hashanah, was Jake written in this Book for death? Did God know then that he would die just a few months after sealing the book? Why? I know some will say, God has a plan that we don’t understand, that God needed Jake more than we did. I call bullshit. No one needed him more than us. Surely God could have done without him for a few more years; what’s another eighty years or so when you have all eternity? And by us, I mean all of us. This world. All the people who loved him, all the people he touched, all the people he would have touched. All the beauty he brought into the world, all the beauty he would have brought. All the light. What kind of merciful god is that? Aren’t we taught that Prayer, Repentance, and Charity can avert the severity of the decree? Well, we prayed our asses off, gave charity frequently, read Psalms, blessed him every chance I got, tried to be good and caring and honest and righteous people; did that change anything? Am I angry at God? If I truly believed in a being that controlled the universe in that way, a guy writing in a giant journal decreeing life and death, I might be. Am I disappointed? Indifferent? Losing my faith? Did I have enough faith to lose in the first place? Along with the joy, most of the meaning has been drained out of these holidays, all the holidays. If not wholly absent, those meanings are now transformed. I reevaluate my relationship with “god” every day, every hour. Do I even have a relationship? What is god anyway? Men have asked these questions for millennia. Some find answers in religion, some in nature, some in science, some in meditation. For me, there are far more questions than answers.
Yesterday was the 28th. Another 28th. Nine months. This 28th didn’t have quite the impact of the first few. One month. Two month. Six months. Nine months. So what. What does counting the days accomplish? To remind me how much I miss him? I don’t need any reminder, I miss him every waking moment. To remind me how much farther we have to travel? How many more 28th’s will come and go? All of them without Jake. As we get farther away from that first 28th, grief has deepened into a lasting sorrow; not as raw and immediate but far-reaching and more profound. It is difficult to articulate; there are no words to adequately explain my emotional state. It is like a stone in one’s shoe. Irritating at first, almost unbearable, but over time one gets used to the irritation, resigned to the discomfort. This is a stone in my heart. A huge gaping hole in my soul. A void that can never be filled. I am resigned to this unendurable sorrow, and somehow must find a way to endure.
These next few weeks will be difficult, as is any holiday or any occasion without Jake. We may not spend all day in shul on Yom Kippur. We will probably only go for Yizkor, the memorial service. We won’t have the existential delight that Sukkot usually brings. We won’t dance with the Torah with unbridled jubilation. We will trudge through these Holy Days as best we can, as we trudge through every day. One day after the other.
Tears tears tears tears……..more tears. Never forgotten.
Ed, I know words cannot ease the pain, but I would like you to know that I think of you and Jake often. You are regularly in my prayers, though, like you I’m not sure what the means anymore. I hope the days ahead afford you the opportunity to breathe when you need it most.
Mira- Your concern and thoughtfulness are deeply touching. Thank you for your continued caring support. Yes, there are no words. We are getting by. Learning to breathe when we can.
I was very moved by your latest blog. While I have not been as observant as you during my life, I can tell you that holidays are particularly sorrowful times since having lost Graham. Like Jake, he was in the bloom of life, set to launch into being most anything he wanted to be; a silicon valley techie, a composer in any genre, a writer of great depth and wit, a traveler with a boundless imagination, and ultimately, a father. But the promise was lost when he died tragically at the age of 23.
To say that we now lead diminished lives would be trite. Life has become a series of foreign encounters in which every place I go, every person I meet, every word I hear, every face, every glance, every lock of hair… is refracted through his absence; an absence more immense than any measure, custom, or ritual can capture; an absence greater than any presence. So how do we navigate this alien planet? I have no answer. All that was once an affirmation of life’s goodness, is now a reminder of the immeasurable brilliance we have lost. Maybe if we go through the motions of living long enough, it will eventually feel like we are living again?
Keep writing. Perhaps you’ll invent a better world?
Such an eloquent comment. Yes, a “series of foreign encounters”, in a land of people who don’t speak our language.As I read recently we have three choices: to die, to exist, or to live. I have been going through the motions for 9 months, and slowly, subtly I am learning to live. I am not there yet there, still existing, but each day brings something new, for good or ill. I wish only peace to you and yours during this difficult season.
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