I first began to write about how peaceful it was to sit still. In my garden this summer, recuperating from surgery, I watched the irises, the roses, and the hostas each take their turn to shine in maddeningly colorful bloom. And while it was true that I was sitting still reflecting, it did not grant me greater inner peace. Quite the contrary. Quiet reflection, something we are asked to do during this season, runs counter to the usual Jewish teachings of performing acts of tikkun olam, and counter to our modern lifestyles of cramming as much as we can, into a day. Quite frankly, sitting still was maddening for me.
I was not at peace. I had too much time to think. I found that quiet reflection yielded bitter, raw feelings. I asked myself, as I have this week, how might I have been more compassionate in the past, in these moments, these days, these fleeting years of what we have left? How can I be compassionate when at times, I feel rendered powerless? How can I accept the inability to fix everything that is broken? As a mother I am so used to fixing problems and now I no longer can. I knew my children would flit in and out of view this summer as they are supposed to do when finding lives of their own. Bereft of my father’s presence on this earth this year, and having lost my mother a few years previously, I knew that we cannot stop our loved ones from dying, yet that does not stop any of us from trying.
Throughout the last 6 years of caretaking for my parents, I learned to be grateful for the talks and the time and the hand holding and the story sharing. This is what makes us human and makes us love. This is also why the pain of the loss of a loved one is so great and why we take a long time to heal. I knew about healing. After all, my hand had been casted, then splinted, then bandaged and I was doing exercises four times a day to regain motion and strength. I think of Yom Kippur as a kind of Occupational Therapy for the heart. Not all of the exercises to achieve forgiveness and wisdom and clarity come at once. They might come very slowly just as wounds take a long time to heal and scars take a long time to fade.
The very quality of our humanness means we are imperfect. Sometimes we judge ourselves and others so harshly forgetting that the final judgment is not our own. We do not write the book of life. Only God does. Regardless of our desires to change the outcome, we must accept our limits and our mortality. In the ancient Sumerian tale written on tablets in cuneiform, Gilgamesh holds his dying best friend and only then understands that his life too will one day end. In accepting his mortality, he acknowledges his fear. His grief is great, for his friend, but more acutely, for his own loss of life, which means for him, that he is not invincible and all powerful.
I have learned there were limits to my altruism during caretaking. I fractured my relationship with a sister because I honored my parents and I don’t know if this break will ever heal. What happens if by following the commandment “honor thy parents” you cannot honor others? I followed my parents wishes until the last moment possible. I didn’t always deal well with other family members. I was short with them. I was tired from dealing with doctors and hospitals and multiple crises. I rejected criticism. I didn’t leave room for debate when they disagreed with health care choices. Should I have not put my parents first? Should I have done differently and been more sensitive, stronger?
I have more questions than answers. Sometimes I think that the longer I live, the less I know.
“Cease to be foolish, and you will live, you will grow in understanding.’” It says in Proverbs I and perhaps, in this, we are all perpetual beginners. We are all continuously learning new ways of being as we enter each new stage of life. Each new plateau of experience brings us to strange, deep and unaccustomed places where we have to acclimate and act quickly and decisively, particularly when the ill and the frail and the elderly depend on us and trust us.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 19th century, said, “Do not suppress Compassion, this sympathy especially with the sufferings of your fellowman…See in it the admonition of God that you are to have no joy so long as a brother suffers by your side” (Horeb, chap. 17, section 126).
In this world of so much suffering, of poverty and hunger, of human slavery, of chemical weapons, of war, of lack of water, I know I live in an oasis of safety and privilege. I know the prisons we choose to live inside are of our own making and I am still in the process of figuring out how to free myself.
This summer, when I couldn’t swim or write or cut a tomato or water my garden, I heard my father’s voice telling me, “This too shall pass” and my mother’s voice explaining, “Whatever will be, will be.” And this Yom Kippur, I vow to appreciate and honor the sweetness of the voices that still choose to comfort me.
“In this season” writes Rabbi Yael Ridberg from
Congregation Dor Hadash, in San Diego, California, “ we are not seeking perfection. Rather, we seek to mend our ways, try and accept others back who have wronged us and find ways to become better people. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famous Kabbalist, used to offer this prayer each night before bed, “I hereby forgive all who hurt me this day.” By going to bed in a state of forgiveness, we find our souls lifted up, unburdened and lighter. We are not always righteous, we all make mistakes. We seek to acknowledge our own human fragility, and in doing so, accept it in others.”
This year, may we all be easier on ourselves and on others and forgive each other’s and our own imperfections and find our souls lifted up, unburdened and filled with lightness.