Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Mothering through the Yamim Noraim

As a mother of young children, it can be really hard to retain a sense of spirituality and godliness during these holiest of days. Although I'll be bringing some practical suggestions, I think that the attitude that we take when going into these days is what makes the difference between success and failure. 

(Link to audio recording of my delivering this as a shiur -

I think that many people approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a slightly erroneous mindset. We call them the Yomim Noraim - the Days of Awe. And indeed they are serious days, majorly important days, even scary days. But they are not depressing days. There is a tendency to approach Yom Kippur in particular as a sad day, probably because we aren't eating, so to us that is already a sad situation. And also because it is a serious fast, we group it together in our minds with Tisha B'Av, and then we transfer the sadness and mourning of Tisha B'av onto Yom Kippur as well. But it is not the same kind of day. It is really really important to remember this. So I'd like to begin by reframing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

Reframe #1: Rosh Hashanah is not about teshuvah (repentance). 
Nowhere in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy do we confess our sins, beat our chests, or request forgiveness. There is no talk about atonement. What there is throughout the prayers of Rosh Hashanah is an over-riding theme of G-d's Kingship. Rosh Hashanah is about crowning G-d as our King and King of the Universe - in Hebrew, this is called kabbalat ol malchut shamayim - accepting the yoke of Heaven. Chassidus refers to Rosh Hashanah as Coronation Day. 

Although G-d's Kingship is indisputable and infinite, the midrashim nonetheless tell us that 'there is no king without a people'. We need to declare G-d as our King to the world. A King of flesh and blood is crowned through his people’s acceptance of his rule and obedience to his commands. Similarly, we crown G-d by obeying Him with the most energy and alacrity possible. Regardless of the job He has given you, because who are you to question the King? This is a slightly alien concept in our world, because no one would hesitate to question the Prime Minister, the President, or even the King (or Queen, as we have in the UK today). However, once upon a time in England, when kings had real power of life nad death, to question a king was a dangerous move, and a forbidden one. It is still the case with our Heavenly King. 

Rosh Hashanah is also Yom Hadin - the Day of Judgement. This does not contradict what I wrote above, that Rosh Hashanah is not about repentance. On Coronation Day, when we crown G-d as King, our King also gives out assignments to everyone in his realm, and allocates resources according to loyalty and the need created by that assignment. It’s not a day of mercy and compassion. It is a day of harsh judgement based on what will advance the kingdom and the King's plan for it. Loyalists are rewarded and given more resources to continue in their supportive tasks. Rebels are denied the resources to continue in their destructiveness. There is no room for weakness and no place for excuses. Rosh Hashanah is a harsh day. There is no place for confession, for repentance or atonement - that comes later, on Yom Kippur, when we get the opportunity to appeal. On Rosh Hashanah, all that matters is whether you will obey the King and help advance His policies. On Rosh Hashanah, G-d allocates His resources like a King concerned with the welfare of His whole country; to those who deserve it and need it most for their task. So on Rosh Hashanah we beg hope pray that G-d will view us as loyal workers and not rebellious traitors, that He will thus give us His tools of health, of reliable income, of supportive relationships, of inner peace. We can stand in synagogue and tell G-d how much we will obey Him, or we can put our money where our mouth is and just do it - by accepting His assignment of spending Rosh Hashanah caring for our children. 

A few years ago, I spoke with a lady, an American, who when she heard that I was English, told me that her father had been stationed in England during the Second World War. He was with the Air Force, she told me. I thought, "Wow. Her father fought in WW2. He personally got rid of Nazis from the skies. He maybe even had a direct part in the liberation of the concentration camps. Wow." But then she quickly said "But he didn't fight." My inner wonder and gory deflated. "What a shame". I thought instead. "How disappointing. He didn't actually fight". Fortunately, though, I didn;t articulate my thoughts, because she went on to tell me that her father was in the mechanical airforce engineers. And my second thoughts were to realise that actually, that's a very important job. There may be more glory in being a fighter pilot, but without the engineers, who patched up the planes when they came back shot to pieces, who made sure that all the guns and flight equipment was working correctly, without these unsung engineers who never flew the skies of Europe, there would have been no victory to the Allies. No liberation of the camps. No glorious fighter pilots downing Nazi planes. So who did a ‘better’ job fighting the Nazis: the glorious fighter pilots? Or the engineer? And what would have happened if the engineer had decided he did not like the job he was given, and wanted the glory of being a fighter pilot? We needed both of them. 

The metaphor I'm sure is clear. Sometimes in our lives we get to be the fighter pilots. But sometimes, we are in the mechanical airforce engineers. G-d, our King, has given us the assignment of looking after these children. On Rosh Hashanah, we crown G-d as King by showing that we accept His authority to assign us to this job, and we demonstrate that we are loyal supporters who deserve to be allocated resources in the role that He has given us. As we move through Rosh Hashanah, we should be aware of the fact that by looking after the children that G-d has given us, we're crowning Him as King. Through our cheerfulness, our flexibility, or lack thereof, we are declaring G-d's authority to the world and ourselves, and demonstrating that we are His dependable, loyal subjects who deserve His blessings of peace, health, and mental stability. Because on Rosh Hashanah, there is no room for excuses. We could stand in shul and daven to convince Him that we really deserve it ... or we could just do it.

Reframe #2: Yom Kippur is not a sad day. 
It’s a serious day, yes, but it is a chag. A yomtov. A Shabbat to end all Shabbats. It is not Tisha B’av take two. Our kids should ENJOY Yom Kippur. (Yes, I just said 'enjoy' and 'Yom Kippur' in the same sentence.) I know that might sound a bit like blasphemy. Our children should have treats, just like on other Yomim Tovim. They should wear their shabbat clothes, and play special games, and have extra-extra-special Mummy time because it is Yom Kippur. Most of all, you should do all of this from a position of strength, with the positive intention of yes giving your children your time and attention and making them happy, not with feelings of guilt that you are taking the second-rate option when what you should be doing is praying, or reading improving literature. Yom Kippur is a CHAG - make it be one for your children.

Reframe #3: You are the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). 
It's often pointed out that the Avodah (service) of the priests in the Beit Hamikdash (holy Temple) is the same as the tasks of a housewife and mother. The High Priest - and other priests - spends Yom Kippur cooking the animals on the altar, cleaning up the ashes, sweeping the floor, opening the doors and closing them again - and opening them again, and then closing them again. Just like we do. Petty, insignificant tasks, over and over again. And this is beautiful, because on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the musaf prayers are all about the retelling of what exactly the Kohen Gadol did in the Beit Hamikdash on Yom Kippur, down to every time he changed his clothes (something that mothers of young children also need to do a lot of!). While the men in shul are reading about it, we mothers are carrying it out! So it is all up to us to have the right attitude - we can either view what we are doing as trivial tasks, that we just have to keep doing again and again and again, or we can view ourselves as emulating the Kohen Gadol. 

Reframe #4: You are an angel.
On Yom Kippur, we emulate malachim (angels). We dress in white, we don't eat, we say ‘baruch shem’ in shema out loud like angels do. The real definition of a malach is a messenger of G-d, a being who has no will of his own, but only does the Will of G-d. On Yom Kippur, we can be like the angels even if we don;t manage to pray a word, by making G-d;s Will be our  own will, with happiness, instead of trying to make our will be G-d's Will - in insisting that we should be praying instead of looking after our children.

In a generic way, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that every time we feed a baby or a small child who cannot feed him/herself, we should repeat to ourselves, or think in our minds the verse 'pote'ach et yadecha u'masbia kol chai ratzon - G-d opens up His Hand and feeds all creatures until they are satisfied'. Because when we feed a child who is too small to feed him/herself, we are the long arm of G-d. We are the tool through which G-d is feeding this child. And by holding this verse in mind, even one out of 30 times, we invest our simple mundane act with spirituality and a sense of higher purpose.


Praying On Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur:
Before discussing what and how we should pray on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, I want to share my biggest biggest message: It is not only Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur when we hold a machzor in our hands and/or stand in synagogue. We still stand before G-d when we aren't praying. Do not feel that you have missed out on Rosh Hashanah if you haven't opened a prayerbook at all. 

We are Jewish mothers, so we're good at Jewish guilt. Nonetheless, it's important for mothers to lay down that guilt about not being able to daven (pray) because we're looking after our children. The Chafetz Chaaim ruled for his wife that she is exempt from prayer at all while she has young children. We have a concept of osek bamitzva patur mimitzvah - one who is involved in a mitzvah is exempt from interrupting it to carry out another mitzvah

Let's not forget that raising our children is a mitzvah. Again, being aware of the godliness in our actions can invest them with the spirituality that we need. Rabbi Aryeh Levine, the tzaddik of Jerusalem,  taught his daughters that before they carried out any task of motherhood - changing a nappy, feeding a baby, playing with a child, even - they should say (or think) ‘hareni muchan um’zuman lekayem mitzvat gidel banim’ - "Behold, I am prepared and ready to fulfill the positive commandment of raising children'. This is a statement of intent; similar ones are recited before carrying out other positive commandments such as bensching after meals, shaking the lulav & etrog, etc. Through reciting or thinking these few words, we remind ourselves that the most mundane of our actions in caring for a child is holy. At least on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, we should try to keep this in mind, to remind ourselves of the holiness of our mundane activities. 

All of that being said, however, is it still very important to daven. It is important to pray something every day, however little, because it keeps you ‘in touch’ with G-d. It keeps you in the habit of praying, so that it will not be so hard to come back to it in the future. And prayer does not need to be formal; every time that we need something, we should ask G-d for help with it. Just to talk to G-d, in English, keeps our line open with G-d. 

And during Elul, in particular, one should try to pray something extra. It doesn't need to be formal prayer. Sing a song like 'Achas Sho'alti' (which is taken from the chapter of Tehillim (psalms) that begins 'L'David Hashem', which is said every day from the beginning of Elul), to remind ourselves that it is Elul and Rosh Hashanah is coming. 

Practically speaking:

  • Do make arrangements that work for you so that you can get some time to daven during Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur. Get up early to daven before your husband goes to shul; meet up with friends to share child-watching and take in turns to daven; find a time when your husband can watch your children so that you can daven. Do whatever works for you. 
  • Daven maariv. Especially on Yom Kippur, maariv is your best chance for a meaningful prayer. It is when you are not yet starving, so try your hardest to stay awake for long enough to pray the most meaningful prayer that you can. You can daven maariv on Rosh Hashanah night after dinner as well, at least until midnight. You will feel calmer if you know that you have one good prayer under your belt. Maximise maariv. 
  • Daven musaf later in the afternoon, and/or mincha. It is often easier to grab this time, because our husbands are home and can watch our children. 
  • Especially on Yom Kippur but also on Rosh Hashanah, resting is also serving G-d. If you need to sleep or rest, then do. If you feel you can daven, but only sitting down, then do so. Remember - again - what you are meant to be doing. G-d has a lot of other people davening to Him - you, He needs to look after these children. 
  • Whatever you manage to daven, whatever you are doing: gear the day towards Hashem. Regardless of how much davening you do. Think about the essence of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur at intervals during the day. Live this one day with awareness that you are standing before Him: that these children are His children whom He has asked you to look after; that your every action can serve Him; that you are crowning Him as your King. 
  • Let go of idea that RH/YK can only be experienced in a shul/inside a machzor. 

1. Unless it is really necessary, do not leave your children in the charge of a non-Jewish babysitter. This is an important special day for them as well as for you - don't lose the opportunity to create a holy, Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur experience for them. 
2. Don't hijack a teenager’s chance to daven. Yes, it is good for girls to do good deeds for their mothers/neighbours, and girls who find it hard to sit in shul for so many hours can welcome the opportunity to help you out by watching your children for you while you daven. But do not expect - or ask - them to miss the ‘important parts’ of shul so that you can go, and certainly don;t ask them to stay home all morning/day to help you or so that you can go. We had our turn to daven - this is their turn. They need their holy experiences to build upon, just as we did.

Practical Davening Review:
Tadir v’aino tadir tadir kodem = ‘Regular’ davening trumps ‘special’ davening, even on Rosh Hashanah. Even on Yom Kippur. This can be hard, but the special extra add-ins to davening which really mean Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur to us go at the bottom of the list.

So, if you have a limited amount of time, this is the order of importance for what to say:

  1. Basic birkat hashachar (morning blessings)
  2. Shemonah esreh 
  3. Sh’ma & Shemonah Esreh (including go’al yisrael on its own) 
  4. Birchot sh’ma, Sh’ma, & Sh’monah esreh 
  5. Baruch she’omar - Hodu - Ashrei (in that order)
  6. 2 hallelukahs (order of importance - 3 5 1 2 4) 
  7. Nishmas - Yishtabach (in that order)

If you think that you will have only 15 minutes, and you say just shemonah esreh, and then you discover that you have more time than you thought you would have and can say a bit more, then you can go backwards through the siddur to say each part in order of importance rather than the order it comes in the siddur. 

Practical Suggestions:

  • Throughout Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, your guiding principle should be that of hefsed merubah, ie what will serve a better purpose? Will you lose more than you gain if you choose to daven, because it will make you be so stressed and snappy that you will make your children upset and scared? Then don't daven, remain a happy mummy. 
  • More important to stay calm and not get angry than to daven. Avoid anything that might trigger anger, which may include rushing your children to get out the house quick to get to shul in time for shofar; trying to daven with a toddler who wants your attention. 
  • Shofar: Don;t take your children to the synagogue if they will squirm and make a noise and mess around during shofar. It is not necessary to go to shul for shofar. Your community should have another shofar-blowing for women at a later time during the day on Rosh Hashanah. If not, arrange one. It's also important to know that only 30 shofar-blasts are Torah-mandated, so once you have heard one set of 30, you have fulfilled your biblical requirement to hear shofar. Also, there is no time limit on hearing shofar on Rosh Hashanah day - you can hear it after lunch if that is when you are able to. 
  • If you’re spending Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur looking after children, then whatever you do with them is what you’ll be thinking about. So try to do Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur things with them. Daven with them if they are old enough to have learned some prayers in school. 
  • Sing Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur songs with them. 
  • Tell children stories about Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur. Mine loved the story in the midrashim about the very first Rosh Hashanah, when Adam was created and all the animas bowed down to him because they thought he was their king. Adam told them 'No! You think I'm your king? Come, we'll all go together to give G-d His crown, because He is your King and mine!" He loved it so much we were still telling the story after succot! You can also tell them about what the Kohen Gadol did in the Beit Hamikdash on Yom Kippur. Find books about the Beit Hamikdash, print pictures off the internet. Prepare in advance.  
  • Make a special kiddush with them when they’ve finished davening, or when you're finished. 
  • If you have very small children, do daven aloud when you can daven. Even shemondah esrei can be davened aloud if you are davening at home by yourself. It often calms babies/small children to hear you praying, because they know you are there and hear you are busy, they don;t just see you sitting down doing nothing (which is how it looks to them!).
  • Do sing tunes from Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur prayers. Singing is hugely evocative. Sing all your special yomtov songs and favourite tunes, or hum them as you go around the house.
  • Even little kids love knowing that they can shout ‘baruch shem kavod malchuso l’olam va’ed’ when they say shema at night. 
  • Plan ahead -- especialy for Yom Kippur. Put a couple of toys away now so you can get them out ‘new’ on Yom Kippur - more than one if you can, so there’s something for that difficult end of afternoon stretch. Worth going to the shekel store to buy some small toys to get out new on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur. 
  • Remember that children need to make kiddush on Yom Kippur. A child old enough to read kiddush should do so; a child who is old enough just to make the blessing over the grape juice should do so. They can get really enthusiastic about playing at making kiddush and hamotzi like daddy. 
  • Make sure to begin seudah well in advance on erev Yom Kippur - you need enough time to eat as well. Make sure to drink - & eat - enough during the day. 

MOST IMPORTANT: Your children should enjoy yomtov. If Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur become days of terror for them, it will colour whole approach to G-d & yomtov. Our children should enjoy yomtov & not dread it. Use the opportunity to teach them that G-d loves them. Set them on path of drawing close to G-d through love, not through fear.

Nechemia 8:5-14:
These may be my favourite verses in Tanach. They are from the book of Nechemya - Nehemiah, in the time of the beginning of the Second Temple. Some - sadly few - Jews have returned from exile in Babylon back to Eretz Yisrael. They've found a sefer Torah and Ezra the Scribe is reading from it to them, and as he reads it, the people suddenly realise that that day is Rosh Hashanah. They are fallen woefully low, they are married to idol-worshipping wives, they do not even know that it is Rosh Hashanah that day. They are so shocked by this realisation that they begin to cry. And Nechemya, Ezra, and the Levi'im reassure them:

ט וַיֹּאמֶר נְחֶמְיָה הוּא הַתִּרְשָׁתָא וְעֶזְרָא הַכֹּהֵן ׀ הַסֹּפֵר וְהַלְוִיִּם הַמְּבִינִים אֶת־הָעָם לְכָל־הָעָם
 הַיּוֹם קָדֹֽשׁ־הוּא לַה' אֱלֹֽקיכֶם אַל־תִּֽתְאַבְּלוּ וְאַל־תִּבְכּוּ 
כִּי בוֹכִים כָּל־הָעָם כְּשָׁמְעָם אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָֽה: 
י וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לְכוּ אִכְלוּ מַשְׁמַנִּים וּשְׁתוּ מַמְתַּקִּים וְשִׁלְחוּ מָנוֹת לְאֵין נָכוֹן לוֹ 
כִּֽי־קָדוֹשׁ הַיּוֹם לַֽאֲדֹנֵינוּ וְאַל־תֵּעָצֵבוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַת ה' הִיא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם: 
יא וְהַֽלְוִיִּם מַחְשִׁים לְכָל־הָעָם לֵאמֹר הַסּוּ כִּֽי־הַיּוֹם קָדֹשׁ וְאַל־תֵּֽעָצֵֽבוּ:
 יב וַיֵּֽלְכוּ כָל־הָעָם לֶֽאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וּלְשַׁלַּח מָנוֹת וְלַֽעֲשׂוֹת שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה 
כִּי הֵבִינוּ בַּדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹדִיעוּ לָהֶֽם:

'This day is holy to Hashem your G-d; do not mourn and do not weep’; 
because all the people were crying when they heard the words of Torah. 
10 Then he said to them: 'Go on, eat luxurious foods and drink sweet drinks, 
and send portions to those who have nothing prepared; 
because this day is holy to our G-d, and do not be anxious, 
because Hashem’s joy is your strength.’ (Nechemya 8:5-14)

These people, who seem to have fallen so low, understand that Rosh Hashanah is not a sad day. They go to prepare delicious foods and to be happy, because it is a holy day. And I just love this line. G-d's joy is our strength. 

May it be a year of joy for all of the nation of Israel. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Tell me what you think