I am not a crier by nature.
The year was 2012. I had had a really hard year. We had a newborn who never slept, a toddler who was… a toddler, and family members with health challenges. I felt a weight from caring for and carrying those I loved. My body craved uninterrupted sleep. I was exhausted. That year, I joined the Kol Nidrei choir at my synagogue and walked there on Erev Yom Kippur with a tinge of both nervousness, and anticipation for what would lie ahead over the coming 25 hours. I remember being excited to be a part of the choir I’d met in rehearsal, ready to help start Yom Kippur in such a meaningful way, much as our beautiful singers have done tonight. The harmonies I had been practising had subconsciously become the soundtrack to my life. I sang Kol Nidrei on my morning commute, and in the queue at the supermarket, I even sang Kol Nidrei to put our two young kids to sleep. But as the chazzanim nodded at the choir to start and I heard the opening chords, I opened my mouth and then…nothing. Not one sound popped out of me. I tried, I breathed deeply, I regrouped, and the only thing that I could produce was a gut wrenching sob.
I cried the entire way through that Kol Nidrei. And I’m not a crier.
The Kol Nidrei prayer is held in such reverence even by those who attend a shul service just a few times a year. For me, as it was back then, it is a forced full stop. Life rushes by, so quickly, and many of us rarely carve out time to reflect and to sit with what is really going on in our lives. Just like during the Kol Nidrei prayer, sometimes in life, through luck, or misfortune, moments of reflection and insight can come rushing at us. Hardship, starting or losing a job, a change in relationship status, a year of lockdown, or maybe, hearing a spectacular Kol Nidrei melody that has permeated our tradition for generations.
But sometimes, these moments of reflection come slowly. Something small, that, perhaps at the time you didn’t even make much of, but a week later you’re still thinking about it in the shower. Those little moments are often the most impactful, and lasting on me. Something which at the time seems small, inconsequential, but can make a tremendous difference.
Tonight, I am speaking with you from Jerusalem, where I live with my husband Ittay and our two children, Nava and Eitan. I’m not in Melbourne, and I’m not in lockdown. I’d like to use this very special platform to take you away from COVID, at least for these ten minutes. There’s nothing I can add that the news hasn’t covered, and I will leave those words to someone who lives there with you. Instead, I want to share with you a few stories from my city, Jerusalem. A story of Teshuva, Repentance, of Tefila, Prayer and of Tzedakah, Charity – but not in that order. Stories that, like the Kol Nidrei prayer, have caused me to stop, be present, reflect, and keep thinking about them, long after they passed me by in the calendar year.
There once was a beggar who lived on my street. It reads like a hasidic tale, but it’s true. Where I live, there is no shortage of beggars, unfortunately. And over the years we’ve come to know them, and greet them, giving spare change when we can. One time, an elderly man approached me and beckoned me with his hands.”I’m hungry”, he told me. “Please, give me food”. His ask of food instead of money somehow spoke to me on a deeply human level, and I asked him what he might like me to buy him. Gesturing excitedly, he brought his shopping trolley with him and led me to the closest supermarket. He started to fill his cart. Tuna fish, pita, rice, all basic essentials that seemed a reasonable ask for his lunch. He glanced at me, saw my encouraging face and instead of heading to the checkout, headed back down the aisles. He continued to add. A few bottles of coke, a packet of Pringles, the grocery pile grew and grew in equal portion to my discomfort. This wasn’t quite the falafel I had imagined buying him. I sat with it. I breathed a deep breath, and together, eventually, with his bulging cart, we went towards the checkout. He smiled at me, one graceful, toothless smile, as I handed over my credit card, and then he walked out of the shop without so much as a thank you. “You’re a fryer” said the shop owner to me, a harsh rebuke in Hebrew, kind of like a sucker. “You just bought his weekly groceries. You don’t think he pulls that trick on every kind hearted lady that walks down the street? He’s no more homeless than you are.”
Undeterred, I putchkered around, did a little shopping for my own family, then wandered back towards home. Walking past the same bus stop, I saw the beggar standing again on the corner. Lifting my hand in a wave, to say hello, he came right up to me, held out his hands and said “Feed me. I’m hungry”. He had absolutely no idea who I was.
I felt “all the feelings’ in the minute that followed. Shock, at first, then irritation, leading to resentment, some pious indignation thrown in for good measure. But 12 years of parenting have taught me that when these feelings come up, my go-to first step is to take a deep breath.
Before me stood a man whose life has led him to beg on the streets and not even see the people who help him. I let my frustration pass, and chose instead to feel grateful that I had the means to assist him. It’s true I probably was a fryer, but that small kindness helped me get a restful sleep that night, as I hope it did him.
I wished the man a shabbat shalom, and continued on my way home.
One Yom Kippur, we decided to visit an Iraqi shul, as Ittay’s family hails from Baghdad. It was at least a forty minute walk, so we decided to take advantage of one of the best Yom Kippur traditions ever. No, it’s not the fasting, nor the non leather shoes. It’s the bikes. Most of the roads are shut over Yom Kippur, even major highways between cities. Everything comes to a complete stand still. The more observant, traditionally dressed in white, gather in the middle of main roads to pass the time together between the prayer services. But for the secular Jews across the land, there is an entirely different minhag, or custom. Bikes and scooters whiz around the pedestrians, each denomination enjoying the space according to their tradition.
We scootered to shul, and entered a beautiful building dating back to the early 1950’s. A generously sized women’s balcony, an elaborate bimah, a place for the chazan or the prayer leader to stand and sing. And up the front, an enormous ark or Aron, the cupboard that holds the Torah scrolls. The evening began much like this one, in a wordless melody that everyone hummed along to. The chazan banged on his prayer podium, the international symbol for silence across every synagogue, ever. The chatter died down. And all of a sudden, it was as though Gary Peer had stepped forward and begun selling the best available, most promising and must-have property on the street. The Auctioning of the Honours. I’d never seen it before and honestly I had no idea what was going on. The rabbi auctioned off the honour to open the Ark, the honour to bring out the Torah, the honour to accompany the rabbi as he brought the Torah along the seats for congregants to lay a kiss upon it.
All of a sudden, the synagogue erupted into laughter. The last honour was to run to the home of the Rabbi and bring back his keychain, as he had forgotten to bring with him the keys to the Ark, the Aron. Without that last and most important honour, seemingly so small, and inconsequential, no service could begin that night. And so, the rabbi explained, he or she who generously bid for that honour would merit to open the gates of heaven to receive all our prayers. And there, the laughter stopped, and the bidding began. Eight thousand shekels later, we sang Kol Nidrei.
In our liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we speak of Teshuva, Tefila and Tzedakah, and today I am unfolding them backwards, leaving the Teshuvah to the end. Teshuva is commonly translated as “repentance” meaning regret and contrition for sins or omissions of good deeds; and the resolve to start afresh. Many phrases in English literature sound this theme of repentance: “To turn over a new leaf,” “to become a new person. “Teshuvah” in this context means something quite different. It emphasizses not the idea of “newness,” but of return, la’shuv. To fix my relationship with my neighbour to how it was before we fought over the fence repairs. To return my old friend’s phone calls instead of screening and perhaps ghosting. As the Mishnah states, “For transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until one appeases the other person.” No amount of prayer or acts of charity can bring about Teshuva, if we don’t learn to ask for, and offer forgiveness to others, and to ourselves. And for me, there’s a great starting point, especially for when you open your mouth at Kol Nidrei, and nothing comes out.
Before the pandemic, we used to watch for one another’s smiles, to see if a stranger was friendly, or hostile. Now, in an age of masks, we watch our eyebrows. I’ve noticed how I can read in the arch of a brow, the furrowed wrinkles right under the eyelids, if someone is smiling at me. We’re living in divided times. But then six people dropped honey cake off for Rosh Hashana at my mum’s place in East St Kilda when she was caught up in tier 1 site. And many neighbours rang her to offer to pick up groceries while she was quarantining. These fleeting opportunities for connecting, in a time so challenging. We’ve lost so much this year. Only these brief, beautiful moments of exchange remain. “I’ll walk your dog.” “I’ll buy you challas this week.” “I’ll volunteer to go get the rabbi’s keys.”
Erev Yom Kippur is arguably one of the biggest nights on the Jewish calendar. But in 2012, I wasn’t crying because of any big event. It was the culmination of a myriad of smaller things that all became overwhelming. I know that many of us feel the same about the current situation. It’s the little things – not being able to have Shabbat dinner with the whole family, or pop over to see a friend whenever you like, or sit in a cafe with a coffee, or get a haircut that all add up. Even though You Kippur is “the big day”, it too is actually about the little things. Giving a small amount of tzedakah, even if that doesn’t massively change the outcome for the recipient. It’s about the breaths you consciously breathe, small moments of gratitude or mindfulness or tefila, prayer, that may not change your situation but will make things just that little bit better. And, it’s about little acts of teshuvah, reconnecting, that make all of us feel less alone. Focusing on small kindnesses, and achievable things, will end up making the world of difference to us this year. And who knows, maybe you’ll be moved to shed a few tears. Even if you’re not a cryer.