Tuesday, August 10, 2004

DoubleThink and Prayer from a Broken Heart

[Editor's note: this opens with a lot of theory, and takes a while to spool over to the more particular stuff. Since the "editor" in "editor's note" is sort of facetious, I'm not doing anything about it. Get me a book deal and a real editor and we can talk. Click here to skip the wind-up and go straight to the pitch, but that's cheating. ]

Being an Orthodox Jew requires a sort of odd doublethink. In one pocket, so to speak, you have to keep the phrase bishvil-li nivra ha'olam -- for my sake was the entire world created. In the other pocket, "I am mere dust and ashes."

It's the essence of the beautiful paradox of being human: we are, each of us, the most important person in the world and insignificant, simultaneously. We need to behave -- and believe -- that our next act, our next moral decision, our next word, be it cruel or kind, will tip this otherwise balanced world over to the good or the bad. We need to understand, at the same time, that Hashem's in charge of the world, that He creates it moment by moment in an affirmative act of will, and that His directions and intentions are, at the end of the day, the only ones that will matter. And it's important to realize that it's not just that we're important because we're important to Hashem, or that what we want matters only because what we want matters to Hashem. It's that Hashem has given us, each of us, Jew and non-Jew, this incredible power of moral choice, the power to affect the world which is, in a barely comprehensible phrase, separate from Hashem, even though it is at the same time dependant on Him.

I bring this up because now that Tisha B'Av [fn1] is over, Elul[fn2] is fast approaching, and then, sooner than I'm going to be ready for them, Rosh Hashana[fn2] and Yom Kippur[fn2].
[fn1:] The ninth day (Heb. "tisha" = ninth) of the Hebrew month of Av. The saddest day on the Jewish calendar, known for various tragedies that occur on and around that date and the three weeks leading up to it, most prominently the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and less prominently but perhaps more importantly for the acceptance by the Jews of the report of the spies about the land of Israel, the spiritual root of all this badness.

[fn2:] Elul is the month that follows Av in the Jewish year. Rosh HaShana, lit. "head of the year," is the Jewish New Year, but is little like either the secular New Year or the Chinese New Year (very little drinking or kissing, and no fireworks). Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are referred to often as the "high holidays," giving them some prominence over other major holidays of the Jewish year. Just trying to keep up with my rep.
Elul, Rosh HaShana, and Yom Kippur are about repentance, and introspection, and making right the wrongs we do, in so far as possible and sometimes even more than possible. But because they are about repentance and the wrongs we've done, they are also very much about prayer, and about a broken heart.

The kind of prayer and introspection that surrounds teshuva[fn3] demands of the individual exactly the doublethink described. If my actions are anything less than critically important, then what does it matter if I distance myself from Hashem, and what does it matter if I move closer to Him? At the same time, if I come before the Master of the Universe, the Creator of Worlds, with the knowledge that I have used gifts He gave me (speech, thought, action, universe) to distance myself from Him, how can I not realize that I am no more than dust and ashes?
[fn3:] This is an incredibly nuanced word, with meanings that touch on (physically) returning, and meditating/introspecting. It can be loosely translated as "repentance," but I find the English word awkward and, more importantly, evocative of non-Jewish ideas of sin and Man's place in the world which don't sit well with me. I'm not talking about repentance; I'm talking about teshuva.
There is a time and a place to be proud of yourself, to let yourself inflate (if only just the tiniest amount) with how much you've done right. (Though some, wiser than me, would say otherwise.) Even that has to be tempered with a realization that those good things have also all been done by dint of the gifts you've been given.

Yom Kippur (and friends) is not that time, though. Yom Kippur is the time to pray with a broken heart, to lay yourself bare before Hashem and ask that He not only forgive you, but make your wrongs right. Much as it's unpleasant to think about, it's also a time of a little bit of fear.

If you were an investor, and you gave me $100,000 to invest, and I came back to you a year later with some change, and maybe the stories of some great restaurants I had eaten at, you'd probably be a little upset. You'd certainly not give me another $100,000 for the next year, and if you had any on deposit with me you'd withdraw it posthaste. This is true even if you were Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, this is true even if it were a hundred dollars and not a hundred thousand.

So, too, Hashem invests in us all of the resources we have to use all year, and we come to him at the end of the year with only a paltry showing. We ask for more, but there's the realization that by rights, He should just withdraw the balance, give it to someone else, and be done. So it's a time to stand, in a very real sense naked and alone, before your Creator, give Him an honest accounting and tell Him you'll try harder next year, and, realizing that it's all a big kind gift anyway, tremble as He passes judgment. And if that's too disempowering, then you need to realize that in a very real sense Hashem is trembling right along with you, and really really wants you to come through on the other side of this judgment. He just needs you to take a few tentative steps in the right direction, and He'll help you out.

Or at least, that's the theory. In my X[fn4] years spinning 'round the Sun I never got it right. I mean, especially when I wasn't observant, I'd go to shul, say the words, be moved (albeit briefly) by U'Netaneh Tokef,[fn5] and then think about other stuff. Even after I became observant, there was always a little piece of me that was disengaged. It's hard to be young and afraid of mortality, and even as I've gotten older I haven't picked that fear up entirely.[fn6]
[fn4:] An actual number would ruin the fun of those readers who are trying to figure out who I am, but it's bigger than a breadbox. And it's smaller than 39, I tell you!

[fn5:] The link above is a better explanation than I can give here. Suffice that UT is this incredibly powerful (to me, at least) prayer recited on Rosh HaShana.

[fn6:] This isn't entirely foolish, but discussing it in this context is too tangential even for me. Remind me to tell you about the significant MVA I was involved in.
A little over a year ago, I finally learned the necessary lesson. I finally learned how to pray, and it was, for those of you who were wondering when I was getting around to it, a function of fatherhood.

[Editor's note: About time.]

My Holy Wife (HW)[fn7] was eight-and-some pregnant on a fine Sunday morning that got off to a late, but acceptable start. Because I woke early and wanted to let her sleep a bit, I showered in the second bathroom and went to get dressed in the there's-no-crib-because-it's-still-a-guest-room-because-I'm-a-little-superstitious room. I am literally half-naked when HW comes in holding a bedsheet crumpled between her legs and an ashen look.
[fn7:] The wife formerly known as "G." I'll explain the name change in another post.
          Me: "what?"

          HW: "I'm bleeding."

          Me (still not getting it): "You're spotting, or is it that plug thingie?

          HW: "No, I'm bleeding."

Then she showed me the crime scene that was the sheet she had been holding.

For weal or woe, I am one of those people who get a little bogged down in the details of topics that interest me. So, for instance, I'd read most of your run of the mill pregnancy books and one or two more advanced medical type books, because once the biology of gestation became relevant to me, I realized that it was pretty fascinating. And, again for weal or woe, I have pretty good recall, too. So I was well aware that there are a lot of reasons to bleed that much so late in a pregnancy. And none of them are good. Not for the baby, not for the mother.

We called 911, HW's best friend (a medical type), and HW's Ob-Gyn (Stat!). The ambulance would have taken HW to the nearest hospital, which is entirely unsatisfactory in all regards, and it was decided the best option was to get HW in our car and drive her to another hospital, where the Ob-Gyn would be waiting for her.

We pile in the car and get on the road. Here, HW's best friend pretty much saved everyone, because she noticed that I was not a hundred percent with it, and she offered to drive. This was exactly the kick in the head I needed, because it made me realize that I had a real job to do, and there was this amazing calm that came over me. I had a job to do. So I said, "no, thank you," and prepped the hyperdrive. 25 miles (and 18 minutes) later, we pulled up to the hospital's front doors. (If you knew where we lived, you'd be seriously impressed. Let's put it this way: the doctor lives next door and she had just showed up.) HW and the best friend get out and I go park the car.

So far so good. I get into the hospital, and ask the guard if he saw the two women who just walked in. He has, and he let them up, and they're on their way. And now I've done everything in my power to help my wife and child live.

It was realizing that, in the elevator up, that I totally and completely lost it. And that was when I learned to pray.

I remember starting out conversationally, a little bit of bargaining. "Come on, God. Help me out here," like that. But it pretty quickly devolved into an incoherent "please. please. please." And then no words, just tears. In those moments, the unbearably long list of reasons I didn't deserve the gifts of my child and my wife and the zero-item list of reasons I did scrolled by.

I pulled myself together long enough to be strong for HW and tell her that everything was going to be okay, though she says now that she could see that I'd been crying. I dealt with the doctors and staff, got the report of what was going on (and the useless reassurances accompanying same). I mentioned the numerous Personal Injury lawyers in our family, and the legal nightmare that would follow any failures of care, as well as the numerous medical types in our family who would be gracious in their return of professional courtesy extended here. I called HW's parents and my parents, happily getting voicemail both times, and left reasoned, serious but not overly alarming messages for them. HW wanted me out of the room for the preliminary stuff, so I asked if there was anywhere private I could go for a while, and there was.

I said a few tehillim (psalms), as recommended by tradition, and then kind of broke down again. Again, it started with a reasoned effort to palaver, but that quickly ended.

I realized I couldn't bargain with Him, because there was nothing to bargain with. I couldn't trade Him for mitzvoth (good deeds/commandments), I already owed Him those. I couldn't offer Him my life for theirs; my life was already His to take at will. (Besides, it'd be one for two, so why would He make that deal?) I couldn't list a bunch of reasons I "deserved" a healthy wife and healthy baby, except perhaps that I'd try to be a good husband and father, but those were things that I'd already pledged, so they couldn't really carry much additional weight.

I just. . . wanted it, so badly. And I was painfully aware that there was only one place to turn.

I don't want to spin into theory again, but there's an understanding that men are obligated to d'aven (loosely, "pray") at set times and with an established script (called a "nusach"), while women are not so obligated, because men are, generally, more disconnected in their daily lives from Hashem and so need the more explicitly designated path to get back in touch with Him, while women are generally more in touch with Him all the time and so don't need the nusach and can just d'aven from the heart.

I never understood that, either, until that day. Alone in that space, a few rooms away from the HW and the doctors and the machines, words failed me, and there was no nusach. I just prayed from my heart.

The baby was fine. The mother was fine, and at the end of the day everyone goes home happy, if exhausted.

But I've tried with all my might to hold onto the memory of that sheer desperation, that clear understanding of Who was in charge and what I had to offer. I tried last year to bring it to my praying on Yom Kippur, and I'll try again this year, and every year I'm given from now on.

Because that's what it all is: no less than a gift. My own life, my wife, my daughter. . . an ongoing continuously renewed gift, for which I must strive -- no matter how futile the striving -- to be worthy.

Hold them both, precious and glowing in the mind: For my sake the world was made. I am but dust and ashes.


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At Aug 11, 2004 9:11:00 AM, Dianne said...

Wow... this is a great post.
1) I really appreciate your links and explanations of Jewish culture, rites, rituals, and Hebrew phrases. Thanks for those.
2) The financial investment example resonates with me and makes a theoretical and intangible idea much more meaningful.
3) Thanks for sharing your "elevator prayer" experience. It's good to know that others who consider themselves in-touch with God can find themselves not truly understanding big things about God and our relationship with him until long after making a profession of faith.

At Aug 11, 2004 6:22:00 PM, Urban Pimp said...

uh... wow. i've, thankfully, been spared anything remotely similar to what you experienced in this post, but i completely understand your perspective. i will be thinking of your post this coming yom kippur, that's for sure.

who would have thought that a link from http://www.jewlicious.com would result in... this.

At Aug 12, 2004 12:25:00 AM, Elizabeth Blair York said...


Just, wow.

This is an outstanding post on many levels: it is clear and educational, it is personal, it opens the door to a conversation on faith and prayer, and brings poignant frame around the concept of our place in the order of things.

Thank you for having the skill and the courage to write it. I am sure your thoughts will resonate with me for quite a while.

And thank G-d the ending is what it is, and the 3 of you whole in body and faith and spirit...

At Aug 12, 2004 7:43:00 AM, Elizabeth Blair York said...


Just, wow.

This is an outstanding post on many levels: it is clear and educational, it is personal, it opens the door to a conversation on faith and prayer, and brings poignant frame around the concept of our place in the order of things.

Thank you for having the skill and the courage to write it. I am sure your thoughts will resonate with me for quite a while.

And thank G-d the ending is what it is, and the 3 of you whole in body and faith and spirit...

At Aug 23, 2004 11:31:00 AM, Rachel said...

I'm glad to hear that your wife and child are okay.

The tension you mention -- between "for my sake was the world created" and "I am dust and ashes" -- is a difficult one, and therefore a fruitful one, for me. I heard it framed slightly differently by R. Zalman Shachter-Shalomi earlier this summer: he taught that while regarding ourselves as all-powerful is (obviously) an insult to G-d, regarding ourselves as entirely insignificant is also an insult. Because in the end, G-d cares about the tiniest speck of creation as much as He does about the grandest galaxy He spiraled into being...

What you said about prayer in times of potential tragedy also resonated for me. Not long ago I thought someone in my life might be terribly ill, and although I wanted to sit down and davven the morning blessings, all I was really capable of was "Please, God," over and over. That, and the Shema. And yet I felt strengthened by the praying, even though I couldn't concentrate on the usual liturgy.

At Aug 24, 2004 6:47:00 PM, Anonymous said...

I a 46 year old agnostic.
Your post moved me.
There is almost nothing as impressive as faith.
Maybe it's the courage of the soul?

At Aug 29, 2004 7:33:00 PM, Anonymous said...

I learned to really, really daven when my father was diagnosed with cancer. I learned something even more powerful when my infant son died -- I learned to accept Yisurim with love, and I learned to daven with a broken heart.

I am glad that I learned it. The lessons remain vivid. But I pray you will be spared both.

At Sep 7, 2004 9:37:00 AM, Anonymous said...

I printed out this post and folded the pages into the back cover of my Rosh HaShannah Machzor. After Rosh HaShannah I will transfer it to my Yom Kippur Machzor.

Don't be surprised if, in a few years, I e-mail you asking you to repost this entry because my copy has fallen apart from over-handling.

Thank you.

Shana Tova.

David (www.treppenwitz.com)


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