As I write this, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana, is less than two days away—and (to paraphrase Rabbi Alan Lew), I am completely unprepared.
The month of Elul, now rapidly coming to a close, is meant to be a time of preparation. During this month, we sound the shofar every day—its blast meant to rouse us from the slumber of our lives, to shake us into awareness and cause us to reflect: How am I living in the world? What relationships need attention and repair? Am I on the right path? How can I make better, more conscious choices in the new year?
In years past, I’ve dedicated time during the month of Elul for reading psalms and regular journaling. The journaling, for me, is the real and necessary introspective, preparatory work; I agree with Flannery O’Connor when she said, “I have to write to discover what I am doing…. I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say.”
Well, this year, I might have read a few psalms, but not very many; and I’ve done very little journaling. This leaves me feeling a little bit like I’m groping around in the dark—and in some ways, I am. I don’t even have any apples—and you have to have apples to sweetly celebrate the beginning of a new year!
Here’s the deal: my oldest son’s bar mitzvah is a short two and a half weeks away.
This whole bar mitzvah thing is new to us, and it’s a lot of work. Zeke has been working with a tutor to learn to read, in Hebrew, verses from the Torah that he will chant during his bar mitzvah service. He’s also been learning other prayers and parts of the service that he will lead, and he’s had regular meetings with both rabbis at our congregation. In addition, he’s worked with his sponsor (a kind of mentor) to write a sermon.
Meanwhile, I’ve been shuttling him around, managing invitations, helping to coordinate plans for friends and family who are coming in from out of town, and working with staff at the congregation to get information out about our family’s celebration and to plan for the event itself. I’ve also been learning to lead part of the morning’s service. I told Zeke that as long as he was learning, I would also be learning, and along the way I’ve enjoyed comparing notes with him about our mutual progress.
We’ve discovered that for both parent and child, preparing for a bar mitzvah is a lot of work. And that’s even when it’s done simply, which we are trying to do!
I’ve discovered, too, that this time of bar mitzvah preparation, as hectic and rushed as it is, is also a season of holy opportunity. Over the last few months, I’ve watched Zeke meet the challenge of new learning and responsibility with calm confidence. I’ve seen a thoughtful sermon emerge, the product of his own ideas and sensibility, gently guided by his sponsor. I’ve been awed by his persistence and by his dedication to creating his own Jewish path.
Walking with my young teen during this preparatory season has gifted me with moments of connection and insight into both the person he is, and the person he is becoming. These have been precious, holy moments, and I am grateful.
So, no—I don’t feel completely prepared for Rosh Hashana, let alone Yom Kippur which comes ten days later. And no, I don’t feel completely prepared for Zeke’s bar mitzvah service which falls just after, during the holiday of Sukkot. But maybe, as Rabbi Lew teaches in that perfectly titled book about the Jewish High Holy Days, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, that’s life. There’s no such thing as being completely prepared for life in all its surprise and rush and complexity, really.
One of the parts of the morning holiday service I’ve been learning to lead is Psalm 34. During Zeke’s service, we will read most of the psalm silently, to ourselves—but there are three verses, 12-14, that I will lead the congregation in singing together. Of all the blessings and prayers that I’ve been learning, these simple three lines are my favorite.
Which of you desires life, loves long years in which to see goodness?
Keep your tongue from telling evil, your lips from telling lies.
Shun evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
This year, as the High Holy Days and my son’s bar mitzvah hurtle toward me like a freight train, I am holding fast to these three verses. I don’t feel like I have the time or space right now to think about those big, over-arching questions of place and purpose: How am I living in the world? What relationships need attention and repair? Am I on the right path? How can I make better, more conscious choices in the new year?
All I’m able to do right now is focus on one thing, and then another, step by step, trying all the while to be fully present. Keep my tongue from telling evil, my lips from telling lies. Be honest, real, authentic. Shun evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. One choice at a time, aim toward goodness and peace, wholeness, shalom.
I know that this is a special time in the life of my family. A season of holy opportunity. Perhaps by focusing, as best I can, on the moment, and seeking the good and the peace in each one, I’ll be able to move into the new year knowing that I am exactly where I need to be: in the present, making the best choices I can, and living with gratitude. For now, that has to be enough.
I wish you all many blessings—and, if you are celebrating, may you have a healthy, joyful, and sweet new year. Shana tova!
The above photo of Zeke studying for his bar mitzvah while camping was taken by the author on their family vacation this summer.