Saturday, August 31, 2013

Who Shall Live & Who Shall Die? Fearing the Jewish New Year

Normally, I approach the Jewish High Holidays* with appreciation and zeal for the tradition of life review, repentance, and celebratory reunion with family and friends. But this is not a normal year. This year, I don’t need the shofar (ram’s horn) as a wake-up call to remembrance and reassessment, or a month of preparation for pouring out my soul; I’ve been doing all that daily since N took his life. This year, I cringe at the thought of every intense, soul-searching theme of the holidays, every expectation of spiritual renewal. How can I have a “sweet year” when in the synagogue, there is a new memorial plaque for our 21-year-old son? 

“May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” So say the prayers and greeting cards for Rosh Hashanah. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, always a bit foreboding, now feels threatening: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed . . . who shall live and who shall die, who shall die at his predestined time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire. . . Who will be at rest and who will wander . . . who shall be at peace and who tormented. . . But repentance, prayer and good deeds can avert the severity of the decree.” Our ancestors recognized the presence of tormented souls and wandering Jews, though they failed to include “who by their own hand” in the accounting of ways to die. Where is it written that a beautiful young man full of promise had to reach the end of his days before they had barely begun? N’s death was not part of any divine plan or the result of any decree for wrong-doing. I reject that God of judgment (as do many other Jews). And no amount of atonement can reduce the severity of this loss.

We raised our son to embrace the Book of Life but somehow, on the verge of a new chapter, N lost hold of the binding—to loved ones, the life force, his own tender soul. We didn’t know he was no longer on the same page of assuming that life, despite struggles, would go on. The best I can do this year is to pray that everyone who loved N—especially the young people--reaffirm our place in the Book of Life and our ties to one another. And I can seek a compassionate God in the stirring Avinu Malkenu prayer that I have loved since childhood.

My rabbi tells me to be gentle with myself during these High Holidays. Other suicide survivors in my support group say that anticipation is often worse than a holiday itself and the important thing is to have a plan for how to spend the day. Both the rabbi and the group remind me to be open to the healing power of ritual and community. I will try and continue to reflect in this space as I approach the 10 days of repentance.

*Note: I offer reflections on Jewish tradition in this blog not as an expert but as a mourner moving through the Jewish year. I hope some of the themes will resonate with people of all (or no) faiths.

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