Friday, October 10, 2008

Yom Kippur for a Soldier's Mother

Yom Kippur is a long and difficult fast. So many of the things we use to distract ourselves on a daily basis fall outside the things we are allowed on the holiday. There are no computers, no telephones, no television or radio. We don't go shopping or driving. In short, we stay within our little world, a few blocks here or there. Forced into reflection, it is a day that we cannot hide from God, or from ourselves.

Like most years, we spent almost the entire day in the synagogue. From early in the morning, until after the day has faded away, we stand, we sit, we pray, we reflect and we come to terms with how we have behaved over the past year. We weren't patient enough with our children, our spouse, our friends. We assumed too often, didn’t excuse nearly enough. We jumped when we should have been patient, and sat back when we should have jumped. There were evil things that happened, and we answered them with silence. And there were good things that happened, and perhaps we answered these too with silence. We expected too much of our children, our friends, didn't give enough, or simply didn't act as we should have.

We hurt someone and now, months later, don't know how to undo the damage we have done. All this, ironically enough, isn't something we set out to solve on Yom Kippur because this holiday is about us and God, not us and our fellow human beings. It's about healing our relationship with God and not with man and so we first seek forgiveness from others - the better to come before God and ask His forgiveness. “Look”, we say to God, “we did all these terrible things to others and we’ve asked forgiveness or we have forgiven. Can’t you please forgive us too?”

It doesn't always work. Sometimes, we can't forgive or ask forgiveness and so we have to come to peace with that decision too. And again, we turn to God and say, “Look, that’s the difference between us. We are only human and we tried. But you are God. Can’t you please forgive us even if we didn’t fix all that we did wrong?”

I spoke to my oldest daughter before the fast. She's old enough and mature enough for me to say what I can't say to the others. Elie would put up with no more than a brief conversation and questions about when he would be on the check point. There is no serious talk of forgiveness or of love - these are the things that go unsaid to a 21-year-old (at least if he is male, I'm thinking).

I have anger inside me towards people who I believe have done things that were wrong. Yom Kippur is about letting that anger go - for my own good, if not theirs. It doesn't mean allowing them to wrong you in the future. It doesn't mean opening yourself up to further betrayal, but it does mean getting on and accepting and that's much of what I did before and during the holiday.

During one conversation with a friend, we discussed the messages we want to send our children. To my daughter, my message was that no matter what she could ever do, I am her mother and she will always be in my heart, my mind, my life. This was a message that I thought about on Yom Kippur. One incredibly beautiful prayer lists many thing we want from God, and reasons why we feel, despite our actions, he should give us these things. Each line starts with the simply words, Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, Our King.”

I spoke to Elie before and after the Fast. He was very lucky. Because so many of the boys stayed on base, they were able to better share the hours and so each soldier was on guard for only 8 hours and off for the remaining 17 hours of the fast. Elie started the fast on base and had time to rest after the evening services, before he was taken to the check point.

He was on for most of the night, during the cool hours and before hunger or thirst was an issue. Even when the sun came out, it was cool and easy. Early, early in the morning, around the time I was getting up and going to the synagogue, Elie returned to base and went to sleep. When he awakened several hours later, he went to services and there he remained until the end of Yom Kippur. The army sent the rabbi of his platoon to lead the services and be there if any issues came up.

After dark, Elie broke his fast, rested a bit, and went back on patrol. If you had to think of a schedule, you couldn't have come up with a better one than the one Elie received. He's young and strong; the fast went easily for him.

As for the rest of his schedule this holiday month, he won't be home Monday night for the first day of the holiday of Sukkot, but he will be home for the intermediate days - and we'll do something then.

My final word on Yom Kippur is that having a son in the army brings new meaning to your prayers. They are more directed, more focused, more immediate. There are many beautiful and meaningful ways to express your love of God and love of children. What Yom Kippur does is bring a sense of urgency to it all. Now, as the gates of Heaven close and our destiny is decided, there is a sense of fear as well.

As the day faded, I stood with hundreds and realized that in these moments, God is finalizing His decisions for what will be our future for the next year. It is the time of the holiday I fear the most and love the most. We've spent something like 23 hours largely together, these several hundred people and me. We are united in this one goal, to get our message to the Heavens in the moments we have left. In a very symbolic analogy, we read of the Gates of Heaven closing and it is for us to crystallize our last messages.

All that will be, has been decided and now it has been stamped and closed. It's a scary thought, an awe-inspiring one. Moments before the holiday, we learned that a friend’s father had passed away. He was elderly and it was expected, but the grief was no less real for his son. I thought of his father and our interpretation of his death. In Judaism, we believe that all that will be in the coming year was already decided and it is for us to live it, discover it, and perhaps change it with the right combination of good deeds and prayer (and even if we do succeed in changing it, the “catch” is that God knew in advance that we would succeed). Last year, God decided that this friend’s father would die this year and for his good deeds, he was given up to the last possible moment before that decree was enforced.

I thought of this too, as the sun was fading, the light streaking across the skies. In moments, it would be dark. A slightly different version of "Our Father, our King," is recited. This one is about acceptance. We no longer ask for God to “write” us in the Book of Life; now we ask that He “seal” this decision. Please. Hear us. If not our words, than reach into our souls. Remember our deeds, our intentions, our prayers . Let them mitigate what has been decided.

In those final moments, I thought of each of my children and what I so desperately want for them this year. Some were very personal and I won't write them here but I will write about what I asked for Elie because it is likely what tens of thousands of other mothers asked for their sons, soldiers or not. I asked, in the simplest way, for life. That’s all, and that’s everything. Let him not get hurt this year. Let him be safe. Let him be happy but even more, let him not get hurt.

As Elie stood at the check point, serving his land and his people, I believe God protects those who protect Israel. Whatever this coming year will bring, let it be for good and not for bad. Let it bring health and peace. Simple requests and yet, I've always prayed for health for my family and others, and I've always said the words asking that we be granted peace, but I'm not sure I ever understood the concept of peace until Elie went into the army. Peace is not just about a lack of violence, it's about so much more as well. Peace is about having no need to run after the holiday to check to make sure nothing happened. It's about not checking your phone for messages. It’s about not getting phone calls in the middle of the night and wondering why your heart is still beating when you are sure the fright should have killed you.

I can't imagine a time when Israel won't have an army and sons that must spend years of their lives protecting. But maybe, if we are even lucky enough to reach peace, we will look at the army as a time when our sons will be strengthened physically but not endangered. For now, that time is far off and little is being done to bring it forward.

A few days before the Yom Kippur holiday, I was talking with a friend who has long since finished doing his yearly reserve duty. We talked about Elie and about the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem. I told him about the attack, as Elie described it to me and about how the soldiers had reacted correctly, and as trained. I told him about the injuries and about the ones who had neutralized the terrorist. How the soldiers quickly set up a safety perimeter in case there was someone else waiting to attack; how they saw to their own even before police and ambulance arrived and how they stood, guns loaded, protecting each other.

"I wish for Elie that he never has to kill anyone," my friend said. Yes, on Yom Kippur, we pray for many things. Life and health and livelihood. We pray that we live in dignity and have the repect of others. We pray for our country and our soldiers and for the soldiers who are still in captivity - Gilad Shalit, Ron Arad, and the others. There is no formal prayer wishing your son will never have an opportunity to practice what he has learned. No formal way to ask God that he never need to shoot a weapon of any type beyond the training sessions. But this was a new prayer. If Elie has to kill to protect, I hope he will be able to do it, and live with the decision and the need, but even more, as my friend said, I hope he never will have that need.

I pray that this year's Yom Kippur fast will bring to all of our people peace and safety, health and so much more - to our people, to our sons, to our army.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Thank you...again. You speak what is in my own heart...for my own son as well as all the beautifully.

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