The words mean “For a good year” – it is what Jews all over the world say this week as our New Year is celebrated. The sentiment is so much more than the words.
Growing up, I did not belong to any synagogue; membership wasn’t something my parents obtained, the reasons unimportant to me now. We lived a block from the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, a shul that welcomed the Sephardim (Jews whose roots lie in the Spanish/Middle East portion of the world) and every Yom Kipur my mother, grandmother, sister and I would get all dressed up and walk down the street to hear the shofar (ram’s horn) blown, the sound that would signify the break of the long day of fasting.
Even as a youngster, I could feel the joy. The music of the prayers moved me, and the sound of the shofar – which used to make me giggle – touched something I could not, at the time, understand.
When my oldest was ready for his bar-mitzvah, we chose Congregation Beth-El. It was a synagogue that had some history to us, but we chose it mainly because of the Rabbi. Rabbi Cahana was someone we had seen officiate at another bar-mitzvah and we were touched by his wisdom, his serenity, his humor and his incredible warmth. We went to enroll in the program so that our son could become bar-mitzvah.
In order to have a bar-mitzvah at any synagogue, membership is mandatory. We received tickets (security is high in this day and age) for our High Holiday seats and shortly after the wonderful experience of Josh’s bar-mitzvah, we went to shul for Rosh Hashanah. It was an experience that changed me. A week later, during the Yom Kipur service, I was made aware of a portion of the service known as yitzkhor. This is a portion where only mourners can attend. Mourners, in Judaism, comprise anyone who has lost a parent, sibling, child or spouse. Mourners are the only ones who can light yahrtzeit (memorial) candles as well. Yitzkhor is a service where the dead are commemorated (our New Year is the time Jews believe we are inscribed in the Book of Life for another year).
As my family filed out with the others who had not earned that dubious honor of allowance into yitzkhor, I sat alone, utterly unaware of what was going to take place.
The rabbi and cantor (the man who sings the prayers – and our cantor is a powerful profound voice and presence) led the service, and as I read along in the English translation, I began to feel the presence of those souls we were all remembering. But more, I began to feel my mother.
I had worn her amethyst brooch that day, in essence bringing her to shul with me. But as we began to recite the prayers for the dead – there are prayers specific to every relationship – I began to choke up. I literally had to hold back sobs as I felt the awe of the moment. It was 2 short weeks since my son’s bar-mitzvah, an event at which she was so conspicuously absent. And the emotions literally poured forth.
I, being utterly unaware of what Holidays were like at any synagogue, found something in the depths of my heart that day. I found, not religion but spirituality within the religion. Up until then, I was what’s known in our modern-day world as a traditional Jew: marking the “main events”, maybe going to synagogue (mostly not), and following the important laws of our religion. But not eschewing driving, electronics or work on Shabbat or holidays, for example. It was what many people who are not Orthodox or even Conservative do.
But that day – and the years to follow – brought home my religion. Our family had been welcomed as members of the synagogue community and familiar faces soon became familiar friends, but I found a home in Judaism.
I did not become religious. I had a spiritual awakening to Judaism. And that was something that was driven home to me this year.
Our beloved Rabbi Cahana was stricken in the summer of 2011 and it was devastating. We did not know what would become of him, he was completely paralyzed, unable to speak, and our congregation – as well as the city that knows his wonderful reputation – held its breath as we prayed for his recovery.
The news was not good, at first. But then we received email from our synagogue with a short passage the Rabbi had dictated, using blinking to signify the letters he wanted to use to compose the words and then the passages. It was awe-inspiring.
Slowly – but not so slowly when you consider it was just 2 years ago – he began to show miraculous signs of recovery. As a patient with “locked-in syndrome” this was almost unheard of. You can read about him here.
Rabbi Cahana had been attending shul for a while now, but this week was – for our family – a revelation.
On the first day at shul, I brought my boys to services. We sat in the balcony as we always do, and the shofar sounded for the first time that morning. Suddenly, I was struck by how awesome (in the true sense of that word) the shofar is. See, it is a ram’s horn that dates back to the very beginnings of our people. It was used as a call to worship – as it is now – and even to war (as it is not, these days). But as I listened yesterday, it seemed as though I was hearing it for the first time. This ancient, sacred sound was what Moses heard, Jacob heard, Joshua who heard it and captured Jericho as the shofar was his signal to surround the wall with his troops – it was sounded then as it is sounded now, and the transition of years faded away in my eyes, from ancient times to 2013. Where as a girl I giggled at the indescribable honking of this ersatz trumpet, this week the sound evoked a feeling of awe for me. As much as I had to do for my dinner that night (I hosted the 2nd meal and was cooking and preparing for 9 people), everything melted away and I truly worshiped in the moment.
After services were over, we went downstairs to thank our Rabbi (Rabbi Allan Nadler, who stepped in when Rabbi Cahana was stricken) as it was his first High Holidays with our shul (previous years he had pre-committed to his former synagogue), and to greet our cantor (who marveled at how my kids have grown). We saw a line in front of Rabbi Cahana, as he is truly a rock star in our shul (he always has been – everyone wants to touch his hand, talk to him, be blessed by him, get a smile or a greeting from him – when you hear the words “beloved Rabbi”, you might want to picture Ronnie Cahana). We stood behind those waiting to see him and when we got closer, he was engaged in conversation with a congregant. Yes, conversation – his speech is soft and slow but it is there.
His eyes wandered to us and he lit up. His face lit up. My younger son – Sam – told me he’d been watching the Rabbi the whole time and saw the transition. Rabbi turned his face to us and smiled that beautiful wide smile. He mouthed, “Wow..!” and my kids grinned happily. He said, “My favorite bar-mitzvahs!” Sam, utterly in awe, said, “Rabbi Cahana, you’re doing so well since the last time I saw you!” The Rabbi said, “All because of G-d. Stay close to G-d.”
I touched his shoulder and said, “You are making that very easy, Rabbi. You’re an inspiration. And you know, you’re famous, too!” (my reference to the above article). He grinned and said, “Small-town celebrity.”
We talked with him for a few minutes, and after our exchange, we could see him growing tired. We wished him a L’Shana Tova and made our way to the car.
Walking out, Sam – who is not one to rhapsodize – said, “I’m not joking, I’m seriously going to talk about this all day. It meant SO much that he greeted us that way!” I told him to go ahead and talk about it – because it was a Moment for us. We talked about religion, and how it is sustenance for so many and for so many reasons. And Sam did, indeed, talk about this encounter all day, and at the dinner table last night.
Today, we returned to synagogue. As much as I had to do yesterday, I returned to services with the achy exhaustion of having pulled off a truly successful dinner party. But as I sat in our seats in the balcony, the aches and exhaustion melted away and once again, the moment at hand became All.
After services were over, we chatted with our synagogue’s Director for a while, and when we went downstairs, the Rabbi and his family were still in the chapel, though there was only one couple engaged with him – friends of ours. From the tears on our friend’s cheeks, we knew the encounter was as meaningful to her as yesterday’s was to us.
When they left, we moved into his line of vision, and once again, he lit up. This time, I kissed his cheek, wished him a Shana Tova, and showed him that my husband had attended with us (as he was unable to yesterday). Rabbi Cahana looked from one face to the other, smiling as he seems to do so often – and as he always did before the stroke. Sam immediately told him how much yesterday had meant to him, telling him how “..I talked about you all day.” The Rabbi smiled happily. He then turned to me and asked about how my father was. He sent regards. He engaged in conversation with us which had us hanging on his every word.
When my husband said, “Rabbi, you’re looking so wonderful since the last time I saw you,” he responded, “I’m looking so wonderful since the last time I saw me!” (that delightful sense of humor sent music through me)
He told us he has been taking steps. When we expressed our pleasure and surprise, he said, “It’s not slow.” He told us “I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful for this gift. I love my stroke. I am here. And my family needs me. My shul needs me. G-d is with me.”
I was recording this in my head. I needed to remember every word. Some are harder to hear than others, but we expressed to him that we need him. I joked with him that – not yet, but when the time comes, will he officiate my sons’ weddings? He loved the idea and showed confidence that he would.
When we walked out of the synagogue, my emotions flooded forth. I ended up in tears I couldn’t stop. Not sadness, not really. Though yes, it is hard to see this strong, vital man the way he is. But his words, his gratitude and his outlook shattered any sadness in me; instead, I was moved to my core by his strength.
As we walked to the car, I told the kids, “look – religion isn’t magic. And it is suddenly so clear to me what religion does. We know we can’t say, ‘G-d, I need a million dollars’ or ‘G-d, please bring my mother back to life’ – and it may sound silly but that’s something we all know is not what G-d is about. But what we saw in there, what we continue to see with our Rabbi’s progress and recovery, is a man whose faith is so unshakeable that it drives him to BE the man he is, the man who wants to live and wants to heal. And how can anyone ever deny the power that invokes?”
It made me think. I know atheists. I have seen them scoffing at religion, or even the mention thereof; I have seen the extremists as well – (we all have) – from those who give it all and expect the magic, to those who purportedly commit horrific crimes in the name of their religion.
And I have always been proud to be Jewish, proud to be a daughter of Israel, and proud to be a member of the synagogue community I found later in life. But this week, I am struck by revelation of the true power of our religion.
It makes me slightly defensive against those who believe “organized religion is a brainwashing crock” and those who believe it should be invisible. From my Provincial government, to people in my personal circle, I see the dismissal of religion as a viable entity. And so I feel defensive of my newfound revelations but not so defensive that I am losing sight of the spiritual uplifting I have embraced and renewed this week.
Emotions were already on high this week; next week, on Yom Kipur when I will once again (as I do every year) choke back tears during yitzkhor, I will recover from the wave in time for what is sure to be a watershed (and tear-shedding) Moment at our shul: Rabbi Cahana is scheduled to deliver a sermon.
I will, no doubt, be writing about that when I have my words in order.
Until then – I wish you all (those who celebrate, those who do not, those who are Jewish, those who are not): לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה תֵּחָתֵמוּ וְתִכָּתֵבוּ
L’Shana Tova Techatemu ve tikatevu**
(may you be inscribed and sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year)
If you would like to read more from Rabbi Cahana, please visit his blog