As a kid, I remember sitting through High Holidays with my family at our Reform congregation. We’d hit a section in the services where the English responsive reading, inspired by the Hebrew, used words like “awe,” “awesome” and “supreme.” There were smirks and stifled giggles as we passed this yearly reading. Why? Our family had discussed it at a holiday meal, and we agreed this sounded like a really big pizza special. It was hard to concentrate after that, thinking about pizza.
This moment hit me again when I heard Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe, one of the rabbis at Temple Rodef Shalom in Virginia, give a Kol Nidre sermon about awe, gratitude and wonder. It was powerful. Before I get into the details, we chose to stream services again this year from home in Winnipeg. In part, it’s so we can be a part of two worlds – my parents’ congregation in Virginia, where I grew up, and our Winnipeg synagogue, too. After the holiday, I can discuss sermons with my mom as if I had been sitting beside her during services and this is meaningful. For many people who are apart from their families during holidays, using shared moments to bond is important.
Even though I knew our choice to stay home made sense, I felt pressured to “get back to normal” and “be together again,” especially when a synagogue publication suggested that those who chose to stream did so for “mobility reasons.” (Not all those who choose to stay home have the same challenges. There are multiple reasons to stay home.)
Back to Rabbi Saxe’s sermon, which touched on the ways that the rabbis created liturgy that helps us remain grateful, and even encourages experiences of awe and wonder. If you see a rainbow, there’s a prayer for that. There are specific prayer formulas for eating fruits, snacks, and there’s even, Rabbi Saxe mentioned, a prayer for after you’ve gone to the bathroom. At this, some in the congregation laughed.
I felt shame. Not only is the bathroom prayer something I’ve written about and, yes, recited, but it’s also something I might have laughed at as a kid. Without going into details, thanking G-d for the intricacies of how our bodies work, opening and closing appropriately at the right times, can be absolutely meaningful. If you doubt this, maybe you have been very lucky and never had food poisoning or a stomach virus. Yes, we smirk and laugh when we feel uncomfortable, sure. Also, it’s when we take things like being healthy for granted.
I also felt weird guilt about not being in a congregational community over the holidays, even though we had a holiday meal with another family, dressed up, streamed services and took time off together. I felt strange checking messages over Yom Kippur. Then something happened.
Within a short period of time, two of our close family friends ended up in the hospital. One is in his 80s, in ICU, with COVID. The other friend is 5 years old, and she has a sister who is a newborn.
During Yom Kippur, the 5-year-old was admitted to Children’s Hospital after being up all night in the emergency room.
In the middle of Yom Kippur services, I got up, went to the kitchen and gathered together food for the parents for this unexpected stay. This is why we make the second round challah, I thought, as I threw it in the bag. I left my family, hopped in the car while fasting, and navigated the hospital until I found the room with one dear-to-us child with her oxygen mask, her exhausted-looking parents and their infant. I handed them the food, it wasn’t time for a visit, and rushed out again.
Somewhere on the drive home, I processed what had happened. I felt a profound sense of awe. I had been in exactly the right place. If I’d gone to services in person, I wouldn’t have been online or known that our friends’ child had been admitted to the hospital. I wouldn’t have been able to rush out and offer food, a quick bikkur holim (visiting the sick), and support her family. Leaving the twilight of their windowless hospital room, I was blinded by sunlight as I left the garage. I parked in front of our house and took a moment to cry.
Our liturgy traditionally links daily gratitude with prayer. This is an automatic check-in with nature, our bodies and the world to see and wonder at what’s around us. However, we’re all too likely to get sarcastic, cynical and, frankly, depressed. Mental health experts recommend expressing gratitude and getting into nature to improve our health, but the rabbis, like other faith traditions, prescribed it a long time ago.
It’s easy to ignore the natural world or our bodily functions. I’ve become increasingly aware of the sensory overload in our society. Some people easily manage very stimulating environments, like a dance club or even a household with the TV and radio on, a dog barking and a phone ringing, all at once. Others cannot manage this much. Sometimes, it’s diagnosed as a sensory processing disorder, but this can mean different things. There’s a person who cannot manage too much input, and the person who needs fidget toys and constant stimulation to maintain equilibrium. Nature or the trendier “forest bathing” can sometimes help us find balance.
As I head into autumn, I’m seeking fewer big events or gatherings. Here’s to quiet moments of awe. One of my kids is a new band student. His enthusiasm about his instrument is contagious. I cannot wait to play sax duets and “honk” together. The other kid has been spotting woodpeckers on our dog walks and pointing out migrating birds as the weather turns.
Rabbi Saxe closed his sermon with Genesis 28:16, when Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely, G-d is in this place and I did not know it!” Perhaps, like Jacob, we can all wake up and discover the joys of small wonders, too. We just have to slow down, open up and look for them.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.