Rosh Hashanah: Questioning faith and searching for answers

Rosh Hashanah and I have a complicated relationship.  To be honest, I struggle with the entirety of the High Holy Days, which is not common for a practicing Jew.  It hasn’t always been this way.  I can pinpoint exactly when I lost my faith, so to speak.

It began in Rosh Hashanah of the Hebrew year 5763 – known to most of you as the year 2002 – although I didn’t know it yet.  I can close my eyes and remember sitting in Rosh Hashanah services that bright September morning twelve years ago.  I was filled with joy and hope, celebrating the baby growing inside of me.

I chanted the prayers, my mind drifting and returning to the words, noticing the play of light on the shoulders of the man in front of me.

And then we reached the point that is one of the most intense parts of the service.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

B’Rosh Hashanah yika-teyvun,
Uv-yom tzom kippur yey-chateymun.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born;
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall attain the measure of man’s days and who shall not attain it;
who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword, and who by beast;
who by hunger and who by thirst;
who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning;
who shall have rest and who shall go wandering;
who shall be tranquil and who shall be disturbed;
who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted;
who shall become poor and who shall wax rich;
who shall be brought low, and who shall be exalted.

A shiver ran through me, as it always has, ever since I was a young child sitting in services with my own parents, as I contemplated mortality.  Was it really determined in these ten days, I wondered, whether or not someone will die?  Was it so simple as the fate of whether or not your name was written in the book of life for another year?

I am a believer in science, and I mostly believe that each death in this world is determined by a million factors coming together – not the least of which are medical care, technology, luck, coincidence, timing, karma, environment, weather, acts of war, country of birth, mental illness, physical illness – and pages and pages more. I also believe that these factors determine other things, such as who shall be tranquil and who shall be disturbed, who shall become poor and who shall wax rich, and on and on, and these beliefs are hard to reconcile with the religious words of the High Holy Days.

But I must confess that a small part of me, the part that doesn’t know for sure, considers the possibility that there is a God that plays a role in life and death as well.  Since I can’t definitively prove it one way or the other, I have always decided to go to services and nurture the bits of faith I harbor.

In September of 2002, as the congregation somberly chanted about who shall live and who shall die, I offered up the silent prayer that I always said during the High Holy Days, ever since I was old enough to comprehend the words.  I prayed for the health and well-being of my mom and dad, my sisters, my grandma, my husband and his family, my extended family and my friends and loved ones.  Just in case it really was written and sealed.

And I saved my last prayer for my baby, and I looked forward to next year’s Rosh Hashanah, when my husband and I would be called up with the beaming group of people who were invited to make an Aliyah in honor of becoming first-time parents.

Rosh Hashanah came and went in a flurry of apples and honey and celebrations.  Yom Kippur came, and I must confess I really enjoyed the part about pregnant women not having to fast.  Before I knew it, we were busy with October, then November, and the High Holy days were long removed from the forefront of my consciousness.

During the memorial service for our baby that we held over Thanksgiving weekend, I listened peripherally to the Rabbi as he prayed for my husband and me.  Numb, stunned, in pain both physical and emotional, I remembered with angst the book of life.  Was it written on Rosh Hashanah that Matthew’s kidneys would be ruined?  Was it sealed on Yom Kippur that he would never get the chance to grow up, my firstborn son, my only son, as I now know twelve years later?

So many years of healing later, and yet tears run down my face as I sit here typing, remembering the moment that the High Holy Days changed for me.  The high point of the Jewish year.  The most exalted and celebrated and holy time for my people, and I could no longer believe in the same way.  And I can’t help but wonder – do other Jewish people who have suffered loss struggle with this too?

The next year, my husband and I fled from the High Holy Days.  Literally.  We abandoned all pretense of observing and instead traveled by plane to the tiny town where a baby girl was living in foster care, the baby we hoped to adopt, and we visited her.  I remember when we said goodbye to her after that visit.  I sniffed deeply into her downy hair and kissed her plump cheeks, and I prayed that we would be able to take her home.

And the weeks passed, and again the High Holy Days were forgotten.  Over Thanksgiving, we brought her home to meet my family.  Our new daughter.  One year to the day after losing Matthew.  November 26.  And I wondered, was God’s hand in it?  I felt such strange emotions that day. The grief, the agony of losing my oh so wanted baby, and now on the first anniversary of that terrible day, the joy, the overwhelming joy and disbelief of being a mom to my beautiful Katie.

I weep, and I wonder, and I pray and I hope.  I still am a believer in science.  I still struggle with the High Holy Days.  I still have hope and a little bit of faith.  I know that life has been good to me since then.

When I was pregnant with my middle daughter, we received horrible news shortly after the High Holy Days.  We learned at the 20-week ultrasound that she had hydrops fetalis.  Bilateral pleural effusions.  The forecast was bleak.  We were counseled to prepare ourselves.  But she miraculously pulled through, and there we were, the next Rosh Hashanah, our tiny doll of a daughter in our arms alongside her thriving big sister.

And this year we will go to services, with our three amazing daughters, our healthy and strong and bright and strong-willed girls.  I will feel the familiar shiver of dread during services, and I will cling tightly to my babies.  Questions of faith asked and unanswered, yet I still believe in something.  The questions will always remain with me.  And I will choose hope, for myself and my loved ones.

Check out Carrie Goldman’s award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear

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