God Vacations Over the Summer
God vacations over the summer. School’s out, beaches are in. Long days of sun and surf, ice cream and jump rope out on the street, staying up as late as the sunlight lasts. No school. No homework. No cold early morning waking up in the dark to face hours of never-ending Hebrew class.
But He returns with a vengeance in September, making up for all that lost time. He sits on his throne, ledgers opened, quills sharpened, defense and prosecuting angels to his right and left presenting arguments for and against our continued existence.
The trial lasts for ten days, from the first of Tishre, that holiest of months, thru the tenth. The Days of Awe in the middle bookended by Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Days of serious contemplation and equally serious rituals. Apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year. Change dutifully slipped through the slots of the “pishka,” the collection tin – so similar to a piggy bank, but so different, prominent on the kitchen counter. And strangest and most weird, on the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur, my siblings and I collecting before my father as he waves his hand over our head, his fist holding the change that would be given to charity, in redemption for our lives. Some friends' parents actually used a chicken for their Koproress, as this ritual was called, which I understood to mean "instead of." So we were redeemed for a handful of change or a chicken carcass, but I was assured it was all symbolic.
Friend and relatives greeting each other with Shana Tovah, “Good Year” as we head into those holy two days when our destiny will be determined. Then, on day three switching to the more solemn and final, “Gmar Tov”- may you have a good ending - as our fates are further considered and hopefully amended for the better – given all that last minute soul searching and good deed doing - during the days of awe. All of this ominous and weighty consideration initiated with the shofer blast, 100 blasts each day of Rosh Hashana. A call to arms. And ending with that last call at the close of Yom Kippur – our Day of Atonement, an entire day spent in fasting and tribulations.
The passage of the very long day marked with regular repetitions of “who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the Decree.”
Again and again the congregation chants these words, as if any of us are in any danger of not knowing why we’re collected together. We look around, noting who’s missing this year, speculating who might be absent next year. And squirming as we bang our fists against our hearts, lamenting, repenting, and yeah. Negotiating. After all there is that final caveat. Our stomachs gnawing, our legs shaking from all the up and down that goes on all day, our mouths stale, our hair and skin sticky.
Well after sunset, one hour exactly, we reach the end of the machzor, the worn prayer book, the final page always timed perfectly with the minutes we’ve been counting down since it all began. We close the books, kissing the cover, and stand at attention for the last plaintive wail of the shofer.
Time’s up. No appeal. No chance of parole.
And the worst of it – I knew this because it was drilled into us in that dreary, scary, dull Hebrew class where we sat terrified and bored for hours and hours every morning. Even if you squeaked by, because you were still a kid and therefore not responsible for your shitty little soul, your sins could, would, impose an untimely death on others. The fathers who die for the sins of the child.
That Yom Kippur I’d spent the entire day outside, well sated on snacks and drinks, away from the ever watchful eyes of adults sequestered inside the house of worship. Eight year olds didn’t need to fast, I’d have four more years of reprieve. The day flew by, the sky eventually turning from blue to gray. Wasted and dirty from climbing over fences and down alleyways, knees and elbows skinned by brushes against unforgiving brick walls, I was exhausted.
At sunset I finally made my way into the inner sanctum of the synagogue, working my way down the aisle of the men's section, another indulgence of my youth: I was granted entre to a world that would be forbidden to me in a few years’ time. The pews were filled with men covered in prayer shawls, shaking and bending toward the east, where the opened ark allowed a peek at the sacred Torah scrolls within. This was last call, Neilah, all the prayers uttered, exhausted fists resting from the ongoing blows delivered to chests swollen with hearts laden with sins, the sin of gossip, the sin of lust, the sin of greed. Each and every one intoned, acknowledged, and repented before the All Knowing.
God, gracious God, forgiving and compassionate, patient and abounding in kindness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgive me, absolve me, allow me one more year of grace. Finally the last desperate peal of the shofer, the closing of the ark.
Next Year in Jerusalem.
If there will be a next year.
My knees quivered, not from the scrapes they’d received all day. I approached my father, always among the last to leave, savoring more precious minutes in His presence. He folded his tallis, kissing it before placing it in its blue velvet bag, trimmed with silver threaded embroidery. His foul breath reached all the way to where I stood, day old hunger and thirst breath, pasty and pale skin even beneath dark day old stubble.
“Daddy,” I asked, my voice tentative, images of myself butterflying about all day, “You never left shul? All day?”
Eyebrows etched into wrinkly folds lifted over tired eyes. “Simchick, nu’veden? It’s Yom Kippur.”
He handed me his tallis bag, allowing me the honor of carrying it home. Accepting it, deeply aware of my ignominy, even then I couldn’t tell him not to hand it over. He led the way, still ignorant of my vile nature, humming the entire walk home, tunes from the davening I’d missed. A feast awaited us, sweet noodle kugel, bagels and lox, orange juice and cakes. I don’t remember, I wasn’t hungry.
Later that night I tossed and turned. The shofer had blown, the gates to the heavenly courtroom where the enthroned Almighty sat with his ledgers and angels were sealed, the final accounting stamped.
Clammy inside pajamas soaked with my sweat, I prayed. Too late, but I prayed. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Too late. Already a third grader I knew better. And He knew best of all.
There was no hope for me.
But could my father be spared?