Waiting at the Top of the Aisle
Rosh Hashanah Morning
I can’t remember when another book has brought me to tears. But that’s what Jennifer Gardner Trulson’s memoir did to me. It touched me deeply at many points along the way and it did so for several reasons.
First, the author is not a stranger. She grew up here in our community as Jennifer/Jenny Radding, the daughter of our members Ed and Linda Radding, which means there is something quite personal about her book.
Secondly, the book is powerful because it tells the intimate story of Jennifer’s life when her husband, Doug, dies in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald more than 100 floors up in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
This beautiful, honest book is entitled, Where You Left Me, and I recommend you read it. I also recommend that you join me at the JCC on Tuesday, November 1 when Jennifer will be here to open up this year’s Jewish Book Fair.
Before that event, however, I want to share one scene from the book with you. It takes place in the last chapter of the book, the final page, where Jennifer describes the magnificent moment of her wedding to the wonderful man who came into her life in the years after 9/11.
The whole book ends as members of the bridal party walk down the aisle. Jennifer watches as her two small children make the walk. Her husband-to-be steps out into the congregation. Soon it will be her turn. Soon her life will change again forever. The music slows down. The attendants hold the curtain. They wait for her cue. She takes a deep breath. It’s time. The fabric parts and…then?
Well, isn’t that the point?
Then…who knows what will happen?
A bride heads down the aisle into a new life. Come to think of it. Doesn’t every one of us step into a new life, a new experience, an unknown future, every day? And, like the bride, we never really know what lies ahead.
We are all, in a way, at the top of the aisle stepping into life and never knowing for sure what that journey will be like for us. Will it be straight and easy or will it throw us a curve and trip us up? Will we march forward with the wind at our back or will the journey be challenging, even overwhelming?
We don’t know what’s in store for us as we move on down the road.
I know that’s why these High Holidays have an alternate name. For you see the English titles “High Holidays” and “High Holy Days” aren’t actually found anywhere in Jewish tradition. There is no Hebrew equivalent for either of them. Nothing “High” in Hebrew.
In fact, if you want to talk about the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur season in Hebrew, the words to be used are Ya-meem Ha-Nora-eem…The Days of Awe.
And what is awesome, awe-inspiring, awe-full (even intimidating) about this season is the recognition that we are not in control of the road we travel. Even the best GPS can’t tell us how to get from here to there if we don’t know where there is. And in life we know so very well that we can never be sure where the road is about to take us.
As the prayer book puts it in awesome, haunting language, from this Rosh Hashanah to the next, we can’t know: “How many will pass on and how many will be created. Who will live and who will die. Who by fire and who by water, who by hunger and who by thirst. Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled. Who will be exalted and who humbled. Who will be rich and who will be poor.”
It doesn’t take much for us to be reminded how precarious life is. A single phone call in the middle of the night tells you an elderly parent has fallen and been taken to the hospital. A phone call from the doctor who needs to see you in person to discuss the results of an innocent blood test.
A beautiful Wednesday morning, June 1, morphs into the day of a tornado. A blue sky, sunny Tuesday in September becomes the infamous 9/11.
This Rosh Hashanah morning….really every morning…we wake up, wash, groom ourselves, eat breakfast, take a look in the mirror, open the door and, as it were, head down the proverbial aisle where anything can happen.
To be honest, as Jews we know this better than anyone. We know anything can happen because our history has taught us the down side of that lesson more than once.
“Who will live and who will die.”
So what’s a person supposed to do if the word is quite so unpredictable and often even dangerous? When you’re at the top of the aisle and you’ve got to take that first step, can you do it? Should you proceed?
I am reminded here of the dramatic story at the heart of the Book of Exodus. It’s the story of our ancestors crossing the Sea of Reeds, but there’s more to that story than the splitting of the water.
First, remember the setting. Our ancestors have been freed from Egypt. Moses has marched them out of slavery and they have had several days of freedom. They have watched the sun rise and set without struggling to build Pharaoh’s pyramids. They have camped on the shores of the Sea and they are at peace.
Suddenly, they hear the thunder of chariots and they realize they are trapped…Egyptian soldiers approaching from one side, nothing but water on the other side.
But then the water separates. They push through. The water returns to stop the soldiers who would have murdered them. Our ancestors are free to dance and sing on the other side of the Sea.
That’s the classic story, but it’s not the aspect of the story that speaks to me this morning. When the journey of a New Year looms ahead of us, come with me, instead, to the moment at the Sea before the water split. Imagine standing with your back to the Egyptians. Imagine looking out over the water toward the rising sun. Imagine implacable, mysterious water lapping at your feet.
On this side of history…after the fact…you and I know the Sea split and our ancestors survived. But before that…before at least one person placed one toe in the water, no one knew what would happen.
According to the midrash, some Israelites wanted to surrender to the Egyptians and hope for the best. Others turned on Moses blaming him for their predicament.
Then one Israelite took a chance. Tradition calls him Nachshon and tradition says Nachshon just stepped forward into the unknown. He must have been unsure. He must have been terrified. But Nachshon walked forward into history anyway and thereby gave our people a future.
I think it has to be that way with us. Life is perilous. It can disappoint us, overwhelm us, and sometimes threaten to drown us. Our prayers and all our awareness on the Days of Awe recognize this reality. No guarantees. That’s the truth about life we encounter at this season.
But then there was Nachshon and the rest of our ancestors. No guarantees but enough faith not to look backwards. To look forward and move forward, instead.
And here’s what happened: Their procession into history didn’t fail. The worst didn’t happen. Even though there was no guarantee of a good outcome, that is what happened. They survived the Sea. Our mothers and fathers celebrated and went on to give birth to everything that has led to our being here today.
Yes, there is uncertainty. The bride never knows what will happen. Neither do we. We do need to take the fateful step forward.
But, you know, when I really think it through, I start to feel differently about that so-called “fateful” step. That’s because, as I see it, uncertainty doesn’t mean it will always rain. Not every step into the unknown is fateful. We are not always standing on the edge of a precipice.
I don’t want to overstate the dilemma because one of my favorite passages from the Passover service comes to mind even on Rosh Hashanah. I’m thinking of the Passover prayer that makes this affirmation. Life exists….L’vracha v’lo l’klala..for the sake of blessings and not curses.
There can be blessing, says the prayer, and such blessings can trump the curses that come our way.
The truth is that the shofar service we love so much also makes this claim. It begins with a solid blast of the ram’s horn – tekiah. That’s easy. When we begin, it feels like morning. You might say, the day has just begun. It’s not so hard to feel tekiah.
But, as we said, life is complicated and unpredictable. There are disappointments and frustrations outside in the world. That is why the second and third shofar blasts are broken. Shevarim – three short blasts. Teruah – nine blasts. We trip. We stumble.
Then again – as I just said – life isn’t only about problems, which is why every single shofar service always takes us back to the single, solid tekiah. Our tradition mandates that we get back to the power of tekiah because we can’t give in to the broken vision. Shevarim. Teruah. We need to pick ourselves up to get back on the path of life and carry on.
Plus we know -and Judaism never lets us forget - there are blessings along the path of life. There is goodness. There is growth. In spite of the dangers, we believe that the good outweighs the bad.
I saw this so clearly only a few weeks ago at the minyan service we have once monthly. That morning we read the words of a prayer in English that praised God for healing the sick. How true was that, I thought to myself, since two of the people sitting in our circle of prayer had only recently lost loved ones to illness.
Then I reread the passage and rethought its meaning.
I realized the prayerbook doesn’t claim that there is always healing. It doesn’t say healing is forever. There couldn’t always be healing because the world couldn’t work that way.
And yet (here’s what I thought that morning), when you consider our experience over a lifetime, you do realize that on balance there is more healing than death. There is pain and disaster, but, on balance, there are more good days. There is more life than death. More blessing than curse.
Although we know there are no guarantees in life, in at least one glorious instance, Jennifer walked down the aisle to her chupa and new love. And she’s not the only one. That long risky aisle often leads us into blessing. Not easily, but the goodness is so often there if we search it out and refuse to give up until we find it.
As is so often the case, Elie Wiesel leaves me with a beautiful teaching that I want to share with you now. It comes from his novel, The Town Beyond the Wall, which is set during the Holocaust. The protagonist, Michael, finds himself in a prison cell with a young boy buried deep in fear. The boy has barely mumbled a word to Michael for weeks.
As the scene begins, Michael is trying to coax the boy back to life and Michael offers him these words:
“Who says that the essential question has an answer. The essence of man is to be a question and the essence of the question is to be without an answer. The depth, the meaning of man is the constant desire to ask [great] questions…To flee to a sort of Nirvana – whether through indifference or apathy – is useless…They’ll probably tell you [life is] only a play, that the actors are in disguise. So what? Jump onto the stage, mingle with the actors, and perform…Don’t stay at the window.”
Jump. Perform. Step forward. Believe. Go.
A new year opens up before us today. No guarantees. None whatsoever. But we’ve been here before. We’ve wept and sometimes rejoiced. We’ve carried plenty of burdens but also felt as young as springtime. We’ve taken the plunge and walked down the path of life.
We’ve done it because we must.
We’ve done it because we are Jews.
We’ve made the journey because, on balance, it offers such promise.
That’s what I believe and I hope you do as well.
Walk on…because, who knows, maybe just around the bend, over the horizon there is a treasure. There is a blessing. There is the possibility for you and those you love of a year that is truly sweet.
Ken yehi ratson….May that be the Holy One’s will.
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