Just about this time of year, seven years ago, I was struggling to decide what synagogue I would join, because none of them felt like a great fit for me. After all, I’m a Jewish lesbian with mystical and Hasidic tendencies, married to a non-Jewish woman, with sons we are raising Jewish, so my spirituality and politics place me on opposite ends of the Jewish spectrum. Finally, my Rabbi said to me: “I understand you feel none of the synagogues is a perfect choice, Jen, but you have to choose one, because you need a synagogue. You can’t be a Jew without a community.” I laughed internally, thinking her statement was absurd, because of course I could be a Jew without a community, I would just be a Jew on my own, celebrating Shabbat and holidays, and teaching my kids everything they needed to know.
Flash forward seven years to today, about a week into the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is the month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah, which ushers in the ten Days of Awe that lead up to our Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur: the final day on which we repent to G-d for our sins of the prior year. And only now, after seven years of studying, praying, and living Jewishly, am I beginning to understand the full import of the words my Rabbi said seven years ago.
On Yom Kippur, we stand as a community and request G-d’s forgiveness for a long laundry list of sins — each individual requests forgiveness for all the possible sins, regardless whether or not that person committed that particular sin this year, so that no individual feels the shame of repenting alone for a particular sin with the rest of the congregation listening.
In order to be prepared to ask G-d’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur, many Jews spend the month of Elul praying, contemplating the mistakes of the previous year, and thinking about how to avoid those mistakes in the upcoming year. It can be a “heavy” time, if taken seriously, because who among us has not sinned this year? But it can also be a very holy time, and a time of growth, inspiration, and repair . . . for us, for our relationships with others, and for our relationship with G-d.
To help his Hasidim, prepare for the journey of Elul, Reb Chaim Halberstam of Zanz once shared this story with his followers:
Once a woman became lost in a dense forest. She wandered this way and that in the hope of stumbling on a way out, but she only got more lost as the hours went by. Then she chanced upon another person walking in the woods.
Hoping that he might know the way out, she said, ‘Can you tell which path leads out of the forest?’
‘I am sorry, but I cannot,’ the man said. ‘I am quite lost myself.’
‘You have wandered in one part of the woods,’ the woman said, ‘while I have been lost in another. Together we may not know the way out, but we know quite a few paths that lead nowhere. Let us share what we know of the paths that fail, and then together we may find the one that succeeds.’
“What is true for these lost wanderers,” Reb Chaim said, “is true of us as well. We may not know the way out, but let us share with each other the ways that have only led us back in.”
And here, again, in the words of Reb Chaim, I found a different version of the message of my Rabbi … to be a Jew is to understand that we are … each of us in our own unique way … on a journey … sometimes fun, sometimes frightening, usually with completely unexpected twists and turns. At one point or another, probably more often than we ever imagined possible in the arrogance and ignorance of our youth, each of us will find ourselves lost. But in a community, we just might run into another soul who is lost in our part of the forest, who will wander with us … pray with us, share stories with us, laugh with us, cry with us, dance to new songs with us, help us find a path we hadn’t yet considered … until, together, we find our way out of the shadows.
None of us has all the answers and, in a community, we don’t need to be alone as we ask ourselves life’s hard questions, as we repent, or even as we prepare to repent. I’m glad I listened to my Rabbi and found a community …
This post is dedicated to Rabbi Marci Bloch.