Perhaps it’s the madness of mid-life, or the doldrums of winter, or just plain bad luck, but I haven’t been enjoying 2013 so far. I’m sick of sickness. I’m worn out by worry. I’m besieged by bickering children. My patience has been worn to the thinnest of rags.
Also: “I am a grouch,” I write in the subject line of an e-mail to my sister. My husband Jeremy, who receives the full brunt of my bad mood, has taken to tiptoeing around me, bracing himself for criticism.
It is time for a change. But what? It would be impractical and expensive to fly off to a sunshiny paradise. I stumble upon an idea: the sort of Jewish rejuvenation available without leaving the living room, or at least the neighborhood — a project focused on teshuva, tzedakah and tefillah, aka repentance, charity and prayer. Operation Renewal!
These obligations of a Jewish New Year, this trio of positive behaviors that usually come to mind during the late, lazy, last days of summer, are in fact, “daily, constant requirements of a Jewish life,” says Rabbi Simkah Weintraub, director for the National Center for Jewish Healing. Besides, what better time for a spiritual boost than February?
Winter makes us crooked, disconnected from our fellow humans, agrees Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, a writer and public speaker. Ruth Balinsky Friedman, who serves as a rabbinic intern at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, sends me a story about the biblical Adam, who grew depressed during the darkest days of the year, and feared the world might be returning to the nothingness with which it began. After devoting himself to prayer and repentance, Adam notices a brightening — in the days and in himself.
My own project begins on a high note. I write out small checks to charitable organizations, and decide that the sting of giving is the kind of pain I want to experience more often, like the ache after strenuous exercise. My attempts at repentance prove more difficult, but I do respond kindly when one child calls me the “worst mother in the world,” and I manage humor when another child begins playing online Scrabble just two breaths after apologizing for not having enough time to make her bed.
Early on a Thursday, I reenter the realm of prayer, and as in a reunion with a rarely seen but true friend, I relax into a warm embrace. I take comfort in the hiss of the heaters in the darkened sanctuary, in the mumble of fellow worshipers at this morning minyan, in the familiar prayers heard since childhood.
When the time arrives to say the Misheberach, the prayer for the sick, I am shaken by a sudden sob. Two beloved relatives have been dealing with grave illnesses this past year, and their names remind me of that dark cloud. Still, I find the moment cathartic, and as I leave the synagogue I aim a friendly smile in the direction of a widow here to recite Kaddish.
My grip on the project loosens, however, over the weekend. I forget to ask for donations to the tzedekah box before candlelighting on Friday night, and the next morning, my family unites in rebellion. Out of earshot of the children, home from traversing the fresh powder of Central Park on his cross-country skis, Jeremy urges me to reconsider my synagogue plans. The children are more vociferous about their need to sled. I whine and wail, and find myself returning, not in the way of teshuva, but in the way of backsliding, to the sort of parent I’d hoped never to become.
I plan to stay the course of Operation Renewal, but I’m also rethinking the holiday of Purim. Could it offer what I’m seeking? In the past, I’ve dismissed it as “a pediatric holiday when many adults behave like children,” in the words of Rabbi Weintraub. But many scholars look to the holiday’s hidden nature, pointing out that the Hebrew root of Esther, the story’s heroine, is “hester,” meaning hidden. Rabbi David Kalb of the 92nd Street Y says that Purim may call to mind Yom Kippur, since another way to translate “Yom Hakipurim is a day that is like Purim.” He says, “Purim is really powerful in its silliness.”
Certainly, the joyous energy of children, silly and unaffected, can be contagious. My spirits rose to the highest point of the week on the first afternoon of Nemo, when my daughter and three other 10-year-old friends rejoiced in the icy precipitation, running and giggling and tossing snow ball after snow ball.
Elicia Brown’s column appears monthly. firstname.lastname@example.org.