Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who creates numerous living things with their deficiencies.
-— Borei Nefashot, the blessing after food and drink
“I can’t really pray,” an old friend wrote this week in an e-mail. “My efforts to forgive and ask forgiveness, such as they are, have been less than heartfelt. This has not been a successful Elul.”
My friend’s sentiments struck a familiar chord. For in these days leading up to Yom Kippur, my Elul, too, has produced the uneasy sense of inadequacy I associate with the season. It hardly bears mentioning that this is, of course, an intrinsic component of the annual experience. My myriad major and minor sins of the past year, the past five years, the past 10 and 20 years — some of which are clearly discernible, but most of which are buried, inaccessible to meticulous scrutiny — lie in a vague heap … somewhere … at the bottom of my soul. Not that I would necessarily be so zealous, in any case, to scrutinize everything in the pile-up! A backward glance, ricocheting off this or that uncomfortable memory, is just about all I can stand before I’m outta there — out of those obscure inner regions where conscience reigns.
Some years, even when the fast is over and I’m on my way home and thinking about what I’m going to eat, a small inner voice (which I prefer to ignore) inquires in an undertone if anything’s actually changed. “Even if your sins be like scarlet,” the Machzor assures us, “they shall be white as snow,” yet in those final moments before my first sip of coffee — which in a fraction of a second will restore everything in the world to mundane normality — it can seem as if even Ten Days of Repentance, plus the symbolic emptying-out of my spiritual pockets during the ritual of Tashlich, and even 25 hours of starvation, have been insufficient to convince me of my supposed new status as an innocent in the eyes of God.
Here at my laptop in Jerusalem a week before Yom Kippur 2011, I just now realized what I was visualizing as I typed that last sentence: a brown hardboiled egg, still in its shell, in my mother’s white china egg cup. The thought of it — a mental souvenir from her Los Angeles kitchen, October 2001 — causes discomfort in my chest, as if I’d swallowed the memory whole and it got stuck going down.
That damnedly imperishable, ridiculously eternal egg, which was supposed to be soft.
Ten years ago this month, my mother was three weeks away from death and I was visiting. My purpose, of course, wasn’t to take a vacation; it was to help her, in any way possible. Nonetheless, my mother’s selflessness was such that she didn’t begrudge me the hours I was spending on the galleys of an about-to-published book. Indeed, she was happy for my happiness, and I had a surprise in mind: unbeknownst to my mother, I was dedicating the book to her.
Only now, having tasted serious illness myself on a few occasions, do I look back at the morning in question with some grasp of what it must have been like to be as weak as she was, and dependent for breakfast on a well-meaning daughter who couldn’t keep her mind on the matter at hand for 2½ minutes.
The mother, who only liked her eggs soft-boiled, lay silently on the couch under a throw-blanket (though outside the sparkling floor-to-ceiling windows, the early autumn day in Southern California was sunny and warm.) The daughter, feeling tall and strong and capable as she stood at the stove waiting for the water to come to a boil (and inwardly bubbling with excitement, as usual in those days, about her forthcoming book; it was going to change the world, or at least her world) lifted her voice to ask her mother in the adjoining room if she was ready to eat now.
From the prone figure on the couch came a small sound — yes —whereupon the daughter did a double take, and was frightened. How small, how shrunken her mother’s diminished body suddenly appeared, curled-up in the fetal position; under the blanket it could have been a little child’s lightweight form — she who had once been tall and strong and capable.
At virtually the same moment, the daughter was struck by some insight that she wanted urgently to insert into one of the chapters; maybe it was even about her mother, I don’t recall, but in any case, she hurried into her late father’s office where the galleys were laid out on his desk — it would just take a second. But by the time she got back to the kitchen and turned off the burner (darn, it was the second time this week that this had happened), about five — perhaps a bit more than five — minutes had passed. “Oh Mommy,” cried the daughter, “I’m so sorry! I overcooked them! I’ll make you another one.”
After a moment, her mother’s low murmur came from across the room, “No … don’t waste it. It’s all right. I’ll have it.”
The daughter could have eaten the hard-boiled egg herself (she only likes them hard) and made her mother another one, but truth to tell, she was actually relieved not to have to spend more precious time at the stove.
That’s it. That’s the whole memory. Ten years have gone by and still it haunts me — surely the longest-living hardboiled egg in history.
My book, on the other hand, that I was so excited about, went out of print long ago. And my mother died before it came out, so she never saw the dedication.
“Education teaches us how to succeed,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. “What it should really do is teach us how to fail, because that’s usually what happens.”
What is it about that hardboiled egg that made it emotionally indigestible, and immune to time?
A few possibilities present themselves.
Firstly, my inability to forgive myself all these years surely has something to do with the fact that aside from the gratuitous, guilt-ridden apology which I exclaimed in knee-jerk fashion that morning, I never asked or received my mother’s forgiveness. And even had I done so, she would have probably dismissed the apology out of hand — don’t be ridiculous, it’s not important — and I would have taken that opportunity to inwardly do the same. I just overcooked an egg, so what? What’s the big deal?
Secondly, one of the things I’ve noticed during my apprenticeship as a human being is that whatever I feel compelled to deny about myself, to shut my eyes to, gets the better of me sooner or later. And when it comes to this particular incident, I can’t say I’ve been eager to take a close look at my stupid pride and what it cost the two of us; nor was I inclined to see through my transparent self-deceptions.
But what am I so scared of finding? Should it really shock me that much to see in myself pride and self-deception, and selfishness? Is sugar and spice and everything nice what little girls are made of? If I could bear to look at myself with open eyes, I wouldn’t be so horrified and indignant to encounter the exact same weaknesses in other people.
Above all, I balk at looking directly into the face of my petty selfishness, against the backdrop of the irrevocable, unending loss. “The distance that the dead have gone,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “does not at first appear,” but that morning in Los Angeles, two-and-a-half minutes felt like a long time to wait.
How can I believe in the forgiveness and mercy we’re told is ours on Yom Kippur? By finding, and exercising, the capacity in my own heart for those blessed, magical words, I’m sorry, and I forgive you. To extend that understanding to myself is not only to become capable of extending it to others, but to recognize its source in the One Who created me, with all my deficiencies.
Return to Me, says God, and I will return to you. It’s in our humbling failures, large and small, that our homecoming lies hidden.
Sarah Shapiro is a freelance writer and author who lives in Jerusalem.