Awe and Wonder in a Year of Pain

Sep 16, 2015 | Judaism

Kamah ya’avroon v’chamah yibarei’un; mi yichyeh umi yamoot… Mi vamayim umi va’eish… Mi vara’ash… Mi vamageifah mi vachanikah… Mi yanuach umi yanu’a; mi yishakeit umi yitareif ; mi yishaleiv umi yityasar

How many will pass and how many will come into being; who will live and who will die… Who by water and who by fire… Who by upheaval…Who will rest and who will wander; who will be in peace and who will be torn; who will be tranquil and who will be tormented?
(Unetane Tokef, Piyut from the High Holy Day service)

Days before the start of 5776, I found myself frequently thinking about the last couple of years. 5774 had been a year of highs – two b’nei mitzvah celebrated, a new contract for my husband at our shul, and family trip to Israel, plus friends’ weddings and b’nei mitzvah to attend. With two graduations coming in 5775, we expected another year of s’machot. But, as the Yiddish saying goes, mentsh trakht, un Got lakht; people plan and God laughs. I don’t actually believe God has that sort of sense of humour, but the sentiment is certainly true. Returning from our wonderful summer to attend three – yes, three – weddings over Labour Day weekend, there was much reason to look forward to a banner year.

Unfortunately, by the end of the weekend, I was immobile due to an attack of sciatica that would last well into the spring.

Before this past year, I knew sciatica was bad but could not imagine the pain and debilitation. By Rosh Hashanah 5775 I was taking large doses of pain medication, which barely dulled the pain but certainly dulled my mind. As if a year of physical pain weren’t enough, two of my three children began negative emotional spirals with far-reaching implications. And my husband, also a rabbi, was left to pick up the pieces while the Hagim approached.

A year later I find myself in awe and humbled: I am in awe of the amount of pain a human body can endure; I am humbled by the knowledge that it took at least nine months to heal, but I am in no way ‘back to normal,’ nor do I know if I will ever be. The work of healing is done, but the recovery continues.

Beyond my pain, Rav Sean and I watched our children dealing with their own upheavals. We are blessed with children who have always been open with us. We talk frankly and honestly. We discuss difficult topics. Through this we have raised three opinionated (in a good way) children who are not afraid to challenge us when they disagree or feel different. No amount of talking could have prepared us, or them, for emotional difficulties well beyond normal teenage issues. The teen years are never tranquil, but neither should they be filled with torment. I am again in awe at the amount of pain a person can endure and humbled by the number of people dealing with this pain every day. Every day I speak with another person dealing with mental and emotional difficulties. I read a post or article about depression, anxiety, or any of the amazing range of conditions from which the human mind can suffer. There are too many teens and young adults dealing with mental and emotional illness, too many adults bearing the scars of mental illness. It’s no longer a thing to whisper in the night but one to speak about openly to help them and all who love them.

Each year we recite the Unetaneh Tokef, the famous piyyut asking “How many will pass and how many will come into being; who will live and who will die?” The poem lists ways we live and die, by water or fire, by hunger or thirst, through upheaval, with rest or wanderings, in peace and tranquillity or torment. For many this is a list of death sentences. Who will die by fire? Who will die peacefully? I have long known it was a list of ways to live. My pain this past year was like fire. I thirsted for normalcy. Passion for others in our lives or causes for which we fight is fire. The little things grew in importance. When difficulties come to stay, I, like others, was caught unawares and embarrassed by the far-reaching effects, whether it is two years of uncontrolled weed growth in my garden, which I had tended for four years, carefully clearing and planting, or the inability to keep up with the dusting after driving, or being driven, to yet another doctor’s appointment, picking a child up from school in the middle of the day, managing laundry, shopping, and a cat with a weight problem who requires his own regular doctor visits.

These experiences have taught us firsthand the importance of community and community support. There were the individuals who asked how we were – and really wanted to know. There were those who, understanding that we, even when we don’t like to admit it, are not superheroes, dropped by with food or called to offer a ride for our children. Two of our children were students at RHA, and the administration stepped up, understanding that, taking a long and unpredictable bus ride to school each morning, our children would be late more often than not. They checked in on us and on our children. CHAT teachers worked with us to ensure our eldest received the help and accommodations he needed with kind understanding. Even when we didn’t take advantage, the simple offer of assistance for a meal or to drive our children helped and healed,.

As 5776 begins, I wonder. Will there be more upheaval? Will there be rest? Certainly my eldest, now in university away from home will wander, but hopefully also be at peace. Whatever the decree, we share this journey called life together. I will seek to live the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in my appreciation for whatever is to come. “I asked for wonder, and You gave it too me.” If there are a few too many weeds in our garden or dust bunnies under the couch, I will seek to accept them, focusing instead on all in the world around me that inspires awe.

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