The Jewish New Year prompts the annual introspection: how to love our imperfect selves?
Last year at this time, we were taking steps to re-emerge from the pandemic. For me, that meant sending my kids back to in-person high school and college. I’m not gonna lie; it was bittersweet. I liked having my babies close.
On the eve of that transition, we sat around our dining room table and I said, Before we eat, I want to do something.
I needed to pause and acknowledge that we had been through something extraordinary over the last 18 months, before we rushed headlong into the next season of our lives without a breath. I needed a ritual to close that time, in order to welcome what was coming next — a “new abnormal,” if not the grand “Woo Hoo, It’s Over!” we all wanted.
So that night I had scrounged and found four half-melted candles in the kitchen’s junk drawer and anchored them to the bottom of a glass jar with their own melted wax. I know: better humans than I would have thought ahead, bought new candles, maybe even placed them in real candleholders, and set a vase of flowers in the center, with a carefully crafted playlist humming in the background. While I admire and appreciate people who make those efforts, touches that make everyone feel special, that is not me. When I get an idea, I ruminate on it for a while, reject it, change my mind at the last minute and decide to commit to it, and then scramble to make it happen. I am who I am.
Gathered around the dining room table, I said, I thought that each of us could light a candle and say something, whatever you want, maybe a wish or hope for the new year. Anything.
I expected double eye rolls; they did not come. I guess my family needed something like this, too.
I lit the first candle and said to my boys, “I am so proud of how you weathered this strange and unprecedented time. You’ve shown resilience and humor, in addition to grief and mourning.”
Around the table, we each took a turn, match-lighting glitches and all. I do not know if my little ritual changed anything measurable, but it gave us a moment to take a step back and honor what we had been through.
Rituals are a necessary part of the human condition.
I have been thinking about rituals this week we celebrate the High Holidays. On Erev Rosh Hashanah last week, our rabbi spoke with utmost gratitude to his mother, who made sure that his family knew without fail that every Friday at 6 pm, they would be gathered around the Shabbat table.
As I thought about my own family’s haphazard Shabbat rituals, I felt that familiar second-guessing, comparing-mind, regret rising in my belly — if only I had done that better! I really meant to and now it’s too late!
In a perfect world, I would have created a beautiful and reliable Shabbat ritual for my family. My kids would have come home to the smell of fresh Challah baking, roasted chicken, and potatoes in the oven. Not only did I not possess the domestic discipline to plan ahead, but I also lacked the iron will to enforce that weekly ritual against the competing interests of flag football practices, basketball games; or social events of our own. Rather than make a beautiful, attendance-mandatory dinner each Friday night, I made the decision that keeping my kids from doing what they loved because of Judaism — was the surefire way to kill any fondness for those rituals and create a lifelong resentment to carry forward into the next generation
I sometimes wonder, like when the Rabbi is talking about his treasured childhood memories of Shabbat each week — what rituals will my kids keep? Which will they pass down? Which will they abandon? Which have I taught them, and which have I unwittingly handed down?
One ritual I love is casting away regrets.
One of my favorite rituals is Tashlich, the symbolic casting away of sins. I did not encounter this ritual until I was an adult (which feels important to remember as I flay myself for failing to instill rituals in my kids). I love Taschlich both because it involves being in nature and because it is about letting go of regrets.
Lucky to live by the ocean, in our community we gather at the beach and throw bread crumbs or birdseed into the sea, symbolically casting our “sins” into the ocean. As I throw the seeds toward the water, I think about the qualities and feelings I want to shed, and the thought and the physicality of it make me feel lighter, at least for the day.
Last year, I cast away fear. I let go of washing groceries when I came home from the market, and of reminding my sons to wash their hands the second they walked in the door. I cast away the grief of seeing caution tape wound around monkey bars. I cast away having my kids home and the false comfort of thinking I could protect them. I cast away the clenching and shrinking we had had to do then.
This year, I stood at the edge of the ocean thinking about what to let go of. The same stuff as always comes up (hello, worry, you old friend!), along with the unnamed boulders that keep me from lifting higher. Maybe regret.
My son called from his college town while I was there. He had not been to services, but he and his girlfriend had taken a hike on a trail they had never been on before.
“I told her about Tashlich.”
To be honest, I was surprised he knew the word.
“We took two rocks each,” he said, “and threw them off the mountain. One for something we wanted to let go of and one for something we hoped would come in the year.”
My heart filled. He had taken a ritual I love and had never consciously taught him, and made it his own. Like my half-melted candles, he had improvised and made a meaningful moment and shared it with someone he loved.
What will our kids take from us? What will they pass along to someone new?
Maybe what my kids have learned from my omissions, my failure to impose order and instruct them in perfect rituals and maxims, is that there is room in our traditions for them to draw out meaning. That perfection is not the goal, but the intention you bring. That what matters is showing up with what you may cobble together, and marking the moment.
So what if I did not keep an iron grasp on my family’s Friday nights, as tradition proscribed? I gave us what we needed, the freedom from “must do’s” that pinched rather than added joy; the value of adaptability; and a core faith that the bonds of family — built on trust, stability, and presence — were built all week long in a million other ways.
It would take centuries, and a truckload of birdseed to cast every regret and moment of second-guessing into the sea. A handful a year is a good start.
It is Friday afternoon as I write this. Wishing you a peaceful and perfection-free day of rest.
Laura Nicole Diamond is the award-winning author of Shelter Us: a novel, and Dance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow her on Medium, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.