The cantor called later that week and asked me to lead on yet another Shabbat morning. I wondered if he and the rabbis talked amongst themselves: well, let's keep trying and maybe, eventually, she'll calm down.
The day arrived and, sure enough, I became a wreck the minute I stepped into that little room. "Relax!" said one of the rabbis, with a smile. "You're about to talk to God!"
Right, no pressure there. "I think God is making me nervous," I observed. Everyone seemed to find this comment much funnier than I did.
But this third time was different. I was confident. I looked out at the congregation and noticed peoples' faces, saw them smiling, reacting, thinking. Each of the rabbis with whom I led had exuded a different kind of energy; the first was warm and steady, the second strong and direct. Standing next to this rabbi, a woman, felt like a cool, swirling breeze around a tall and stately tree. With all three I felt completely safe and sheltered, although I couldn't have been more exposed.
I read Torah that morning as well, returning to the bima just a few minutes after I finished the service. All that focus and concentration was exhausting, but very good practice for the real, much longer event. At the end people I didn't know came over and shook my hand, calling me by the name of the new and as yet rarely glimpsed rabbinic fellow, whom they figured I had to be. I was very flattered and flustered.
This Sunday was the beginning of Elul, the month of reflection that immediately precedes Rosh Hashonah. Rosh Hashonah, the first day of the seventh month and "the birthday of the world" (also the title of an excellent CD) is only one of a bunch of new years in the Jewish calendar: Passover marks the first month of the year and the arrival of spring, and Tu b'Shevat, the 15th of Shevat, is the new year for trees. (I love that trees get their very own occasion to party.) Rosh Hashonah represents when the universe came into being and also begins the countdown to Yom Kippur, the day that God's plan for us for the coming year is determined. Taken literally, it's a frightening concept. What all this means is that those ten days, and the month before, is a time of teshuvah--turning--when we try to right any wrongs we may have committed and consider a different path for the future. Thanks to this blog, I discovered a wonderful site (part of an excellent guide to Jewish customs and practice) that offers a week-by-week plan of how to think about teshuvah. I hope I'm able to do a better job at it this year than in the past.