We left the park at sunset and headed back to the church for a brief service to began the second day of Rosh Hashonah. (There was also an evening service the day before, followed by dinner at a friend's house, both of which I have no recollection. I guess I was kind of nervous about the next morning.) I wasn't hungry after my big Indian lunch, so R. and I skipped dinner and went straight to dessert. We sat in Crema Lita for hours in our own version of the ritual meal (at least it was healthy, Kosher ice cream), as I tried to decompress from the day.
The next morning I led services at the synagogue. I was less nervous than the day before, since I now knew I could do it, but--though it didn't seem possible--was even more excited. This was a space that felt like home, where the walls and floors shone with intricate designs of red and gold that might have come straight from heaven. It was where I spent every Friday evening, and where most of my friends would be.
Once again I took a long, slow walk to the synagogue. I would be leading with the same rabbi as on the first day, plus another, the three of us standing together at the bima. At 8:55 the musicians went out front to start playing... and discovered that the sound system wasn't working. Various large men crawled under equipment and played with wires while someone else raced two blocks to the church to get the cantor's expert instructions. Abandoning the planned drama of emerging to the sounds of music, the rabbis and I opened the door to the Secret Rabbi Room and hung around until the sound system finally kicked in, many minutes later.
Only one microphone was working, so I was handed a wireless mic. One of the rabbis graciously left the bima and sat with the congregation, since no one could find a functional third mic. I remained up front with the rabbi I had accompanied the day before, and we led the service all over again. I was blanketed by a quilt of people; this space was smaller than the church, the rows more crowded. I turned to face the Ark for the Barchu, and it was so close that I gasped. I remember thinking it didn't seem fair that I, and no one else, would get the chance to sing to her so intimately.
After it was over, I took a seat in the congregation for the Torah service and Musaf, and then I think I had lunch at a friend's house. I'm not sure; my body and brain were in different places. I returned home to find a message on my answering machine: my cousin Bunny, who was 79, had passed away very suddenly that morning. She and I were once close, but hadn't spoken in about a year. I was meaning to get in touch.
I called her husband, expressed shock and grief, hung up, and stood there in my living room shivering with guilt, sadness, and rage. How dare God do this on a day when I was so happy? And--how dare I be so self-centered? What was wrong with me?
Eventually I was able to think again, and remember what I believed: that God neither rewards nor punishes, despite the grand High Holiday liturgy that might suggest otherwise. God just is, simply and marvelously. We can learn everything about the "how" of life and death, but the "why" is God, and beyond our understanding. All we can do is live the best we can, and marvel at the rest.
The second day of Rosh Hashonah is also the yahrtzeit of my cousin Jerry, who died in 1998. (A long story that was, I'm proud to say, just published in an anthology.) I wore his tallit regularly until it fell apart a few months ago. Last week I bought a new one, big as a tent and pure white, and sewed a part of the old tallit onto the new. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings I'll wrap myself in it for the first time and, within the gentle fabric of second chances and new beginnings, become enfolded in the memories of both my cousins.
I'll be offline until the end of the week, having all sorts of new experiences. This afternoon I learned that the cantor has laryngitis and won't be singing at all, roughly equivalent to an Olympic sprinter breaking his foot before the gold medal race. It's awful; hopefully he'll recover by next Wednesday, the evening of Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre. I'm already singing everything I know (Shaharit) on both days of Rosh Hashonah, so the other two lay leaders have to cover his parts. Locations were also shifted around at the last minute, so I won't get to lead at the synagogue after all. I'm disappointed, for selfish reasons of ego more than anything else; I need to remember the words of this prayer a friend just sent me:
"Open my eyes, God. Help me to perceive what I have ignored, to uncover what I have forsaken, to find what I have been searching for. Remind me that I don't have to journey far to discover something new, for miracles surround me, blessings and holiness abound. And You are near." --Rabbi Naomi Levy
To all my friends I wish the gift of seeing the wonderful things already in front of you, and finding others you've been searching for. L'shanah tovah umetukah tikatevu ("May you be inscribed [in the book of life] for a good and sweet year")!