The Messy Business of Atonement

I’ve had a hard time sleeping lately. I toss and turn, doze and wake, stare up at the ceiling. The clock smirks at me, goads me, What are you gonna do about it? I have no reply. There aren’t enough hours left before the kneejerk of my alarm, before the window of opportunity to rest slams shut for the day.

I listen with envy to my husband’s steady breathing and wonder how he does it, how he can tune out the noise in my head. On cue, he cautions me to stop thinking so loudly and begs me to sleep, as if I’m not desperately trying. In an instant, he’s out. I concede defeat, tiptoeing downstairs to the kitchen so I won’t wake him again. 

There was a time when I chose to stay awake like this in the prelude to Tishrei, leaving the baking of honey cakes and the stuffing of cabbage until the wee hours. The days, then and now, are short and the work is plentiful. It was with urgency that I carved out a corner of the late evening for yom tov preparations. But I no longer care to make kugels by the light of the moon. What I hunger for most is sleep. And not just any sleep. A heady sleep full of dreams in which angels stumble onto my path, where we wrestle and I hand them my insecurities while my neshama reboots at the source of all life.

This sleeplessness is a theft. We are like Russian nesting dolls, my soul and I, fulfilling and sheltering one another. Ungirded by the normal flow of things in the night, we come undone, not fitting together quite right. It’s true on any evening, but especially this time of the year, when the stakes are high and the scales are busy weighing how we both measure up.      

Standing in the kitchen, I consider how to keep myself occupied without rousing the whole house. I take up small, quiet tasks, like matching container bottoms with lids, while I wait at the counter for G-d. If I can’t sleep, if my soul can’t meet Him at twilight, perhaps I can catch a glimpse of Him here instead. I know He’s busy, His finger on everyone’s pulse, but I am compelled to speak with Him now as we enter the Days of Awe. It’s the graveyard shift in Eastern Standard Time, when so many others are in bed as they should be. Perhaps the odds of getting His attention at this hour are in my favor.

Oh, sure, we’ll talk in shul. But shul-side atoning is polite and refined, a meal served on the good china, eaten with my elbows off the communal dining table and a cloth napkin in my lap. The business of private teshuva is raw and messy. It is the clean-up, the clamor of dirty dishes back in the kitchen, where we personalize the scripted litany of the vidui with the deepest truths we know about ourselves, the ones that haunt our dreams and keep us up at night. I’ve tried again and again to do this in shul, but cannot, for fear the other women in my pew will hear me.

I stand in the dark, ready to approach Him now, hoping to do it right.   

“Do you have a minute?” I call out.

The papers on the counter flutter when I set the kettle on the stove, convincing me that I have His ear. I begin my teshuva, here where no one else can see my lips moving, where the pain of letting it all out is just between me and G-d. I offer up what He already knows, though I am obliged to say it anyway. Rattling on, I give the words enough oxygen to burn themselves out. Still, it is He who decides who shall rest and who shall be tormented, and He gives me no hint as to where I stand on this or any other matter.

The sun rises and a new day begins, while the year to come sits like an open book on the heavenly table, awaiting His judgment. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I will take my assigned seat in shul. I will get caught up in the shofar blasts and the haunting melodies, and they will move me to pray as I should – as if my life depends on it.

But I suspect it will be the klop of my fist on my chest that will realign my body and soul. The echo of it will remind me to leave my self-doubts with the angels I meet in my dreams, when the moment finally comes that I drift off to asleep. If I can cling to the memory of that sound all year, if I heed the drum of my heartbeat, then even on the darkest, latest night, I will hear – and I will know – that G-d is with me, listening always.