We lost power the other night. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in Cleveland Heights when there is a substantial storm. Thunderstorms fill me with awe and wonder, and I find power outages a little exciting (as long as they don’t last too long). There’s something about being disconnected from the normal routine (clearly we are not completely disconnected, as I was WhatApping and Facebooking through and after the storm) that leads to a deeper level of introspection.
I had noticed some grey, heavy clouds earlier in the day as I went about my late afternoon garden watering. Maybe it’ll rain, I thought. That would give us a nice break from the humidity.
As I tucked my oldest children into bed and gave them each a cuddle, I noticed the telltale flickering in the sky, like G-d was playing with the heavenly light switch. I pulled the curtain aside so my boys could watch the celestial entertainment. The three of us sat on the beds and cried out with excitement when a new flash would brighten the clouds.
After all the children were nestled in their beds and at least mostly close to sleep, my husband and I unwound in front of our respective screens. I was pondering what to write and feeling the gravity of having a post up during the Nine Days. I felt compelled to write something contemplative, something profound, something urging us to be our better selves, to give the difficult people in our lives (including ourselves and our wicked inner critic) the benefit of the doubt. I also felt unworthy of making these pronouncements. I am so far from perfect.
While I was procrastinating my post by scrolling through my Facebook feed, the heavens opened up. Sheets of rain poured onto our street, beating a rhythm onto the siding of our house. My husband and I went to the door to observe this deluge. What is it about heavy rainfall that is so compelling? Is it a reminder of Noah and the flood? A reference to the destruction that we often deserve but is withheld?
The lights flickered and my husband and I muttered to ourselves. “Oh boy.” “Here we go.” A power outage was a definite possibility, but we tried to be optimistic. They flickered another time, then it started to hail. Loud thwacking sounds came from our side window, and, on closer inspection, we discovered water coming in from the top of the window. As I ran upstairs to grab some towels, the lights went off, and stayed off.
I laid a towel on the floor beneath the window, and another on the couch (below the window), and my husband went to the coat closet to get a flashlight. Our children like to play with our flashlights, finding some dark corner of the house where daylight is shut out, usually a closet, and sequestering themselves there so they can illuminate the dark with their beams of light and their giggling.
The first two flashlights my husband tried were dead. Dark, black, no help to us. Thankfully, the last one gave a dim but constant light, and it was enough.
With my internet connection out and my computer battery at 35%, my mind made its way back to thinking about the Nine Days. It was not hard to find some connection as I sat in the dark, unsure of when the lights would come back on. Are we not all groping in the dark, clinging to what we believe is right, what we can stand behind and clutch as we walk unsurely in the pitch blackness that is the world around us?
Even those of us who were once so moved by the allure of an absolute truth amid the world’s moral relativism that we changed our entire life around to become observant, even for us, the light still feels dim at times. I am all too aware of many other philosophies and religions who also lay claim to Absolute Truth. I am all too aware of the fallibility of man, even if I believe in the perfection of Torah.
Maybe this is the way for me to connect during the Nine Days. It’s a time that I have not felt as attached to in the past several years. Having small, adorable children around is a distraction, because of both the pleasure of their childish antics and the physical demands of caring for them.
When I was single, or at least more invested in really connecting to this time of year, I would go to the library and check out books on the Holocaust. I would watch documentaries, historical films. I would read about the many, many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over our long and harrowing existence.
Now, it seems like all I do is try to avoid videos of puppies or hedgehogs that pop up on my Facebook feed. I did have the presence of mind to stop speaking lashon hara last night, so I guess yay? Except why did I even start speaking it in the first place (because I’m human)?
It is hard to be connected, it is so hard to be connected to something that I do not even understand missing. And, if I’m going to be honest, it is also hard to put forth the effort to do the things that I believe will make my faith and religious connection stronger.
There is a part of me, a large part, which doesn’t want to come across as “too religious.” I want to be “normal,” and, for some reason, normal, in my mind, means not talking about religion or religious stuff too much.
Part of that is a distaste for feeling evangelical. My relationship with G-d and Judaism is mine, and it’s very personal, and I don’t presume to think that the way I connect will be the way for other people to connect.
Yet, another part of me knows that the times when I have shared my thoughts on how my faith and my practice positively impact my life, how they help me grow and become better, those times are very rewarding.
Then another voice comes along and reminds me that I am not a Rebbetzin, I am no expert, and, honestly, who am I to pretend that I can be a transmitter of Torah thoughts? I learned a lot for a few years and then I’ve been coasting on that knowledge for a while, a long while. I feel like a joke, sometimes, when I am giving over something that I’ve learned or something I thought of. Like, who am I to be doing this?
I want to say that I know this is really just my yetzer hara, the voice of self-doubt, the inner critic trying to distance me from connecting to that which is good and life-giving. But my self-doubt in this area is very strong. I think it might be stronger right now because it’s the Nine Days and the general spiritual energy is one of disconnection and doubt and fear.
Amid all this wallowing in self-criticism and confusion, I feel a stirring of hope. Even though my lack of connection is a melancholy thing, it provides an opportunity to develop an appreciation for connection that I previously took for granted. When everything was new and exciting in Judaism, of course it was a pleasure to connect! Of course it was easier!
Now it’s more work, now it’s more complicated, now it’s a relationship. And, as we all know, and as I may have written about before (probably), the harder we work for something, the more it is appreciated. The more valuable it becomes. The darker the room, the brighter the light.
If I am flailing around in the darkness in my confusion and doubt, the times that I succeed in connecting to Torah and mitzvos shine so much brighter. And they do.
I’ve started davening again, mainly in the mornings, and even though my kavannah still leaves something to be desired, I can feel the difference in my day when I choose to connect, when I choose to talk to G-d, to read those ancient words, to be reminded of core values of Judaism. It feels amazing.
My connection to the Nine Days this year, then, isn’t coming from external tales of woe and suffering. It’s coming from the internal struggle to let the light I have within myself shine, and to find the strength to be honest with myself about my motivations and limitations. To make peace with the parts of myself that I do not care for.
After all, how can I properly fulfill the mitzvah of loving my neighbor as myself when I don’t always love myself?
May we all find our light and let it shine into the darkness, and may we light up the whole world.