Mothering Through The Days Of Awe: How To Live Them, Not Just Live Through Them
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Section A - Reframing
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - together, the Yomim Noraim, or Days of Awe - are notoriously difficult days on which to be a mother. They are long, they are lofty, on one of them we are fasting - and we have these little people to care for at the same time, who don’t really care that much about our state of mind. It’s hard enough to just live through them, let alone really living them.
In my experience, what makes the most difference to our experience of the Yomim Noraim is the attitude that we bring to them. So, some practical suggestions follow, but I’d like to begin by reframing of the days.
Reframe #1: These are not sad days.
Rosh Hashanah is a day of majesty, not of sadness.
Let’s take them one at a time. Rosh Hashanah is not a sad day. It’s not even, actually, really a day of teshuvah (repentance). It is a day of majesty, of awe, of awareness of the Divine. But it is not sad. You don’t have to be sad on Rosh Hashanah, and you don’t get any brownie points for making your children be sad.
Rosh Hashanah is all about recognizing - and crowning - G-d as our King. In chassidus, Rosh Hashanah is called Coronation Day. It’s the day on which we acknowledge and accept G-d as our King, which means committing to keeping His laws. If you look through the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, there is no mention of repentance. We do not say vidui (confession for our sins), or the ‘al chet’ prayer, or selichos on this day. Instead, our prayers stress G-d’s majesty, kingship, omnipotence and greatness.
How can we, lowly human beings, crown G-d as King? Simply by obeying Him.
A human king truly earns his crown not through ritual or birth, but by his people’s acceptance of his rule and obedience to his commands. Similarly, only we can make G-d a king, by demonstrating our obedience to His decrees, regardless of which job He has given us.
Many years ago, I met a lady somewhere or other. We got chatting, and she told me that her father had served in the British army during WW2.
“Oh,” I said, “That’s so fascinating. Wow. You must be so proud of him. Where did he fight?”
“He didn’t fight,” she said.
I was a bit puzzled. “What did he do?” I asked
“He served in the mechanical airforce engineers. He worked very very hard during the war, preparing the planes as fast as possible for the next sortie.”
My first thoughts were ‘Shame’. I was a bit disappointed for her, actually - I’d been quite excited that her father helped fight the Nazis and save my nation, so this was a bit of a let-down. Fortunately, I didn’t say anything, and my second thoughts were a lot more sensible. Without the mechanical airforce engineers, there would have been no fighter planes, no bombers, no victory in the Battle of Britain. So who did a ‘better’ job fighting the Nazis? The glorious fighter pilots? Or the unsung engineers who pulled those planes back together again so that they could go up again a few hours later? And what would have happened if all those engineers had refused to serve as engineers and demanded the glory of being fighter pilots?
G-d, our King, has placed us in the position of caring for these small children. We might rather have a more glorious or exciting role, but are we the ones to question the King, especially on His Coronation Day? Our acceptance of our difficult, overlooked, under-appreciated task of mothering through the Days of Awe is an extremely important step in crowning G-d as the greatest King in the universe. Even if we’d rather be fighter pilots.
Reframe #2: Advance the welfare of the nation
We’re taught that on Rosh Hashanah, G-d gives out assignments to everyone in His realm, and He allocates resources according to loyalty and the needs of those assignments. It’s a day of harsh judgment based purely on what will advance the welfare of His kingdom. There’s no room for rebels or sympathy for malingerers (that comes on Yom Kippur). There is no space for weakness or pleas for sympathy (that also comes on Yom Kippur). We want to spend this day demonstrating that we are loyal workers and not traitors, that we deserve the resources we want - health, mental stability, inner peace, financial security - because we will use them well. We could stand in the synagogue all morning and plead with G-d to believe us - or we could just show Him by doing the job He’s given us.
Reframe #3: Yom Kippur is a festival
We tend to bundle Yom Kippur together with Tisha b’av because both of them are serious fasts, but the natures of the days could not be more different. Yom Kippur is a chag. A festival. Not a sad day. It is a serious day, yes, but it’s a yomtov. It’s important to remember this when looking after children on Yom Kippur. Our children should enjoy Yom Kippur.
I know, that sounds like heresy. But it’s still true. They should have treats like they do on Simchat Torah. They should wear their Shabbat clothes and play special games and have extra-extra-special Mummy time, because it is Yom Kippur. And you should do all of this giving to them from a place of strength, knowing that you are demonstrating G-d’s love to them, that you are giving them a good feeling about Yom Kippur and not raising them to dread and fear a boring, angry day.
Reframe #4: You are the high priest
A hefty portion of the musaf prayers on Yom Kippur are spent describing the detail of the job of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and other priests in the Mikdash (Temple). We read about how they spent the day cooking the offerings, cleaning the floor and the utensils, opening and closing doors, cleaning the ash off the altar, lighting the lights, etc. It all bears a striking similarity to what we mothers spend our days doing! While others are in synagogue reading about what the Kohen Gadol was doing, we are actually living it. Try to envisage yourself as the High Priest cleaning up the ash or preparing the offerings every time you have to clean up more spilled food or serve yet another snack.
Reframe #5: You are an angel
I really mean this literally. The Jewish understanding of a malach (angel) is a being with no will of its own. A Jewish angel is a messenger of G-d who only does the will of G-d. On Yom Kippur especially, we emulate angels. We don’t eat or drink, we (in some areas only the men, in others both men and women) wear white, we recite the second line of Shema ‘Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuso L’Olam Va’ed’ out loud instead of whispering it, which our sages teach is the way of the malachim. And we are malachim when we make G-d’s Will be our will. When we look after the children He tasked us with, with happiness and joy, and don’t try to make our will into G-d’s Will by demanding to be in the synagogue praying instead.
Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that whenever you feed a baby, or give food to a child who wouldn’t be able to get that food themselves, you should say to yourself this verse:
‘Pose’ach es yodecha u’masbia l’chol chai ratzon
You open up Your hand & sustain each creature with life’
G-d gives each creature their food in order to sustain them. In the case of babies and small children, the way in which G-d provides for their needs is through us, their mothers. We are literally on a mission from G-d, malachim, sent to give sustenance to His vulnerable creations. On Yom Kippur, serving G-d, you really are an angel.
Reframe #6: Remember that each act is a holy act
Everything that you do to look after your children is an act of service towards G-d. Each time you do anything for them - feed them, change a diaper, play a game with them, etc - you are obeying G-d’s obligation that you care for His creations. It’s as holy as you make it be.
Rabbi Aryeh Levine, the ‘Tzaddik of Jerusalem’, taught his daughters that every time they do anything for their small children - changing a diaper, feeding them, etc - they should recite this declaration of intent. It is similar to that which many men recite before doing certain mitzvot like shaking the lulav, or putting on tefillin:
“Hineni muchan umezuman lakyem mitzvas gidul banim”
“Behold I am ready and prepared to fulfill the holy commandment of raising children”
In this way, you’ll remind yourself that what you are doing is not just messy, smelly, and mundane. It’s holy service.
Reframe #7: G-d can still see you!
Most important of all! Don’t be fooled into believing that you are only standing before G-d when you are in the synagogue holding a machzor in your hand. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not end when you put the prayer-book down, and G-d can still see and hear you when you’re looking after your children. You can still have a spiritual, meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in your own playroom. It’s all in your state of mind.
Section B: Practical Prayer:
1. Do try to pray something every day even when it is not the Yomim Noraim. This will keep you in the ‘habit’ of prayer and keep that pathway open for you for the future when you are once again able pray regularly.
It’s traditional to recite Psalm 27 - L’David Hashem - twice a day during the month of Elul. It reminds us that Rosh Hashanah is coming and gets us into the mindset in preparation. I’m not suggesting that you manage to say the whole thing - you’re not even getting through the regular prayers! - but a lot of popular songs have been made out of different verses from the prayer. Try to sing one of them aloud each day, or put on a recording of it, no matter how much other prayer you’re managing. It will help you feel a sense of the Days of Awe approaching.
2. Do make arrangements that work for you so that you can say some of the prayers of the day. Get together with a friend and take it in turns to watch each other’s kids, if that works for you. Get up early to pray in the morning before your children wake up and/or before your husband leaves for shul. Remember that even if you don’t get to daven in the morning, you can say the musaf prayer all afternoon until sunset, and/or recite mincha in the afternoon too. Have your husband watch the kids in the afternoon so that you can get in some prayer time, even if it’s just half an hour to say amidah.
3. Maximize ma’ariv. You can say ma’ariv - the evening prayer - all night. If you know you’ll only be able to pray, meditate or focus when your children are in bed, then try to hold off on going to sleep yourself and take this time to be your focused prayer time. Send your children to bed early if you can. Especially on Yom Kippur, make the most of this time. Pray with as much focus and concentration as you can, because this is your best chance. You aren’t yet weak and tired out from fasting, and you can wait until your husband comes home and leave him to trouble shoot with your children while you pray.
4. Harness informal prayer. We’re always taught about formal prayer, and it’s a very important thing, but when we’re in the mothering trenches, formal prayer tends to go out the window and what we need to grab hold of is informal prayer. Informal prayer is when you direct your needs and lacks and hopes towards G-d, in your own words. It’s making that counting-to-ten-trying-not-to-lose-your-temper into a prayer for patience. It’s asking G-d for strength to get up off the couch and change yet another dirty diaper. It’s saying ‘I’m doing this for You, G-d’ when you sit down to read the same book for the umpteenth time. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (but on every other day too), shoot up short, informal requests for whatever you might need at every opportunity. Turn your desperation into a spiritual experience.
5. Self-care is also a mitzvah. You also serve G-d by resting. This is particularly true on Yom Kippur when your resources are so depleted by fasting. If you need to sleep or to rest, then do so. If you feel that you can only pray sitting down (especially that long long Rosh Hashanah amidah), then do so. You do not need to turn yourself into a limp rag just so that you can daven. Only you can ever make this decision about how much you need to rest and whether you could use the time to pray and still be a properly functioning mother for the rest of the day, but don’t downplay the importance of self-care.
6. Don’t force children to go to the synagogue: I hope this is obvious, but do not take children to shul if they are not ready and willing to be there. You will disturb other women who have already ‘done their time’ staying home with small children, and could well put your child off the whole idea of going to shul later on. Tiding a small child over with a book and a (quiet) toy is fine as long as you are prepared to take them out immediately that they begin to make any kind of disturbance.
This applies to hearing the Shofar too. You do not need to hear the shofar in shul, nor is there a time limit on when to hear it. You can hear the shofar up until sunset on each day of Rosh Hashanah, at home or at someone else’s home. Find someone in your community who can blow the Shofar for you later on, while your husband is available to look after your children. And remember that you only are obligated to hear the first 30 blasts of the shofar. All the rest are Rabbinic level requirements from which you, as a busy mother, are exempt.
7. Make the most of your praying time. If you have a short window of time in which to pray, you know you can’t get through everything.
Start with what is most important – the amidah. If that’s all you’ll have time for, then so be it.
If you’ll have enough time, begin with the blessings before Shema and go straight through until after the Amidah. If you’ll have even more time, add in parts of pesukei d’zimrah – the psalms of praise that begin Shacharit.
Section C: How To Make The Day Meaningful In The Mothering Trenches
1. Focus your day towards G-d, no matter what you are doing. Think about the essence of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers at intervals during the day. Live this one day with the awareness that you are standing before G-d; that these children are His children; that your every action crowns Him as King more than anything that anyone else can do. Remind yourself that as a child of G-d you too are capable of greatness and deserve to have a relationship with Him.
2. Prioritize: It’s more important to not get angry than to pray. So do whatever you can to avoid putting yourself into situations where you might get angry. That includes trying to rush to finish praying because a toddler is pulling at your skirt, or shouting at your children to get out the house, quick, so that you can get to the synagogue in time to hear the shofar. Prioritize. What is more important, your calmness, patience, and sense of happiness, or praying? Which one will serve G-d more fully?
3. Sing. Sing songs from the liturgy of the Yomim Noraim to your children or yourself. Find recordings of them beforehand so that you can refresh your memory. Tunes are extremely evocative; just humming the tunes of prayers from your childhood can put you into an entirely different place.
4. Pray aloud. Even very small children can enjoy hearing you sing your prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I found that mine were always more willing to be quiet and wait for me if I was praying aloud. I think it reassured them that I’m still there, and convinced them that I actually was doing something and wasn’t just ‘reading’.
5. Find ways to connect your activities that day to the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
· If your children already do some prayers in gan or playgroup, then take the time to say them together with them. Sing them nicely, and include all the vaguely Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur related songs that you know from CDs or your own schooldays.
· Small children who know the shema get very excited about shouting out ‘baruch shem kavod’ on Yom Kippur, so make a big thing of it.
· Tell your children stories about the Yomim Noraim. Try to borrow relevant storybooks from the library or friends, or look up stories online beforehand so that you can read them or re-tell them on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
· Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world! One of my friends makes a special ‘happy birthday world’ party for her kids on Rosh Hashanah. They make decorations and birthday signs before the yomtov, and sing Rosh Hashanah songs and eat birthday food at a birthday party breakfast/brunch during that long Rosh Hashanah morning.
6. Plan ahead.
· Make or buy yummy treats for them, so that they connect these days to happiness and satisfaction.
· Remember that shul usually finishes very late on Rosh Hashanah, and even bigger children can get very irritable waiting that long to eat. Plan to give your kids a good, special kiddush once you’re all ready, and/or an early special lunch by themselves (appoint a child to be the ‘shabbos daddy’ and ‘shabbos mummy’ for extra excitement!) so that they don’t drag you down with hunger-induced grumpiness.
· Similarly, remember to plan a real festive meal for their lunch on Yom Kippur. For them it’s a real festival.
· Put a few toys or games away now, so that you can take them out ‘new’ on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Or swap with a friend, or buy some new small toys from the dollar store, and bring them out for that really difficult Yom Kippur afternoon stretch.
· Remember that you can pray at the park as well!
· Plan to begin the seudah hamafsekes - the final meal before Yom Kippur - well in advance, so that you’ll have enough time to eat and drink enough before the fast begins.