Finding Meaning on a Day to Atone

I am not a deeply religious person. I had a rather traditional upbringing, was educated at a  Jewish Day School and attended synagogue with my family on a relatively regular basis. We observed Judaism to the best of our ability, and I have brought my various experiences and beliefs along with me throughout my life. This time of year has always been a challenge for me, with so many Jewish holidays packed in together, mixed in with the changing seasons and new school year. People pass around sweet New Year’s greetings, a wish to be inscribed in the Book of Life and a hope to find meaning as we atone and start fresh again.

Every year, as I receive countless kind holiday greetings from family and friends, I always take an extra moment to think and sometimes question why I am asked to find meaning in this time of year. It seems like an abstract word to me as it can be understood in so many ways. I usually just ponder the word for a few minutes then move along with my day, but this year I can’t get the word out of my head.

How can a holiday, one day or one experience bring meaning to my life? Does it affect me in a positive or negative way? Do I have to take any specific actions in order to find meaning? Can one only find true meaning during Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) if you go to synagogue and pray?

My husband and I decided to not attend synagogue this year during the High Holidays and instead chose to stay at home with our children. We have had a challenging year. While we are headed in a positive (and I think exciting!) direction, when we had to make the decision during the summer to purchase synagogue tickets, we felt that our hearts just weren’t in it. Would we find meaning in praying among family and friends or would find that true meaning at home, with our children? The choice was easy.

Now that those two holidays are over I can reflect on the decision to stay home this year, and I don’t regret it. I have never connected on an emotional level, in a meaningful way, sitting (or standing) in a synagogue. Prayer has not come naturally to me and has not uplifted me spiritually. With the kind of year I have had, often feeling overwhelmed or deeply stressed, I knew that what was best for me – and my family – was to take some time at home.

On Tuesday afternoon I browsed through countless Facebook posts as people prepared for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is not supposed to be enjoyable and relaxing. It is a day of denial – no food, no bathing, for example – so you can reflect and start fresh. You think about what you have done wrong, how you may have wronged people and hope for forgiveness. Some people are able to find that meaning through prayer, but again, that is not the case for me. I find meaning in my life and am able to reflect on my life by spending time by myself, in a quiet place, or by writing.

And on Wednesday I found meaning as I sat around the dining room table with my husband and children as we played a board game. She did what? On Yom Kippur she sat at home in her sweatpants and played board games? That’s right I did, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I spend so much of my life running around, chasing my children, balancing schedules or yelling at one person or another. Life seems to be go go go. But this year, on Yom Kippur, instead of dressing up, forcing my kids out the door and making everyone stay quiet at synagogue, we just stayed home and spent quality time together. I literally had nothing to do but be with my family, talk to them, laugh with them and enjoy their company.

And while I did not attend synagogue, I did strictly observe the rest of the Day of Atonement. I denied myself food for 25 hours, and it was definitely tough. My body is not used to fasting, and at times I felt tired and a bit unwell. But as the day wore and I had time to think about my life and the choices I make. I found meaning.

I don’t know what the next year will bring for me and my family. My children have all embarked on a new year of school, David is balancing various offers to consult on exciting projects and I am a few weeks in to a new and very demanding job.

As we move into that new year I want to say I am sorry to anyone who I may have hurt or offended this past year. I wish you all a year of success and may you find meaning in your life as well.

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