7 Things I Learned about Teshuvah & The High Holidays from My Daughter’s Concussion

Erev Rosh HaShanah Drash 5779 (2018)

“Mann Tracht; Un Gott Lacht” — “Man plans. God laughs,” the Yiddish saying goes. This phrase took on new resonance and meaning when our life took an unexpected turn this past summer.

Jon and I picked up our daughter Aviel from Camp Havaya for a short vacation, along with our son Nadiv. On the third day of our trip, we went tubing on Lake Hopatcong, which was glorious! At the end of our time on the lake, Aviel, who tends to be more adventurous than the rest of the family, went one final time in the tube by herself.

She went faster and faster until her head was thrust backwards and forwards, until she hit the tube with a whack.

We didn’t realize how badly she was injured; the next day we had another adventure. When we got back to Camp Havaya, things changed. Aviel couldn’t be around noises and light and complained of headaches. Soon, we realized that Aviel needed to leave camp to rest and heal. When we got home and saw the doctor, we got the official diagnosis of “concussion” and Aviel was prescribed “brain rest” as long as it took — which ended up being a little longer than one month. Thankfully, I can report that she made a full recovery and recently started middle school.

As with so many crisis events in life, events that disrupt our daily routines and frighten us, Aviel’s concussion offered many transformative life lessons. Her injury came about as my attention turned towards the fall holiday season, so I have been meditating in particular on the connections between what she/I/we experienced and with the profound teachings of the holiday season.

As I have been known to do, at SAJ (and in my previous congregation), on Erev Rosh Hashanah, as we enter the spirit of these holidays, I share with you lessons learned about Teshuvah and the High Holidays from a life experience — this time, from coping with and parenting during a child’s illness.

My hope is that my personal experience will illuminate the universal themes of these days. Here are seven lessons I learned about Teshuvah and the High Holidays from Aviel’s concussion:

I am a person who likes to plan. Summers in particular, with the somewhat daunting 10 open weeks that need to be filled, necessitate some serious, high-level planning. Mapped out months in advance, in careful consultation with my spouse and friends and parents of my kids’ friends and google maps to how the various plans affect commuting, I plan each week of the summer for each child, including enrollment at various sleepover (for the older) and city camps (for both), a week of family vacation, a spattering of coveted but hard to deliver down time, and time towards the end of summer maximized with child and grandparent care to facilitate high holiday planning. I have often meditated on the fact that were I not a rabbi, I could launch a successful career as a travel agent. Or maybe a military sergeant.

I admit — there is a certain quality or aspiration that tends to go with my talent for planning: a desire to control the chaos in my life. My mind is comforted with the possibility that if I plan it, everything will stay manageable, containable.

There is nothing like a sudden illness — our own or that of a person we love — or God forbid, a sudden death or a terrible diagnosis — to remind ourselves that we are not, at least not fully, in control of our lives. And that realization, while disarming and often fueled by challenging circumstances, is a wake up call. Do not take life for granted! Do not take love for granted.

In many ways, this is the message par excellence of the High Holidays. Over and over again, the liturgy reminds us that we are not fully in control. We recite HaMelech (the Sovereign One) or fully prostrate at the Aleinu as reminders that there are powers in the Universe greaters than us.

We hear the stirring and disturbing words of The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, who will live and who will die. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan might say, we don’t take these words literally- we take them seriously. We don’t know what 5779 will bring. We don’t know who will live, who will die; who will suffer, who will prosper.

The High Holidays intentionally jolt us from our well planned and scheduled lives to disrupt the illusion of control we live with day to day. Remembering our lack of control can be uncomfortable, yet it can also be productive if it wakes us from our slumber and inspire us stop taking the life for granted. What a gift!

When we told people that Aviel was home with a concussion, many people asked, “Oh! Did that happen at camp?” I have been tempted each time to nod and say: “Yes.” “Yes, it happened at camp.”

I instead told the truth. “No. It happened during our vacation.” “It happened on our watch.”

The first days of her injury, I kept replaying the incident in my mind. Trying to figure out what went wrong, reviewing what I could have done differently. I should have known that we had all had enough times around the lake! I should have seen that she was going too fast, pushing beyond her limits. Why didn’t I stop her?

Then, we got home and there were groceries to buy and food to cook, activities to purchase that fit into the doctor’s orders, plans that needed to be changed. Focusing on the task at hand and on my daughter’s needs, I made the decision to stop blaming myself.

Forgiveness is at the heart of this season. We are to apologize to those that we have wronged and forgive, when possible, those who have wronged us and have apologized. But so often it is easier to forgive others than it is to forgive ourselves. Especially when we are examining ourselves and considering our misdeeds, wrong deeds, or limitations. “Why aren’t I more…fill in the blank?”

While not the intention of teshuvah, self-blame can be an undesirable side effect.

On the High Holidays we recite the 13 Attributes. Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum V’hanun, erech apayim, v’rav hesed b’emet. Notzer Chesed Lalafim. Nose Avo V’pesha v’hata v’nake. God who is gracious, compassionate; slow to anger, quick to forgive. We model ourselves after God. If God is gracious and forgiving and we are supposed to follow after God’s ways — how can we not be gracious and forgiving to ourselves?

Rabbi Alan Lew z”l writes,“Self-forgiveness is the essential act of the High Holiday season.” Self-forgiveness sets us free, allows us to focus on the food that needs to be cooked, on the calls that need to be made, on the work that each of us came into this world to do.

The first full week of Aviel’s concussion, I attempted to take care of her while working as full time as I could from home. This trick typically works when my kids have a fever, since they have no interest in talking to me. But it became clear very quickly that this approach was not going to work. Without my full attention, Aviel would find her way to do something that aggravated her headaches (i.e. by reading longer than she could have, listening to music too long). Besides, she made it clear in other ways that she needed more of my attention.

While I desperately wanted to be the one who would nurse her back to health, I realized I/we could not do this alone. I called some friends for playdates for Nadiv, some others for some meals, and then wiping a tear or two, and made the call. And yes, my mother would love to take her for the week and could devote 100% of her energies towards Aviel. And when we picked her up 6 days later, her symptoms were significantly improved.

It is not easy for me to recognize when I need help. But when I call on my community, it makes all the difference.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, says of the High Holidays that it is a time we go to synagogue to be alone — together. These day are introspective and intense — we are asked to look inwards and do soul-accounting. In some ways, it might make more sense to celebrate them, especially Yom Kippur, on a silent retreat or by taking a quiet walk in the woods. Yet we do this personal work inside the container of a community to remind us that we cannot change ourselves or change the world alone — we need each other.

We were all a bit flabbergasted when we received the doctor’s orders: Full Brain Rest for as long as needed. No TV, no music, no video games or screens at all. No loud noises like instruments or outings like shopping. Soon we realized this also meant no reading. I don’t know if you know many 10, 11 years olds or have met my daughter in particular — but this pretty much sums up all of Aviel’s unstructured time. Besides eating sushi, I could not think of another activity for her to do.

But, I was reminded: it is possible to break old habits and routines. Thanks to adult coloring books, sophisticated sticker by number activities, friendship bracelets, craft sets, and audio books — we made it through! And what’s even better — many of these activities have been integrated into her life post- concussion.

Our work over these days is in part to consider what habits we want to let go of and what we need to cultivate to support our spiritual lives and development. Is it a gratitude practice? A meditation practice? A physical practice like exercising or a new Jewish practice like saying prayers at night or in the morning? It can be daunting.

On Rosh HaShanah, we sing “HaYom HaRat Olam!” Today the world is being born. Today is an entirely new day. The midrash (Pesikta Rabbati) teaches that if we do teshuvah during the 10 days of repentance, we will become a new creature. We can write a new script. We can break old habits and find new ways of being.

During her month-long healing journey, there were days when I thought, “Aviel is healing!” I would start making plans, considering how soon she could go back to the overnight camp she loves so much. And then the next day she would have terrible symptoms. Or she would go to bed at night, crying about how much her head hurt which in turn meant that I would go to bed in tears, full of worry. And she would wake up the next day full of energy and be complaining of boredom. Healing is not a linear process.

Every year, we come to the High Holiday season with intentions to heal ourselves and our relationships. We set intentions for ourselves. And we often come back year after year with the same “new” intentions for ourselves! For example, this year, like the last and the one before and the one before and so on, I want to be more patient with my children. Or Partner. Or Friends. Or why can’t I let this one resentment go that I have been holding on for longer than I like? Why haven’t I “succeeded” in this yet?

Yet there is a voice in our tradition that teaches that teshuvah is not a one-time event, rather an ongoing process. One of my favorite teachings is from the midrash, attributed by Rabbi Abahu bar Zeira: ‘Great is teshuvah for it preceded the Creation of the World. Before the mountains were born, you gave human beings the capacity to return.’

Teshuvah was created before Creation! I take this to mean that it is a tool that is constantly available for us — at any moment and at any time. As we try to be the best versions of ourselves, seek to grow and to heal, we will make progress. We will move forward. But we will also make mistakes, hurt others and ourselves through carelessness. But this does not mean we failed.

Healing our hearts, growing our souls is not a linear process. But when we go off track, there is always an invitation to return.

As a parent, I want to impart wisdom and insight to my children to help them live lives of meaning and purpose. What a surprise to have my daughter teach me/remind me of one of the most important life lesson: acceptance.

Aviel had to leave sleepover camp, her ultimate “happy place.” She had to refrain from all the activities she enjoyed and mainly stay indoors when other kids her age were swimming, playing, going on fun adventures. She was socially isolated. She had a few moments of sadness and self-pity, but for the most part she simply accepted and adapted to her new reality. There was a minimal complaining and a lot of compliance. It was awe-inspiring!

I was recently reminded by my colleague Rabbi Toba Spitzer that the word teshuvah also means “response.” Thus, teshuvah is also how we respond to the realities of our life and of our world. Rabbi Spitzer says:“The challenge here is to learn, in the difficult moments of our lives, not to ask “why is this happening to me?” — a question for which there is no answer — but instead, “how do I respond to what has happened to me?” For that, there are many possible answers. What happens to us is often not in our own hands, but our response to what happens — that is always in our hands.”

These High Holidays, let’s consider that teshuvah is also response-how we respond to the joys and unique challenges that we wrestle with as we walk through life. Can we find our way to greater acceptance? Peace?

When Aviel was in the midst of the concussion — and taking those steps forward and backwards, there were many moments where I would really worry. That she might not fully heal, or not in time for school. Or she would be so late to school that she wouldn’t make friends..and further down that rabbit hole.

And almost in a flash at the end of a month: Aviel was Aviel again! In every way possible. Now of course, I recognize: she was 10 (now 11) years old. Her body is made for healing in ways that are particular to kids and might not work for adults at the same speed or timeline. But, it still stood as a powerful reminder to remember that healing is possible. And even if it took six months, she would ultimately be OK.

Engaging with teshuvah is in many ways an act of faith — a bold statement that it is possible for things be better, will heal, will be repaired. And the beautiful thing about teshuvah is that we take this leap of faith, not just for ourselves but for the whole world. As Rav Kook teaches, we begin with ourselves and we move forward to the nation and the world.

Especially in the world in which we are living, which is full of chaos, fear, disorder, uncertainty, how constructive to have a holiday season come that teaches us to both hope for and work for the redemption of the entire world! These holy days are invitation to put our despair and cynicism in check and recover hope and a renewed sense of responsibility.

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Tomorrow and the day after, when we go through services, when we hear the shofar, let’s remember the promise and possibility of this day. To yield control, to hold ourselves with compassion, to find support, to make peace with ourselves and our circumstances, to believe that change is possible for ourselves and redemption for our world.

May these days be for a blessing. May we turn, return, and respond in teshuvah. AMEN!

End Notes:

Teshuvah before creation: Bereishit Rabbah 1

Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s excellent drash is here: https://dorsheitzedek.org/writings/teshuvah-from-fear-teshuvah-from-love

Teshuvah for Redemption: Many sources. See for example http://www.ravkooktorah.org/ROSH_HAS58.htm

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