Thursday, September 5, 2013

Year-End Gifts

Now is the time when Jews around the world prepare for the new year by examining their conduct and “making teshuvah.” Teshuvah means “return,” as in returning to our source, re-turning to our best selves. It’s often practiced by saying, publically and privately, “If in the past year I have done anything to harm or offend you, I am truly sorry and I ask your forgiveness.” (Can you imagine a world in which the leaders of the most powerful nations said that to the peoples of the least powerful?) It is considered a mitzvah to do this. Mitzvah means commandment, but it also means blessing and declaration. We offer ourselves in blessing to one another (and, if you are a theist, to the Eternal) in our willingness to admit our shortcomings and our renewed determination to make the world a better, less broken place (“tikkum olam,” or “repairing the world”). 

So I say this to you, who are reading my words: It has never been my intention to harm you but if I have done so, by anything I have said or done, or failed to say or do, I am truly sorry.

My personal focus during this season of renewal is different from what it has been in the past.  The world is full of sorrows, as so many traditions point out, sorrows that cannot be mended by human means. There is absolutely nothing I can do to alter the course of my friend’s disease (ovarian cancer).

There is much I can do to ease her final weeks.

I’m awed and astonished by the grace with which my friend is approaching this passage. You can read her story in her own words here. Her two grown children are with her today, as is one of their partners and her wonderful husband. We’ve had lots of storytelling, lots of memories, and not a few laughs. Friends and neighbors have filled their freezer with food, although she tires easily and can't handle too much company. They’ve set me up in the little RV across the yard from the house, and I can see a single cream and peach rose still blooming in the garden.

Oregon is currently doing its water-from-the-sky thing. It's as if the sky is anticipating grief. The barn and pasture are empty, the last horse having gone to live with a trusted friend. The garden, in past years so well tended, still yields a richness of tomatoes and squash and a few late raspberries. The apple and plum trees are bowed under the weight of the fruit, but the blueberry bushes are bare.

Much of what I do is give the family caregivers a break, hug anyone who needs it, rub shoulders and backs, offer food when people are hungry and silence when they’re tired, drive and run errands, but most of all, I listen. I want so badly to make things better – to repair the world of these people I love, to give my friend another decade or three – that it’s easy to forget the biggest gift I can offer is a silent mind and an open heart.

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