When I was a little girl, my father always led the shacharit (morning service) on the High Holidays. The tunes permeated our house, beginning whenever he decided the season should. Sometimes he started ‘practicing’ as early as Purim. He knew it all nearly by heart, and even as a young child, I sensed that he didn’t really need the practice, except as a way to begin to focus his mind on the task ahead.
I also remember watching as the cantor would prepare himself in the days and weeks before Rosh Hashanah. He would be careful only to speak when absolutely necessary so as to save his voice. And the morning of that first day, he would don that funny looking crown, and his whole demeanor would change. He would sit, ramrod straight in his oversized clergy throne, and you could feel the gravity of the day radiating from his face.
And then there’s me. For the past eighteen years I’ve led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services nearly every year. But, in contrast with my mentors, during those years I have had a hard time finding the space to direct my mind, to center my soul for the task ahead. As a mother of four with a husband who’s a congregational rabbi, I had no such luxury. In the period leading up to the holidays, there were meals to plan and shop for and cook, school supplies to buy, along with new clothes and shoes for ever lengthening limbs.
And on the day itself, their Abba already long gone, I would hastily shove snacks and drinks and sandwiches and diapers and whatever else I could think of into bags and wait until the babysitter showed up, late if I was lucky, sometimes not at all. I would hand off the children and speed-walk to shul, warming up my voice on the way.
One year, so pregnant that my lungs ached from gulping enough air to sing, I cursed myself for not buying more comfortable shoes. Another year, fresh on the heels of my first trimester, I said a silent little personal prayer that I not be sick right there in front of a thousand people.
If one of my children spotted me, they wasted no time telling me of the latest crisis or battle with a sibling. They complained that I had packed the wrong pretzels, or told me they were pretty sure the baby had a slight fever. My eldest daughter would shoot me the evil eye as I walked away, guilt ridden, but duty bound.
Walking from the back of the sanctuary to the bima I would try in vain to clear my mind for such a serious undertaking. I would sit down in one of those oversized chairs, and look out at the faces. Expectant. No cracker crumbs on my kittel, no bag of books and toys at my feet. My prayer, the quickest of meditations, a thank you for the expansiveness of my freedom.
I got to pray, unencumbered, on these holiest of days. For a couple of precious hours, someone else would have to change the diaper, wipe the nose, say hello to the nosy neighbor.
This year, as I prepare to lead once again, my children are older, less in need of my constant focus and attention. They can find their own way to shul, and sometimes I even see them looking back at me from the pews. Their resentment is no longer there, or, at least, they hide it much better now.
No longer in the stage of midnight rockings and kisses on scrapes making it all better, I’m more aware of how my parenting is about the scaffolding I have built for them; the structure in which they can figure out how to be adults, always knowing that I am underneath, ready to catch them if they fall. My job as prayer leader is not dissimilar. I help to reveal a structure onto which, if I do it right, people can pin their hopes, their fears, their supplications. And the melodies, the new and the unchanging, are an omnipresent net, ready to catch and envelop them when words fail.
So I stand up, and turn away from the congregation. They cannot see my hastily applied makeup or my accidentally mismatched earrings. My focus may not be as clean as my father’s. My voice may never be as sweet and pure as the cantor’s. But my gratitude, for those moments of solitude with only a thousand or so of my closest friends joining in behind me - if I can convey some of that when I help them find their voices - it will have to be enough for another year.
Leah Bieler is a writer with an M.A. in Talmud. She lives in Massachusetts.
Leading High Holiday Services - And Catching A Break From Motherhood’s Demands