“I can’t go.”
“What do you mean, you can’t go?”
“I just can’t go, that’s all.” Channa, my wife, held my eye.
I was dressed up, and the children were, too. The children hovered near the door. It was Rosh Hashanah—as Jews, our New Year’s Day. We needed to drive to Portland, Maine, for services, one hour distant, and, as sometimes was the case, we were running late.
Channa hadn’t dressed; she was still in her robe.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“It’s not that. I just can’t….”
“Talk to me a minute.”
She turned and strode from the play room, where we were grouped, back into the living room. Watching her retreat, I knew the posture of that walk. Whatever the trouble was, it was big.
“Children, you get in the car. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“What’s wrong with Mom?” Rosalind, our youngest, wanted to know.
“I don’t know. I’m sure everything will be all right.” I smiled at them. “Now you go.” James, our second oldest, took over and herded his siblings out the door.
When I reached the living room, Channa’s face was pinched. “I can’t do it. I really can’t bear to be there.”
“Well, all right.”
“I can’t go, Dikkon. I don’t know what’s come over me, but I can’t.”
“Channa, it’s Rosh Hashanah.”
“But I don’t want to leave you….”
“You go. I’ll be all right.”
“Are you sure?”
“You go. You want to go, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, but….”
“And the children want to go.”
“Not without their mother.”
Her stiffness disappeared, she slumped. “I’m so confused.”
I held her shoulders, looked into her eyes, which skittered back to mine and away. “Are you really all right? What is it? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know!” It came out as wail. “I don’t know what’s happening, Dikkon. All I know is that I can’t go. You go. You and the children go.”
“What will you do? If I go with the children, will you be all right?”
She took a deep breath and let it out. “I’ll take the Siddur down to our beach, and I’ll read the service. I’ll—I don’t know—I’ll pray.”
“That’s what you want to do?”
Now she looked in my eyes. “Yes.” She made a hesitant smile. “Yes. At least the beach will be the way God made it.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do.” I said this more as a question than as a statement.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Is it terrible for you?”
“I like being at services, and I’ll miss you. But, no, not terrible. You’re certain this is what you want?”
“I can’t explain it better. I just can’t bear to go.”
“I love you. I’m going.”
“Have a…I guess, a good time on the beach.”
We hesitated to part, kissed, and I left.
The children and I made our peace with Channa’s absence while we drove. We learned how to respond when commiserated by our Jewish friends about Channa’s absence during the service.
Our Reform congregation was trying that year to perfect an ideal introduced one year before, also at Rosh Hashanah service. Some in our congregation had grown sensitive about male pronouns for God, and our rabbi was hell-bent on addressing their concern.
So, whenever we came to God’s name during prayers, the rabbi had instructed that we should, each one of us, merely say out loud the name that meant the most to us personally, and then go on with the prayer.
Jewish prayers are beautiful. The Hebrew is fine-tuned almost to musical exactitude, and our tunefulness and cadence is precise. It is a lovely experience, particularly at High Holy Day services (of which Rosh Hashanah is one), to be swept along on the prayers. However, this year, as had been the case the previous year, our prayers were Babel.
The name of God is often invoked during prayers—they are, after all, addressed to Him—but each time His name came up, we heard a babble of –
Holy One…all at the same time.
…and then the prayer continued in Hebrew.
I was glad Channa wasn’t there.
When we humans built the Tower of Babel to challenge the Lord, empowered by our own self-importance, the Lord slapped us down by separating our unified speech into languages. We could no longer communicate. Our words became jabber.
Later, when we Jews saw Peter and the apostles emerge from the Upper Room at Pentecost, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Lord gave us grace. Though we had different languages, to our amazement, suddenly we could understand one another. We could communicate.
Our godly words were shared.
During the 2,000 years since, those who have had ears to hear have gloried at the Lord’s gift to us. The Lord’s gift to us is truth, for us to hear.