From Depletion to Strength:
Days of Awe 5781

Screen capture: Community Synagogue

By Alisha Pedowitz

I didn’t have the emotional energy to think about how I would be spending Erev Rosh Hashanah until the day before, Thursday. From the many conversations I’ve been having with friends and family, particularly the womxn carrying the largest emotional loads for their families through this pandemic, I know that I am not alone in this.

And then, Thursday morning, I was part of a roundtable of Jewish communal professionals, educators, and mental health professionals focused on “resiliency” for Jewish youth, and the ever-wise Dr.Betsy Stone offered us a teaching which was further crystallized for me in a conversation I had later in the day with another friend – and has now completely shifted my understanding of the upcoming Days of Awe. And given that I know I’m not the only person who has been wrestling with these ideas, I wanted to offer the intention I am now holding into these holy days, in the event it resonates with you, as well.

Betsy spoke in our roundtable about the impact of living through trauma – how we often bury that trauma, but when we go through new trauma, it surfaces again. And, trauma can in fact be a powerful opportunity for growth, if we are able to recognize we are in trauma rather than denying it- – and using it to seek clarify about what we want to leave behind, and what we want to bring forward.

But, doing that process also takes strength. Strengths, unlike weaknesses, can be built upon. In this prolonged trauma we are all in, many of us feel our strengths depleted. And Betsy offered that, for this reason – rather than doing the traditional Al Chet (the confessional prayer on Yom Kippur where we collectively list all of our sins) – she suggested that we list for ourselves and one another our strengths. We are all hyper aware of, and depleted by, right now all of the sins, of the ways we (individually, and collectively), need to do better and different. And perhaps reminders of our strengths can help us be able to do the leaving behind and moving forward that growth and teshuvah (return and repair) requires.

Stunning, Betsy. Kol Hakavod, and thanking you for shifting something in me with those thoughts.

And I want to build on that, with the bit of strength she offered to all of us in the zoom room – and to me, personally.

Later in the afternoon, I was making Shana Tovah calls for my work, and ended up on the phone with another woman whom I adore. She and I ended up talking about how we were each wrestling with the idea of fasting this year on Yom Kippur, and why that idea feels harder this year, and how we each were finding ways to create meaning for ourselves and our family these High Holy Days.

And suddenly it struck me. That wrestling over whether or not I will fast is 100% related to what Betsy was taken about in terms of her alternate Al Chet.

There are lots of explanations for why we fast on Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days as we attempt to engage in the final reflections of what repair and change we each need to build toward better in the year ahead. But this idea of depletion, and building on strength, gave me a new understanding of the fast.

Each year, I am creating a physical sensation of being empty and depleted for the 25 hours of the fast. And as each hour goes by, I feel more empty and more depleted. And, with each hour, I need to dig deeper within myself for the strength that I know I have to go just 5 hours more, just 4 hours more, etc. It’s a constant cycling through feeling more depleted, digging in and finding deeper and deeper evidence of my strength to push through the hunger, and then an ability to refocus on the reflection for teshuvah until I feel another hunger pain, and the cycle continues. The more depleted I get, the more reminders of my strength I give myself to keep going, the more focused I get on what I am seeking to leave behind and what I seek to bring forward, with more and more clarity.

And, I am not alone as I do this. I am normally sitting in my congregation, surrounding by a community of others doing this same thing, and/or at home surrounded by family and friends as we pass the hours toward our communal break-fast.

It is the same with Al Chet, the confessional. We are confessing not only as individuals, but as a community. As we name each sin, we recognize that I might not have personally committed this specific sin, but someone else in the community has (or, for a sin I have indeed committed, I am not alone and am held by my community as I attempt to be accountable for that sin), and we are holding the weight of that responsibility collectively and our strengths and spirits are buoyed to do that very weighty work.

This year is so different.

Seven months into the pandemic, I wake up each and every morning with that feeling of being more and more depleted, and having to dig deeper and deeper to find my strength. So many of us are running on fumes yet still finding strength each day to keep doing this for the long haul. The experience of the fast of Yom Kippur is in many ways our daily reality, of carrying the weight of all that is wrong and needs fixing. And, we are doing so in relative isolation, not having our villages to rely on in the same way.

So with that in mind, and Betsy’s teaching sitting with me, I think what is needed during these Days of Awe is dramatically different for me – and I am opening myself to that, rather than sitting with the “should’s” of how I should try to find ways to go through the motions of what is expected of these holidays.

I am going to use these days to focus on how I can buoy my own strengths, and the strengths of those around me. I am going to give priority to marking these holidays in a way that helps me counter the isolation and feel connected, with myself, and with my village (either remotely, or while safely socially distanced).

And I am not going to fret about whether or not I feel up to fasting by the time the sacred 25 hours of Yom Kippur begins (rabbis may disagree with me on this one!).

I am wishing for all of us in the days ahead a renewed sense of purpose, connection, inspiration, and hope, to buoy our strengths as we go into 5781 with much holy work to do.

Alisha Pedowitz, MAEd/MBA, is a Jewish educator who has spent most of her career working with teens, using the richness of Jewish community, ritual, tradition, and wisdom to help them thrive. Alisha has worked as an educator and communal professional at Jewish camps, schools, and agencies throughout California, and now serves as the California Director of Moving Traditions