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Sep 12 2013

On Yom Kippur, We Become Like Angels… But Angels Don’t Have Children

By at 9:55 am
two little girls in white

Young children aren’t always so angelic.

I have always loved the idea that on Yom Kippur, we become like angels.  Maybe because it appeals to the optimist in me–rather than thinking about how hard the day is because we can’t eat, I prefer to think about how beautiful it is that on this day we ascend to the spiritual levels of angels who do not need to sustain themselves with food and drink. On this one day of the year, we dress in white and remove the trappings of physicality to focus on our inner essence.

Yet the words “angelic” and “young children” are not ones that usually go together (and if they are, my first instinct is to believe that the parent who describes their offspring as such is simply having sleep-deprived hallucinations). While in my pre-child life, I spent most of Yom Kippur in synagogue, reflecting on the past year, thinking about how I could be a better person in the coming year, and striving to be angel-like, in my post-child life this is simply not a realistic option.

Although my children have some sense that Yom Kippur is a day for saying “I’m sorry” and a day on which grownups don’t eat, they don’t–and I can’t expect them to–understand the spiritual nature of the day. Yet it becomes very difficult for me to feel like an angel when one child is demanding food and the other is calling me to help him in the bathroom. It is hard to step away from physicality when it is right in front of me in the form of two small boys who have lots of physical needs of which to attend.

And so ever since I have had children, I have struggled with how to make Yom Kippur significant, with how to have some sort of meaningful spiritual experience even when much of my day is spent in my synagogue’s playroom rather than its sanctuary.

Part of the answer lies in focusing on the quality, not the quantity, of the quiet moments of reflection I can capture throughout the day. Of trying hard to make the most of the minutes when my children actually agree to stay in the playroom with the synagogue’s babysitter, or when my husband swaps places with me. I find that I am more appreciative of my time spent in prayer. Rather than counting the pages in the prayer book to see how much longer there is until the break–(I must admit that even in my pre-child days, when I had the time to muster up all of the angelic-ness one could desire, there were many moments when I just couldn’t sustain that level of concentration)–now, when I do go into the sanctuary, I “give it my all” and really challenge myself to recall my mistakes, to seriously think about how I can do better, and to focus on my hopes and dreams for the coming year.

Part of the answer also lies in the realization that this is just temporary–that every year my children will be more and more self-sufficient, and more aware of the significance of the day. There will come a time when I won’t need to spend the day doling out snacks and wiping faces clean. I wonder if, when that time comes, I will feel a little wistful for the days when my children needed me more.

But perhaps the most meaningful answer is learning that there can be moments of spirituality even when completely immersed in my children’s physicality. I can vow to be a more patient mother, suppressing the instinct to yell as I step in, yet again, to break up a fight over a seemingly insignificant toy. I can be thankful that my healthy children have hearty appetites instead of being irritated by their incessant whines of “I’m hungry.” And, when I head to the park instead of back to synagogue in the afternoon, I can be awed at how much stronger they have grown over the past year, as I watch them proudly conquer the monkey bars.

While I know that it is unlikely for me to sustain such a heightened level of awareness and gratitude throughout the year, I can use Yom Kippur as a starting point, as something to look back on for inspiration and continue to aspire to throughout the year.

So, this Yom Kippur, though on the outside I have no doubt that I will look like a tired, hungry mom just trying to make it through the day, on the inside, I will be doing all that I can to reach the heights of an angel–an angel distracted by the demands of young children, but an angel nonetheless.

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