For me, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a reminder of where stifling dread and sincere prayer meet.
When my youngest daughter was 13 months old, Yom Kippur fell one day before a doctor would reach into her chest to release a ring of artery strangling her trachea. Two days before that, a doctor had turned us away at the emergency room where she had coughed herself purple in my arms, telling us she’d be happier at home, and just to come back for her scheduled cardiac surgery.
After months and months of mysterious respiratory infections, food refusal, and breathing you could hear from three rooms away, she had been diagnosed with a vascular ring: a double aortic arch that encircled her airway and esophagus, choking her from the inside. That ring needed to be cut. There was no other choice.
And so it came to be that, on the night before Yom Kippur, I wrestled with forgiveness at the beautiful, haunting service known as Kol Nidre, meaning “all vows.”
The star of the evening is the prayer by the same name, sung three times in Aramaic, in which the cantor pleads with God to release the entire community from any promises made in haste and in the heat of the moment. It was a service I had attended with my own mother every year I could remember as a child, and I felt myself going through the motions with my older daughter. The cantor chanted:
All vows…which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect…
There were so many ways to parse my heartache that night. My patient 4-year-old sat next to me, mesmerized by the choir, while I wondered about the deals I might make with the universe in two days while her little sister lay drugged and flayed open in a hospital operating room.
My confused heart pounded and ached, pounded and ached, as I prayed that those vows be both nulled and upheld.
After the last notes of Kol Nidre finished their echo, I barely caught my breath before the list of religious grievances against us, the “Al Chet,” was chanted. It includes many sins which, that year, resonated with me.
A begrudging eye. The sting of jealousy for all my daughter’s mysterious illness had cost me had been almost too much to bear this past year. I had been forced to relinquish my job, my sleep, my body, and, too often, my composure. My husband left for work each day, my former coworkers soldiered on without me, my breasts were not my own, and even my arms were always claimed by a wheezing, whimpering baby no one could accurately diagnose until weeks before. I coveted too many things to count, shamefully.
Obduracy. I wept with frustration as my friends reached out only to find me unwilling to accept their help. Somewhere in the wash of too much pride, I’d made myself the only solution for any problem my daughter had. I was the shackles and the shackler. It was a trap, and it was a mirror.
Swearing in vain. Causeless hatred. The list goes on and on, and I was guilty of many, but none more surely as I was of this one:
…the sin which we have committed before You by a confused heart.
I understood this sin to imply that nothing occurs by accident, everything is preordained, and the question of why bad things happen to good people should be beside the point. I was more than guilty of asking that question; I was lousy with that question. It dripped off me, thickly.
So I began again in that sanctuary, as I held my 4-year-old’s tiny hand during services that night, with a new question: “Do I feel guilty?”
Do I feel guilty for my confused heart?
In order to ask forgiveness, I had to feel remorse, either for asking the question of why my daughter had been born with such a challenge, or why I hadn’t been able to figure it out sooner, or why no hospital visit had uncovered it until now. If I was going to beat my chest and raise my voice in supplication, I had to regret these questions and accept that my faith should have been stronger. I had to feel guilty for not trusting the path we were traveling.
In truth, I did not. I knew that my child deserved better than what some plan had dictated she should get, and that as her mother, so did I. Still, the pull of faith and ritual was strong, and I dug deep to ask, if not for forgiveness, for understanding from the energy of the universe that had handed me these daughters to steward: one through heart surgery, and one through the possible death of her sister. I apologized to someone, myself or God or the institution of motherhood, and thumped my chest in answer to the nagging doubt.
As I walked out of synagogue that evening, I found the man in charge of honors and rituals for the congregation. I told him that my youngest daughter would be having heart surgery in two days, and asked if he would please have a mishaberach prayer for the renewal of her health said in her name. I was unsure, and I was covering all bases, and I was angry, but I felt fiery tears form in my eyes.
My daughter survived that surgery and many others over the next nine years. It changed my heart, my faith, and my associations with ordinary moments in her childhood and in my spiritual practice. I continue to possess a confused heart, and I continue to question whether that needs forgiving.
Yom Kippur is forever a reminder of the year I held up an impossible scale: my guilt in one hand and my baby daughter’s life in the other.