THIS YEAR I DECIDED TO WRITE MY OWN HIGH HOLIDAY SERMON…
Why would I do such a thing you may ask? Well, for 42 years, I’ve sat in synagogue on the High Holidays and listened to eloquent sermons prepared by people I love and respect. Most notably, my father who is nothing less than a Talmid Chacham and a Tzadik who preached from a pulpit for almost 40 years. I know first hand the long hours, dedication, hard work, research and preparation that goes into these sermons. I also know the “high stakes” that these sermons hold as Rabbis and community leaders get their sometimes “once-a-year opportunity” to deliver messages to the greater Jewish People.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved listening to prepared sermons over the years. I also loved the pride it brought me and my family to listen to our father preach from the pulpit. As I grew up, however, and faced my own challenges, I always felt there was something missing. I would sit in synagogue, or “shul” as we called it in my house, and listen to the Torah readings and Haftarot over this most sacred time of the year. I heard about the Matriarchs and other wonderful women in the Torah. I heard about their trials and tribulations as women, wives and mothers. But I NEVER, EVER heard anyone speak about these women for who they were. I’ve spent many a High Holiday not in my father’s shul. I’ve been to services on college campuses, in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues that were led by both men and women. Of course I’ve heard about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the amazing stories and lessons we can learn from their lives. I just can’t recall ever hearing a sermon solely about one of the women. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah were always a means to an end. Procreating to produce leaders of nations, both good and bad, seemed to be their main role – or at least the traditional role that rabbis, teachers and commentators spoke of routinely.
As a young girl, this didn’t seem odd. These were the stories that were passed down and told over and over. But as I grew up, fell in love and tried to start a family with my wonderful husband, I was confused. You see, it was not that easy for my husband and I to conceive. That’s when we began our journey to have a family at any and all costs. This journey of infertility was lonely, degrading and depressing. As an individual, as a woman, as part of a couple and as a Jew, I looked for comfort somewhere. As I sat in shul over countless High Holidays, I realized I was not alone. In fact, it was amazing but the High Holidays are about women who are just like me. BUT WHY DIDN’T ANYONE ELSE KNOW THIS????
Sarah, perhaps the most famous Matriarch, who we read about on Rosh Hashanah, struggled with infertility. She and Abraham were already older when they were able to conceive. They begged G-d over and over for a child. Through Sarah, we see the emotions that women go through when facing fertility problems. We see how she is jealous of and hates Hagar, Abraham’s other wife, who is able to conceive. So much so, that she asks Abraham to send Hagar away from her home. We learn from Sarah, our Matriarch, that these feelings of jealousy and even hatred towards others is understandable at times. Even Sarah, our great Matriarch, felt this way. When Sarah and Abraham learn that they will finally have a child, they laughed and named their child Isaac ( Yitzchak ). Yitzchak comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to laugh”. Was that laughter of joy, fear or disbelief? I’ll call it the “cautious optimism” of any couple struggling to have a child when they finally have news of a “viable” pregnancy. The laugh that continues to be the “programmed response” until that crying, living, little life is actually in your arms and out of your womb.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Haftorah is from the Book of Samuel I. It talks about the story of Hannah – “Hannah was childless”. She cries her heart out begging for a child. She is miserable. The High Priest in Shiloh asks her – How long will you be like this? How long will you make a spectacle of yourself? How many times do women ( and men) going through infertility hear that, in different forms, from people who love them? “How long can you mope around?” or “Get yourself together! Get over this already! You will be ok!”. Hannah’s answer is simple and clear – “I have been pouring my heart out to G-d”. Hannah promises that if she is able to have a child, she will devote him to G-d. How many secret promises did I make to G-d before I had a child. How many promises has anyone going through infertility made in jest or in truth? I made them all – twice! When Hannah finally births a child, she names him Shmu’el, meaning G-d heard her prayer. Shmu’el then becomes a Nazir not drinking wine or cutting his hair in deference to G-d. I remember growing up hearing all these stories about the Nazir; the emphasis, however, was never on his mother Hannah.
The High Holidays are a time to feel connected with our heritage and our history. Thankfully, as I sit with my beautiful daughter and wonderful husband in shul this year, I will again feel connected. I will know that yes, I am like our Matriarchs that I loved as a child. I will sit in shul and listen to the sermons. I will shed a tear as I listen to the chanting of the Haftorah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. A tear of sadness for the multiple children that were in my womb but never in the world (especially the one I lost during “Aseret Yimay Teshuvah” the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), a tear for the pain that my family went through to get where we are today, a tear for the women who are sitting in shul with hundreds of other people but feeling alone and isolated, a tear of joy for the miracle of divine intervention and modern medicine that helped me become a parent, a tear of gratitude for what I have, a tear of LOVE for my family. I will snicker to myself that G-d once again is talking to me and telling me something that nobody else knows.
Shira Asekoff Meyer is a graduate of Solomon Schechter Day School in West Orange, NJ. She continued her education at Barnard College in New York City where she majored in biopsychology and then at UMDNJ for her medical degree. She’s a physician who practices Internal Medicine with a group in Freehold, NJ. Her father is a successful Conservative Rabbi and her mother has worked for years with local and national Jewish Chaplaincy programs. She grew up in a committed Conservative household attending Camp Ramah and USY programs in the summer. She met her husband Ariel in medical school and they currently reside in Ocean Township, NJ. They are involved in the local Solomon Schechter and Jewish communities where they live. Shira and Ariel have a 9 year old daughter, Shoshana, who attends Solomon Schechter in Marlboro, NJ and is the light of their life.