For the first time in my life, annual self-reflection isn’t on the syllabus. The month before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is traditionally devoted to spiritual preparation. People are encouraged to learn ethical material, be extra-conscious of their actions and seek forgiveness from anyone they may have hurt.
At this time last year, I wasn’t sleeping much. But not because I was writing papers or making new friends or scoping out all the events on campus. Right before Rosh Hashanah there are slichot (prayers of forgiveness) that are said in the dead of night. I was on a gap year in Israel after graduating a Jewish day school, and the religious school I was studying at is famous for their slichot services. The study hall was absolutely packed with people; crying, hugging friends and praying. The singing and dancing went on and on, as people prayed for mercy and forgiveness until three or four in the morning.
I didn’t say slichot this year. I was happy to just be arriving to morning prayers every day. Last year, I diligently e-mailed every friend I may have hurt or friend whom had hurt me. I spent the month before Rosh Hashanah deeply aware of each passing day and my own progress as a human being. Now, I am amazed that Rosh Hashanah is this week. I’ve done no preparation.
Last year, the power and beauty of the nightly prayers bothered me. We confess during prayers in the plural. We have lied, we have spoken ill. It felt false to hide behind universal blame. The rise of hundreds of voices in unison felt inappropriate, too spectacular. We are begging God for our lives, we are confessing to the deepest sins we have done, have refused to acknowledge. It is not a game; this whole process not a show. I was annoyed by how safe I felt in the crush of humanity. I wanted to feel vulnerable before God. I wanted individual confession and forgiveness.
Well, I’ve had no show this year, and the reassuring mob of community has stayed in Israel. I haven’t missed it. Truth is, I haven’t even thought about it. Life here is pretty busy. Outside that culture, it is easy to let a year go by without reflection. I can explain away my apathy. After all, I’m a freshman, getting used to things here, finding my new community — no one can reasonably expect me to pause and perform the annual ritual of repentance, right? Maybe next year, once I am settled in.
But Rosh Hashanah comes whether it is a good time or not. I am sometimes afraid that I will never be fully settled in. I fear I will always be too tired to think properly, to act with full intention. Too often have I thought, “soon, I will finally sleep for a long time, wake up and take control of my life.” I will put things right. Do things right. Do things fully, as they were meant to be done. What if it never happens? What if college plods along while I wait to feel comfortable, and then suddenly, that was it? What if we never have the time or the conviction or the desire to master our own souls?
The holiday is here, and I am unprepared. It isn’t fair. No one reminded me to repent. No one gave me the time I needed or asked me how my self-reflection was going. My friends here haven’t all been attending ethical lectures and discussing spiritual books. Preparation wasn’t built into the schedule.
I am an individual here, acting without my mob, and outside the cultural framework I always took for granted. But this week at Yale has been incredible. I am so excited about the people I have met, the support I have found and the classes I am taking. I can’t wait to be a part of this community for the next four years. Perhaps I’ve been misguided in my search for comfort. Rosh Hashanah is about not being comfortable, not being satisfied, with where one is. One is supposed to always be struggling, and that search for feeling “settled” is an elusive dream. There is never that moment of insight or inspiration that knocks us out of our complacent lives. We must act now. There is nothing to wait for. When I feel deeply, I feel alive. I am happy. Maybe I am as settled as I’d ever want to be.
Shira Telushkin is a freshman in Pierson College.