The Kol Nidre service was beautiful, as always. The music was powerful, the sermon inspirational and the warmth of the Temple Israel community was palpable. Everything was just perfect. Kind of.
As I took it all in, sitting with my wife, my thoughts drifted once again to the reality in my life that my two sons — and now their wonderful wives — no longer lived in Michigan. That was not an epiphany for me; it has been this way for almost 10 years now. But sitting at Temple at the High Holidays somehow seems to punctuate this reality, and for a moment or two I started feeling a bit sorry for myself. Around me were seemingly happy families, many of whom were multi-generational, and I couldn’t help but look at them and, I hate to admit it, feel a momentary tinge of envy and sadness.
I was not proud of these emotions. It made no sense, really. My kids are doing great. Happily married to two extraordinary women, healthy, with terrific jobs and — the greatest bonus of all — both wives are currently pregnant. My life is pretty darn perfect, and I have absolutely nothing to really complain about. In the scheme of things, I am beyond blessed in every sense of the word.
So how could I be so shallow in the face of such amazing fortune? How could my heart be anything but filled with joy and gratitude? What’s wrong with me?
Suddenly, as I sat there asking myself these questions, everything around me seemed to change. I became acutely aware of my surroundings in a whole new way, as if my eyes had just adjusted to darkness and I was now able to see things more clearly and starkly. I realized that the person sitting right next to me has been undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer for the past year. A friend a few seats away had been widowed at a young age with two young children. Two seats in front of me sat a mother besides her special-needs child.
It seemed that everywhere I looked I recognized someone who had undergone a real-life crisis. I imagined that they were also lost in their own thoughts, no doubt reflecting on their own life challenges. Their roads were difficult and at times downright somber, whereas mine were, in all reality, quite easy and problem-free.
My “problems,” in the famous words of Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca, “don’t amount to a hill of beans,” and I felt silly and embarrassed to have had even a moment of self-pity.
I am no scholar of Judaism, but I do know that a central tenet of our religion is compassion, something often preached but not regularly practiced. At our religious services, we recite prayers and songs of compassion and, for a moment or so, we focus on those in need of healing. But how easy is it, after the service, to overlook those in pain and focus on the trivial things in our lives? How easy is it to forget that sadness has a way of lingering for a very long time, maybe forever? How easy is it to lose sight of the big picture and take for granted just how truly fortunate we really are?
The High Holidays have a way of crystallizing one’s life to oneself. We take a temporary respite from our daily routine and, while pausing, we take inventory of who we are, what we have become and who we wish to be. For Jews like me, not overly religious but fiercely proud of my heritage and my culture, the services are a powerful dose of introspective and spiritual medicine.
Each year, I try to focus on one overriding message from the High Holidays that I can convert into action and attitude for the following year.
So, as I sat in services and took my annual personal inventory, my takeaway of the High Holidays of 5779 became crystal clear: This world is full of people facing real, profound and crippling problems in their everyday lives, and yet they rise above their struggles with courage and grace. In that moment of clarity, all my so-called “problems” or silly self-pity washed away, and I declared an end to complaining about a single thing.
Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan director for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.