Tapping the Waters of Wisdom

We spoke to women rabbis and religious leaders about finding spiritual nourishment in the High Holidays. Their answers are both personal and profound.

By Meredith Jacobs

Let’s admit it. As the High Holidays approach, many of us begin to think about what we’re going to wear, what we need to clean, who we need to invite and what we’re going to serve. But aren’t we leaving something out? While there is tremendous import in physically creating the holiday, isn’t there more? While we’re busy figuring out how to take care of everyone else, where do we fit in? How can this sacred time nourish our spirits and give us the strength and wisdom to face what lies ahead? Is there a way that we, as women, can uniquely connect spiritually or emotionally with this time of year?  

To help us find answers, we turned to women rabbis and spiritual leaders from various denominations who speak to diverse congregations. From them we sought the wisdom of the sages as seen through the eyes of a woman. 

“We find ourselves in the text of the High Holy Days,” said Rabbi Marla Hornsten. “These days are our days. Their themes reflect us, our struggles, our deepest desires.” Hornsten, co-chair of JWI’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Abuse, helps lead Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, Michigan, looks to the women prominently featured in the Torah and Haftorah portions for Rosh Hashanah. “The story of Sarah and Hagar, as a whole, portrays female relationships: sisterhood, friendship, camaraderie, ultimately even betrayal. Not perfect,” she adds, “but then again, neither are we.”

The story revolves around Sarah’s desire for children. When she is unable to conceive, she urges her husband, Abraham, to have a child with her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. Ishmael is born. Years later, Sarah miraculously conceives and bears a son, Isaac. She later grows jealous of Hagar and, perhaps threatened by Ishmael’s status as first-born son, urges Abraham to cast out mother and son into the wilderness with only bread and water. 

“Our biblical women experience the same things we experience,” says Hornsten, “Sarah who wants a child and Hagar who can provide that for her. We meet people every day who struggle with infertility. These are real stories that speak to all of us.” 

Stories of motherhood echo through the holiday’s Haftorah readings. We read about Hannah, who prayed so fervently for a child, her prayers not only were answered with the birth of Samuel, but became one of the fundamental biblical sources for the concept of prayer. “Hannah’s prayers could be all of our prayers,” Hornsten says. And in the Haftorah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read about Rachel. As the eternal mother figure, she weeps inconsolably for the exiled Jewish people. “Having these women take center stage is so unique for the High Holy Days when we usually think of women’s voices as silenced in the Torah,” she continues. Perhaps even more significant is that these are not stories of women as they relate to men. These are stories about women as individuals struggling with whatever they are experiencing. 

“Sometimes, when women struggle, we feel alone," says Hornsten. "I couldn’t breastfeed and felt as though I was the only person who had experienced this struggle. Yes, there were lactation experts, who were obviously there for a reason, but I couldn’t see them.” 

At the holidays, Hornsten adds, we are reminded we are not alone, that “other people are challenged with these same issues, even our own matriarchs. That’s a powerful message.”

Feeling alone in the struggle to become a mother is very personal to Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, who heads CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders. She finds messages in the story of Sarah and, even more heart-wrenching, in the Haftorah story of Hannah. “For women in that space, praying to get pregnant, as I was for several years, the holidays can be tremendously impactful in two ways.” On the one hand, she explains, “These stories hold out hope. In both, they end with ‘God opened her womb.’” On the other hand, “It’s incredibly painful to be in a room with hundreds of people and start crying and know people are wondering why. If you don’t conceive, you wonder: Why? Why didn’t God open my womb? What does that mean? These stories are both uplifting and incredibly painful.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that these are the stories that we read at our New Year. While our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob struggled with shaping a new belief system, our matriarchs quite literally struggled to give birth to a people. Had Sarah not had Isaac, Rachel not had Joseph, Hannah not had Samuel who anointed David as king, we would not be here. These are the stories of our birth – the stories every child asks her mother to tell of how she came to be. How are we to discuss beginnings – the start of a New Year and the beginning of the annual cycle of Torah reading – if we do not also hear the story of our people’s beginning?

For Rabbi Rachel Gartner, a Reconstructionist rabbi and director of Jewish chaplaincy of Georgetown University, these stories go beyond motherhood and weave a lesson of life's possibilities.

“I love to home in on Hagar at the well. Right when she’s been cast out. They’ve eaten the bread and drunk the water and are starving. She fears she’s going to lose her son. She puts her head down, closes her eyes, ‘I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to see him die!’ But then she raises her eyes and sees a well of water. What I love about this piece is the notion of women at the well. We repeatedly encounter women at the well in the Bible. Why? Because their job in society is to draw the water.”

In fact, she notes, that even today, in the global South, women still carry out the critical function of getting water from the well. Gartner is struck by the symbolic overtones of this   process. She explains that there are two words in Hebrew, deled and delah – representing one connected idea – that are used interchangeably in respect to dangling something into a well and bringing it back up.  “Letting go of the bucket and bringing it back up. Falling and lifting. Having the courage to fall and let go and miraculously being pulled up with sustenance – with water. And what could be even more miraculous in the desert than water? Falling and rising as one continuing process through which we get the sustenance of life.”

This is, for her, what the High Holidays are about. “At the end of the year, we’re releasing, letting go of the past. At Rosh Hashanah, the birth of a new year, we’re rising up. Every year we let something die and something new is born. Every year we fall and rise up. It’s painful, but it’s the stuff of life.”

For the young women Gartner works with, “Everything seems like the be-all and end-all.”  She encourages them to “remember that something is dying, but something is also being born. Maybe a relationship is dying or being born. Maybe a [study] major is changing.”

She sees this same theme at work in the lives of professional women, who are constantly responding to the demands of work and relationships, stepping off or onto the mommy track. “We’re constantly letting go and reimagining ourselves. I’m letting go of something and something else is taking its place. It’s okay to make these changes. With each new cycle, we drop and we rise, Gartner explains. “And the water is good in all cases. It’s just different. The spiritual practice for me is to trust that there will be water. I remember when I weaned my son, he actually weaned himself. I wasn’t ready. He was. I remember weeping. How will I be his mother? I know how to be this kind of mother who breast-feeds. What will I be now? But [I learned to] trust…I will know what to be as a mother of a toddler, as a mother of an 8-year-old, as a mother of a high school student.”

Women need to draw on this trust later on when they face other changes such as retirement or loss of a partner, she notes, recalling conversations with women in retirement homes who discover a new talent they didn’t realize they possessed because it was something their husband had always handled.

We can’t fall prey to thinking there is only one way, she says. “Sometimes I get angry at Sarah, but she was protecting her child. That was the system. But there isn’t only one prize, there isn’t only one way, there isn’t only one blessing. There isn’t only one way to be a mother, only one way to be a Jew. There are many blessings and much sustenance in the universe.”

The High Holidays give us that time to reflect on how we might, as Rabbi Gartner suggests, be “letting go and reimagining ourselves.” Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, sees women in her congregation being pulled in thousands of directions. “We women don’t often consider where we are in the equation. We’re so focused on job/spouse/children that we don’t ask, ‘Where am I?’”

Not only do we have time for this reflection at High Holiday services, we have the entire Hebrew month of Elul leading up to the New Year to rediscover ourselves. “Judaism understands that you can’t walk into erev Rosh Hashanah services and have those prayers and music wash over you and do their magic,” Schwartzman says. “We have to have an intentional process.”

She suggests that just as we use the quiet of August to ready our children for school with new clothes and supplies, Elul gives us the invitation to do the same for ourselves. 
“Organize, get rid of junk we’ve been carrying all year, find something new that will help us be successful in the New Year,” Schwartzman urges. “We know when our 9th grader needs a special kind of calculator for school. But how often do we do that for ourselves?”

Schwartzman actually blocks out time on her calendar for this High Holiday prep, a time to reflect, rebalance and renew. She uses this time not for cooking and cleaning – or writing sermons – but for taking personal inventory. She suggests finding a partner, someone whom you want to walk with you through this process. “If you are sitting across from someone, if you’ve made a date, you’ll show up,” she says. She also suggests going to the mikveh before the holidays, taking walks, meditating, finding time for reflection. 

“Before we go into yet another year of juggling career and family and volunteerism, we must take this giant step back that Judaism gives us and ask what we need to do to renew ourselves so that we can be effective for another year. What do we need to do to be balanced as human beings, as spiritual beings, as mothers and partners and daughters? How do we make certain we go into that New Year with balance?”

Rabbi Sirbu agrees that the holidays are an ideal time for personal reflection. In fact, she explains, “the prayers are meant to be repetitive, meant to put you in a meditative state to reflect. And you should set aside time to do that.” But, she says, Judaism is communal as well as personal. There is the duality; the distinct pairing of the two ideas in the holidays – Rosh Hashanah is the communal. Yom Kippur is the personal. 

And, it is here that Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman finds her meaning. Friedman, an ordained spiritual leader within the Modern Orthodox community, says that yes, the holidays are a “time to re-focus, a time to talk about our unique relationship with God.” But, she emphasizes, while this is a time to think about “being your best self, that needs to be in the context of how you are with others. We must consider our relationships with others.” During the High Holidays, she explains, we are compelled to be with our community; we cannot be alone. “You must be in synagogue. You must fast. It is a forced time to unplug and truly be with others.” 

That communal experience and the focus on relationships brings us back to those more traditional tasks. As Rabbi Sirbu says, “I wouldn’t minimize that preparation. Buying new clothes is part of the ritual of the holidays for me. It all plays a role – the cooking, the cleaning, the dress. Part of our power as women is that we lift up the traditional roles women have served. If someone didn’t make the chicken or brisket for the holiday…it wouldn’t be the holiday.”

Meredith Jacobs is JWI’s vice president of marketing & communications and the author of The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat.