It was the day after all the Rosh Hashana festivities quieted down and I was on the road with the kids, halfway through a 7-hour road trip when I saw the blue lights flashing behind me.
Okay, yes. I was going a little fast. But not faster than everyone else zooming along on the speedway. I was not too concerned. I have been pulled over before. Several times. And I've prided myself on being able to smile my way out of anything more stern than a warning (maybe it's because of the cute kids in the back saying "Hi, Mr. Policeman!"). Not this time. I got slapped with my very first speeding ticket. I eased back onto the highway, muttering to G-d, "Why today? My first day out and about in the new year and...a ticket? Really?"
An hour later, when the blue lights were flashing behind me again, I shook my head in disbelief. Alright, it's true, I was going a little bit fast again, but that's because when I was going the speed limit, everyone was passing me! I tried to muster some charm, but he met me with a deadpan expression...and handed me a more breathtakingly expensive ticket than the first one!
I just blinked for a few seconds before finally putting my hands back on the wheel and starting off again. I'd driven this road at least a dozen times before, driving the same way I was driving on this unfortunate day. I'll admit it: I felt two inches tall.
What I kept thinking over and over was, "I didn't do Rosh Hashana right. I missed something. He's not happy with me..."
The Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, I relished the chance to attend a late night selichot service. Held during hours when most people are usually asleep, it's a chance to begin preparing for Rosh Hashana with prayers of return. The tradition is to continue the practice of reciting these special prayers in the wee hours until Yom Kippur. I wanted to give it a shot. Sure, I knew the coming days would be busy. We were hosting for the holiday - something I was excited beyond excited to do - and coming up on three days without computer or movies or Spotify, I wanted to have other special things in place that would make the holiday pleasantly memorable for the kids. What I didn't bargain on was that my kid got sick the next day...someone else needed help with a project...the Engineer had other chores he wanted done. My carefully alloted timetable went out the window and instead of bending meditatively over a siddur under the stars, I found myself hunched over half-chopped vegetables at three o'clock in the morning the day before Rosh Hashana.
"I'm sorry," I told G-d. "This isn't how I wanted it to be. I wanted to come close to You. I wanted to show You that I really can become a better person."
I remembered bemoaning to my husband earlier in the evening, "I didn't do the things I said I wanted to accomplish last Rosh Hashana. I've totally failed this year."
To which he calmly responded, "But you accomplished so many other things that you didn't know you would have the chance to accomplish this year."
And of course, he's right. The days before Rosh Hashana were a microcosm of this my year: I set lofty goals, I was able to do what I hoped to do one day out of four, and then life happened. And it handed me a totally different set of opportunities to do good, to help others, to call on G-d from whatever street corner I found myself at the moment and ask for His help. Suddenly, I didn't feel so mired in materialism anymore. The leeks on the cutting board in front of me suddenly seemed imbued with untapped spiritual potential. I had to grin, right then and there, because I knew from the deepest place in my heart that I was not standing there missing out on doing something more spiritual. I was standing there chopping for the King of Kings! I was preparing a meal in His honor and excited to be able to share it with precious children of His. This was my service! This was my selichot!
Avi Weiss said, "Good
deeds may not only be the precursor to prayer, but a form of prayer
itself. This may be the deeper meaning of the prayer [said on Rosh Hashana] "But as for me, my prayer is to You, G-d" ....The way I talk and walk and conduct myself in business;
the way I eat and love and interact with others; the way I treat the
forlorn, the hungry, the homeless – my very being, my very essence, my
every endeavor is tefilla – holistic prayer."
I told G-d in the kitchen, "This is why you should give me another year. I do sometimes fall short on coming through with my plans. I set big goals and don't always achieve them. But look at my record this past year: when life hands me an opportunity to do good, I try to seize it. There were needs that arose that prevented me from having the prayer experience that I pictured, but when an opportunity to "pray" different came along, I grabbed it."
And so, I entered the holiday with relative peace. And as I closed my eyes and let the wail of the shofar vibrate through my body the next morning, I made this my intention: "I don't usually get to chose what gets handed to me in life. You do. So I'm asking you to give me what it takes to make me into the best version of myself that I can be. Whatever it takes, bring it."
After the holiday was over, and our guests had left and I drove back onto the highway with two speeding tickets scrunched in my hand, I gulped in a very tiny voice, "Already? Barely out the gate and you're sending hard stuff already? Why?" I did some mental math, the cost of the two tickets equaled pretty much all of the ebay profit I had just deposited in my bank account. I felt nauseous just thinking about it. A whole month of work...waking up early and jumping right on the computer to list a dozen things before the boys woke up...forfeiting my usual learning time in order to make sure that I met my quota...
...now that several days have passed and I have had a chance to absorb the full disappointment of that loss, I think I have an answer. I've become better at seizing the chance to do good when it is presented to me. But I still have a lot of work to do in generating those opportunities on my own.
A parable: say my personal accountant came to me and said, "Such-and-such a charity would like to know if you would donate $1000 to their cause."
"Yes!" I fist pump. "Let me sign the check!"
The next day, my personal accountant comes to me again and says, "Here is a blank check for $1000 from your bank account. Put whatever you want on the Pay-To line."
That's when I start blowing my money.
My days are pretty much always full. But several mornings a week, I'm given a "blank check" of opportunity. Those are the mornings when my kids don't get out of bed until 7:30am. And I'm up long before that. My best self loves to use that hour to zero in on a shiur, to talk to G-d, to think about how to adjust my trajectory in the coming day in order to point myself in a truly forward direction. But in the past month, that didn't happen once. I blew the blank check on ebay, on answering emails, on so many other things that I could have squeezed in at other points in my day.
This is the lesson I took from my two speeding tickets (besides stick-to-the-speed-limit, DUH!). "Yes," I feel affirmed from heaven, "It's wonderful to respond positively when you are asked to do good. But its time to stop selling yourself short. You cannot only respond...when you also have the capacity to generate. I trusted you with those hours, I gave you the space to meet Me how you wanted to...and you didn't even show up. You didn't use it to propel yourself forward, you just hovered over your current holding spot. That's it. Blank checked bounced. You want to try this again?"
I do. I want another chance. Begrudgingly, I guess I should thank the highway patrol for doing it's job this time. They spurred deeper repentance than they had in mind when then peeled out after my speedy ol' blue.