Monday, September 9, 2013

For the Sin We Have Sinned: A Short Story for Yom Kippur

Her sitter had come late and Rivky rushed into the women’s section of the yeshiva breathless, just in time to hear the third rendition of Kol Nidre. With a sigh of relief she stood in her place and quickly opened her mahzor. She had made it. As the Ark was closed she nodded to her friend at her left. With a sigh of regret she noted the vacant place to her right.
Last year, and the year before, and the year before that, for the last five years, Suri had sat in that spot. Rivky bit her lip, willed her tears not to fall, and concentrated on the cantor’s recital of Kaddish. Right now the thought of facing another year still seemed overwhelming.
Across town Suri stood in the front row of the newest synagogue in city. Wistfully she remembered how in past years she and Rivky had sat unobserved in the back row at the yeshiva with the other Kollel wives. Now, as the rabbi’s wife, there was no such thing as being ignored. She supposed she would get used to it in time, but right now she missed Rivky’s moral support. Truth be told, she missed Rivky.

Back in the yeshiva Rivky was standing still, feet together, head bowed, and reciting the list of Al Chait, as she thumped her chest with her fist. Concentrating hard several words leapt out at her: For the sin we committed before You with an utterance of the lips. She thumped her chest harder than normal and silently groaned. Her mouth was always getting her in trouble. Suddenly, she remembered the first time Suri had been upset with her.
They had both been newlyweds, married to two cousins who were not only learning partners, but also best friends. To Rivky’s relief she had liked Yossi’s wife from the start. That was fortunate since they would be neighbors in the Kollel housing complex. Rivky found Suri to be practical, down-to-earth and caring. On the other side, Suri was drawn to Rivky’s vivacious personality and giving nature.  They helped each other with unpacking, went food shopping together, and tried to keep track of all their new relatives in their husbands’ large family.
It was the first week in Elul when the Rosh Yeshiva’s wife organized an outing to Lake Michigan for them and the other new Kollel wives. Although they were friendly to the others it was assumed by everyone that Suri and Rivky would sit next to each other on the boat ride. It was late afternoon and a cool breeze came from the lake. Suri was cold but it didn’t bother Rivky. Without a second thought Rivky handed over the sweater she had brought along and didn’t need. Later, when Suri dripped chocolate ice cream down the front of it Rivky didn’t mind. However, at the end of the day when Suri handed it back to her Rivky was appalled.
“Don’t you want to wash it first?” she blurted out.
“Sure!” Suri had flushed with embarrassment. Two days later she returned a clean sweater via her husband. The following day she was not interested in walking to the butcher shop together. On Shabbos, when she told Rivky she was not ready to go to shul yet and would come on her own later, Rivky understood something was wrong and confronted her.
“What’s wrong?” Suri had complained in icy tones. “How could you have embarrassed me in front of the Rebbetzin and all those other ladies?”
“Embarrassed you?” Rivky was puzzled.
“About washing your sweater.”
This time it was Rivky who flushed. “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “You’re right. Sometimes my mouth just seems to run on its own.”
“You should learn to control it,” Suri snapped back.
Rivky thought that had been the end of the friendship but she was wrong. A few days later Suri was knocking at her door with a friendly smile and an invitation to go to the women’s lecture together. Rivky had gratefully accepted her peacemaking offer.

In the new shul Suri was also thumping her chest and concentrating on the words. Several leapt out at her, as well. And the sin we committed against You with the hardening of the heart. Shamefacedly she wondered how many time she hurt people with her inability to get over her anger quickly and forgive. There were so many times Rivky had hurt her with her careless words but she had always given such sincere apologies. Suri was too stubborn to accept them right away.
Unbidden the memory of their trip together when a cousin was getting married in New York three years earlier assaulted her. Instead of flying in for the event they decided to drive. Ben and Rivky’s secondhand car was in good condition and there was plenty of room for the four of them, two car seats, and all of their luggage. They would share the driving, the money for the gas, stay in cheap motels, and make it into a little vacation. It would be fun. It was until the second afternoon when Yossi passed up two service stations looking for a better price on gas.
“Don’t be such a cheapskate,” Rivky had quipped from the back seat. “We’re going to run out of gas. Besides,” she whispered to Suri, “I need to use the bathroom.”
Suri had not returned Rivky’s mischievous grin.  There had been some unforeseen expenses that year and she and Yossi were carefully watching their budget. Rivky’s words stung and Suri turned her head to the window to blink back tears. Once they had filled up the car she pretended to sleep the rest of the way. Later, in the hotel room, Ben explained to Rivky why Suri had been upset. As was her way, Rivky immediately went to Suri’s room to apologize. Suri blushed to realize how ungracious she had been. It wasn’t until they had been in New York a full twenty-four hours that she was ready to forgive Rivky.

Suri tried to concentrate on her husband’s drash, but she kept thinking about Rivky. Oh, sometimes her friend made her so angry with her thoughtless comments, but there were other times… Times like when Rivky had watched Suri’s baby for a week until Suri was over the flu. And the time when she made Suri a surprise party just because Suri had been feeling a little discouraged.  If only Rivky could think more before she opened her mouth.
On her walk home from the yeshiva Rivky was preoccupied with thoughts of Suri. They had always walked home from evening services together, sharing their thoughts on the Rosh Yeshiva’s talk. Rivky missed how they had learned parshat hashavua together. Wistfully Rivky remembered when her mother was in the hospital and Suri took over the care of her family and house. If only she didn’t get insulted so easily. Both women slept fitfully that night.
In the morning Rivky settled her children with a game so she could try to spend a bit of time praying.  She sighed as she picked up her mahzor. Last year she had gone to the yeshiva for morning services; last year and every year since her oldest was born. Suri had watched her children in the morning and Rivky had watched Suri’s for Musaf. Now she would be with the children all day until the sitter came in time to go to Neilah. Rivky wondered what Suri was doing.
As the rabbi’s wife Suri knew she should be in shul all day so made sure to have a sitter the children knew for the entire day. Again she sat in her place in the front row, feeling more than a little uncomfortable knowing many of the congregants’ eyes were upon her. Yossi had been ecstatic when he was offered the rabbinical position. Suri had been less so. Rivky had been the first person she confided in.
“That’s fantastic!” Rivky had declared. She totally ignored Suri’s insecurities. “Yossi will make a great shul Rav.”
“He will,” Suri had agreed flatly.
“And you’ll have a real house with a yard for the kids to play in?”    
Suri nodded half-heartedly.
“And a guestroom so we can come for Shabbos.”
Suri smiled in spite of herself.
“And they’ll call you Rebbetzin and you can start giving parshat hashavua classes for the women.”
At that Suri’s face fell. “I don’t think so,” she said with trembling lips.
“Oh, Suri,” Rivky exclaimed, “we all have to grow up sometime. You’ll be fine.”
“I think I am totally gown-up right now,” Suri responded tightly.
“Of course, you are,” Rivky cajoled. “I just meant that sooner or later we are all going to have to leave the cocoon we have here in the Kollel.”
“I thought you would empathize with me,” Suri rose. “I guess I’ll go home and call my mother.”
“I’m sorry,” Rivky followed her friend to the door. “I thought I’d help you see the bright side. You’re right. I should have been more understanding.”
Suri shrugged her shoulders as she left. A few days later, though, she was back with a new book to loan to Rivky. They had a month of good times together and then Yossi and his family went to the Catskills to head a summer learning program. Ben and his family spent the summer at a camp in California where he worked as head counselor. They met again the end of the summer at their nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.

Rivky thought Suri looked rather wan and pale but she wisely did not comment on the fact. Instead she hugged her friend and told her how much she had missed her. Suri returned the hug and the sentiment.
“Did you enjoy sunny California?”
“You mean hot California,” Rivky laughed. “It would have been okay if I hadn’t been suffering from morning sickness the whole two months.”
“You’re expecting?”
Rivky nodded. “I’m really happy but I’ve had it with the nausea and the swollen ankles and I still have six months to go.”
“I can’t believe you’re complaining to ME about that!” Suri hissed. She turned on her heels and walked away.
Rivky stared after her with her mouth open wide with shock. This time she had not said anything thoughtless or dumb. There was no reason for Suri to have spoken that way. Suri was going to have to wait a long time if she thought she was going to get an apology. Angrily Rivky sat down next to her mother-in-law at a table far away from where Suri sat.  As far as she was concerned the Bar Mitzvah was ruined for her.

Outside the synagogue the sky was pink. Soon it would be dark and Yom Kippur would be over. As she recited Ashamnu Suri could not get the memory of Rivky’s shocked face out of her mind. She had not been sorry when she said her angry words. She could not believe that Rivky would be so insensitive. Everyone else had been so solicitous worrying about how she was recovering from the horrible miscarriage. It had been terrible physically and even worse emotionally and Rivky was blithely complaining about something as inane as swollen ankles.
Now, though, as the hour for shofar blowing drew near, Suri had an awful thought. What if Rivky didn’t know about her miscarriage? What if all the relatives had kept it from her, not wanting to upset her since she was in the early months of pregnancy?  If so, then her words, not thoughtless, but deliberate, were worse than any of Rivky’s tactless statements.
Rivky tried to concentrate on the Rosh Yeshiva’s final talk of the day but she could not get Suri’s mean words out of her mind. Suddenly she realized that she was doing what Suri had always done to her. Instead of forgiving she was holding onto her anger. Wait a minute, another voice told her, Suri never said she was sorry. She never asked for forgiveness.  Rivky straightened her shoulders and again focused on the Rosh Yeshiva’s words. “How can we expect HaShem to forgive us if we don’t forgive others?” Rivky’s eyes opened wide. Could the Rosh Yeshiva read her mind?  Should she forgive Suri even if Suri had never asked for forgiveness?
Rivky again lost track of the drash and busied herself sorting out various memories. She remembered when her brother was getting married and she was only two months after childbirth. She felt fat and ugly and did not have a clue what she would wear to the wedding. Suri had put so much effort into helping her find a dress. She remembered the countless phone calls when Suri had patiently listened to Rivky moaning about her children’s misbehavior.  Of course, no one could say that Suri was perfect. She was quick to anger and slow to forgive, but there was much more to her than her temper. Taking a deep breath Rivky resolved to call her friend and make one more try. She would do it as soon as they finished breaking the fast.
Ben had just finished making havdalah when the phone rang. Rivky picked up the cordless phone as she brought food to the table.
“Rivky,” Suri’s voice was tearful. “I’m so sorry for the way I spoke to you at the Bar Mitzvah. Please forgive me.”
“Of course!” Rivky exclaimed, a pleased smile spread across her face. “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too,” Suri answered in a calmer voice. “Maybe you can come to us for Shabbos Chol Hamoed?”
“That’s sounds lovely!”
Finally the new year no longer felt so overwhelming. In fact, it seemed quite bright and welcoming.




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