A funny thing happened to me on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
This is not, typically, a day I relish. I have already done the first day. I’ve admired the Torah scrolls and the clergy in their white regalia. I have grooved on the special melodies and savored the once-a-year prayers. I’ve dipped my apple in honey and shared the festive meal with friends.
Enough already! Who has time to go through it all over again? I have work to do.
This year, I’ve got a new writing project that’s just starting to gel. At its core is a mother who has become estranged from her grown son. I don’t know what came between them, or what the separation means to him. I just know that her heartbreak drives her to do things she wouldn’t otherwise do. How can I figure out where this is going when these holidays keep interfering with my work schedule?
But I had agreed to help out at the second-day service. And even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have felt right staying home. And so back to synagogue I went, to repeat exactly the same experience I’d had the day before.
Except it wasn’t the exactly the same.
For one thing, on the first day I’d been upstairs in the beautiful main sanctuary, with the senior rabbi and the cantor, accompanied by a professional chorus. On the second day I was downstairs in the not-so-pretty social hall, with the junior rabbi and my friend Hinda, who is a cantor-in-training. Different room, different people. But even if they’d been the same, it would have been different.
Rituals are like rivers—you can’t step in the same one twice.
The Rosh Hashanah service lasts about four hours. The funny thing happened to me in the last hour, around the point where I’d started flipping forward in the prayer book to see how much more I had to endure. I was tired of standing and more than ready for lunch. We had reached the remembrance section of the shofar service – readings and songs leading up to the blasts of the ram’s horn.
On the first day, I’d been riveted in anticipation. Today the shofar was yesterday’s news. I was spacing out, letting the music wash over me, when a new melody snagged my attention. The tune was so sad and lovely. And Hinda sang it so dearly, tenderly embracing each word. My Hebrew is spotty at best, but I understood “Ephraim” – the name of someone’s child. I glanced down at the English.
Is not Ephraim my precious son, my beloved child? Even when I reproach him, I remember him with tenderness. My heart yearns for him. Surely I shall show him mercy, says the Lord.
The words took my breath away. That was my character speaking, the one whose story I’ve been trying to figure out. They’re not her exact words, but they express perfectly the core of her heartbreak.
They’re the words of a parent who can’t give up on a child, can’t stop hoping he’ll return, no matter how far he has strayed or how long he’s been gone or how unlikely it is that he’ll come back. On a more mundane scale, they’re the words of any parent who has ever longed to comfort her child even as she metes out the punishment he justly deserves. The poignancy moved me to tears.
Later, when I tried to explain the moment to my husband, I realized I wasn’t actually certain who Ephraim was, or what he had done that was so bad. So I did some research.
Turns out Ephraim is the second son of Joseph. In Genesis, Joseph brings him and his older brother Manasseh to their blind grandfather Jacob to be blessed. When Jacob puts his hand on the head of second-born Ephraim and begins reciting the blessing for the first-born, Joseph tries to move his father’s hand to Manasseh’s head. But Jacob insists he knows what he’s doing — while Manasseh will be great, Ephraim will be greater.
As Sabbath begins on Friday night, parents traditionally bless their children. The formula for sons is, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
The verse from the shofar service comes from the prophet Jeremiah, generations after Genesis. “Ephraim” refers to Ephraim’s descendants, who separated themselves from the rest of Israel. In later years, “Ephraim” was understood as all Jews living in exile—a tragedy that was seen as divine punishment for the people’s sins. Reading the verse today, on Rosh Hashanah, casts “Ephraim” as a metaphor for the individual embarking on the annual road to repentance.
Jeremiah’s message is meant to console and encourage. No matter how far you have strayed, the prophet says, God loves you like a good parent, and is rooting for you to come around. The message is so central to Rosh Hashanah that on the second day of the holiday it appears not only during the shofar service, but also at the end of a much longer excerpt from Jeremiah read during the first hour of services.
For years, I have been coming to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Every year I have heard that verse not once, but twice. And yet, this year was the first time I really heard it. But not in the way Jeremiah or the rabbis who constructed the high holiday services intended.
Does that mean I got it wrong? I don’t think so.
The point of Rosh Hashanah is to encourage us to try to be better people. In the words of the prayer book, that’s called returning to God. For me, it means nurturing within myself those same good qualities traditional Judaism ascribes to God. Seen through that lens, the verse about Ephraim becomes a model for forgiveness. It’s a reminder that everyone – the jerk who cut me off on the highway, the voter who supported the wrong candidate, the editor who doesn’t appreciate my writing – was once someone’s beloved child.
What’s true in life also holds when it comes to writing. When I get back to working on my story, I’ll see what would happen if I made the son the protagonist. In life and in fiction, one of the best ways to understand a situation is to picture it from the other guy’s point of view.