This Yom Kippur, I did what I usually do. I went to synagogue for the opening kol nidrei service, and then I came home and spent the next however many hours in bed. I typically don't fast very well, so I knew in advance that I wasn't going to be spending the day in shul, and I'd planned ahead.
The morning before, I took the kids with me and we went to a great bookstore on the border of Mea Shearim, called Manny's. Manny's has tons and tons of Jewish books, and I wanted to find a good one to read when I was laid up in bed on Yom Kippur.
Last year, I spent most of Yom Kippur reading Rav Shalom's book on parenting with love. Every few minutes, I was calling my kids up the stairs to apologize to them for some other massive parenting mistake I'd been making, and I know that my 'parenting teshuva' on that holiest of days had a profound impact on my whole year.
This year, I wanted to be inspired and uplifted again - but I also wanted a quieter time of it. 5772 was tough, but great. I wanted 5773 to also be great, but in (B'ezrat Hashem) a much easier way.
The book I picked up was 'Nefesh Chaya', one in a series of books by Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus. I don't know a lot of factual details about Rabbi Pincus and his wife Chaya, It was only when I finished the book that I found out that the series had been published posthumously, as a tribute to Rabbi Pincus, his wife and one of his daughters, all of whom were killed in a terrible car crash more than a decade ago.
That information really brought me up short.
Because the book brought to life a couple, and a family unit, that was steeped in holiness, kindness, and self-sacrifice. Nefesh Chaya was a collection of Rabbi Pincus's thoughts on creating a strong Jewish home, and the crucially important role that we women play in that regard.
Then, there were later chapters devoted to his wife's life, and how she managed to combine being a caring mother (and grandmother) with running a Beis Yaacov (strictly religious) girl's school in the Israel development town of Ofakim, out in the Negev, AND doing more acts of kindness for her neighbours and community than could even be recounted.
The woman was making gefilte fish, from scratch, for half her neighbourhood, and delivering it before Shabbat every week.
I was inspired. I was awed. I was depressed.
There she was, with her massive family, her full time job and her other responsibilities, all squished into a two bedroom flat in Ofakim without any air-conditioning, doing the most amazing mitzvahs.
Here I was, with my small family, no working commitments, and my five bedroom, air-conditioned house, still struggling to get the washing done, the floors swept, and the supper made every night.
The evil inclination just loves getting people miserable on Yom Kippur. If it can get us miserable, it knows it's stuffed up our teshuva - because you can really only make teshuva when you're happy.
I went to talk to G-d about it all.
"G-d, I know I'm pathetic. I know I'm a million miles away from being anywhere near the level of the tremendously holy, good people you put in the world like Chaya Pincus et al. But even though I'm not her, and I'm not doing all the mitzvahs she was doing in her life, please reassure me that I'm still worth something to You, and You're still happy with me, and where I'm at."
I got an answer back by express delivery, that explained everything so nicely. Some people, like Chaya Pincus, are born into families of tremendous kedusha or holiness, and they build on the foundation they were given. They start life already up on floor 28 of Torah Towers; they can make a great kugel when they are still in their diapers; and they are full of goodness and giving right from the start.
Other people, aren't. Other people are born three miles down, in the deepest, darkest pit, where it appears that the light of Trah never even existed there. For years, they grope around, trying to escape the darkness, and to find the light that they are convinced exists - even though everyone around them keeps dragging them back into the gloom, and putting them down, and making it almost impossible to go up.
It may take those people 10, 20, 30, 40 years to poke their head out into daylight. When they do, even after all that toil and struggle, they are still only on the ground floor of Torah Towers.
But they've still arrived. They've still got there. They are living in a world where light, and Torah and G-d exists, and for them, that's a marvellous, amazing achievement.
Because they started three miles down, in the pitch black.
I finished the book, and even though I was feeling lousy, I decided to try and copy a tiny bit of the self-sacrifice of Chaya Pincus, and to go to shul for the closing Neila ceremony.
I prayed my heart out.
I felt great.
It's unlikely I'm ever going to make gefilte fish from scratch. It's unlikely I'll be the person volunteering to clean a sick neighbour's house, when my own house is usually a permanent mess. It's unlikely that I'll be dropping off big pots of soup to struggling neighbours (although, you never know…)
But that's OK. G-d knows that considering where I came from, considering my starting point, I've made an awful lot of progress over the last few years. I'm not a tzaddeket, but I'll settle for trying to be a good Jew. And when you've been three miles down, that's a lifetime's achievement all by itself.
* * *
Check out Rivka Levy's new book The Happy Workshop based on the teachings of Rabbi Shalom Arush