I love the idea of being ready. And on a small scale, it’s entirely possible. Every morning before I walk with my son out to the corner where the school bus will pick him up, I go down a mental checklist: did I pack him a lunch? How about a mid-morning snack? Is today library day, was I supposed to help him find library books to return? Or is it karate day, in which case, did I remember to pack his gi in his backpack? Is he ready to venture forth for another day of first grade?
I do the same thing with regard to my own preparedness for the day. Do I have coffee in the to-go cup to take with me to work, is my kippah (color coordinated with that day’s wardrobe) securely pinned to the top of my head? Do I have sunglasses, car keys, wallet, cellphone? Okay, in that case I’m good to go, I’m ready to walk out the door.
But on a bigger scale, there’s no such thing as being ready. The Jewish Days of Awe (also known as the High Holidays) begin at the next new moon, and as a congregational rabbi I know there’s no way I can be fully ready.
My halftime job ramps up to fulltime-plus at this season and I still can’t get everything done to my own satisfaction. There are eight big services to plan, not to mention the weeklong festival that begins four days after Yom Kippur comes to its end. (I sometimes say to my Christian colleagues that it’s as though Christmas and Easter, the days of the year when all of their twice-a-year parishioners show up and expect big meaningful sermons, came ten days apart.) My sermons could always use more tinkering. I could always spend more time with my cantor practicing melodies and transitions. No matter what I do, I’ll never be as ready as I want to be.
And what’s true for me as a working pulpit rabbi is doubly true for me as a human being — and for all of us. On Rosh Hashanah, tradition says, we stand before the Creator of All Who regards us in judgment. The liturgy for that day teaches that the book of our lives reads from itself: the book of our choices and our actions over the last year, signed by our own hand. No matter how much inner work I do over the coming weeks, there’s no way I can really be ready to stand before God and face full awareness of everywhere I’ve fallen short. Every act of kindness I could have performed. Every good boundary I failed to draw. Every extra effort I could have put in.
No matter what I do, I can’t truly be ready to stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and face my own autobiography. I can’t truly be ready to stand before God on Yom Kippur and make complete teshuvah, re/turn myself in the right direction again and relinquish my attachments to my mistakes and my old stories. Here’s the kicker: since I can’t be ready, I have to do it anyway.
This is true with every big life transition: changing career, moving house, marriage, divorce. Even when we think we know what we’re getting into, the truth is that we can never fully know. Even when we think we know who we’re marrying, or why we’re ending a marriage. Even when we do everything we can to prepare for change, we can’t be wholly ready when the change comes.
On a grand scale, readiness is a fiction. I can be ready to get into my car and drive to work in the morning, but I can’t be truly ready to do the life’s work that always awaits me. I can’t be truly ready to take a leap into becoming more myself than I am now. I can’t be truly ready to change the things that aren’t working in my life, or to strike out in a new direction. None of us can.
And since we can’t be ready, we have to do it anyway. This is the challenge of authentic spiritual life: recognizing that we’re not ready to grow – and that if we wait until we feel fully ready, we may never grow at all. It’s autumn in the northern hemisphere, and where I live the leaves are beginning to turn. I’m not ready for summer to end, not ready for the poignancy of saying goodbye to another season. And it will happen whether or not I feel ready. All I can do is seek to embrace change even though some part of me wants to drag my heels and protest.
Whether it’s the turning of the maple leaves or the turnings of my life circumstance, it’s time to give up on the fantasy of being ready. All I can do is accept that I’m not ready, and still embrace the decision to leap.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).