As I write this, Jews across the world are preparing for the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is the day on which we seek forgiveness for the sins of the past year and ask God to inscribe us and those we love in the book of life. We light candles for those we have lost and say special prayers.
It is and always has been a painful holiday for me, and not just because of the fast that begins at sundown.
This year, I will light a candle for my father, who has been gone for more than half of my life, and for my mother, going on seven years, and for my beloved friends Judy and Kath.
Facing those candles each year, a testament to the fragility of life, is itself a lesson in gratitude, in the blessing of good health and family (may the evil eye keep away).
And that great blessing is also my source of guilt.
My mother was an anxious and depressed person. She took to her bed. She was not there for others. She wasted much of her life worrying, bemoaning, reliving her sorrows rather than enjoying what she had. I joke that I inherited those nana genes. But I get up every day. I work three jobs. I give of myself, sometimes to a fault.
I have always believed that it is not in the words of the prayer book but in the way I live my life that I show my faith. I have not been a perfect mother or sister; I was not a perfect daughter. But I know there has never been a day when I did not do the best I could.
I have been a loving and generous friend. I have helped more people get jobs than full-time career counselors. I have helped more young people get into the school of their dreams than most college counselors. I have given my time and my heart to friends and friends of friends and people I met only once. I don't count. I never say no. I am, I think, I know, a very good person.
But I am not such a happy one. I should be happy that my children are off in the world, doing well, strong and independent. I am grateful, but I spend more time feeling lonely, staring at their empty bedrooms and feeling like the best years of my life are behind me than I do counting my blessings.
I lost close friends and my father when they were years younger than I am now, but I spend more time fretting about getting old, about dashed dreams and memories, good and bad, than I do feeling blessed to be as old as I am.
I tell others the story of Lot and his wife, whom God promised to save from Sodom and Gomorrah if only they did not look back. But Lot's wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. When my friends relive the past, get caught up in who did what to whom, in what they have lost and what was taken from them, I tell them to remember the lesson of Lot's wife, to look forward and not backward.
And then I find myself crying about the past, about what went wrong and what went right, and mostly what is lost.
I write often about what I know is true: that life is precious, that we must live every day, grateful, loving, cherishing, knowing how lucky we are, celebrating the freedom and comfort that people all over the world will never know. I write this because I believe it.
And on Yom Kippur, I ask God to forgive me for not living that way each day. I ask not for the wisdom to know what is true, but for the grace to live that way, not simply to tell the story of Lot's wife, but to live its lesson.
Happy New Year.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.
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