But What If I'm Not Ready?
Preparing to be unprepared
When I was a kid, I played a lot of hide and seek. I always prefered to be the seeker, instead of the hider, mostly because I found the process of finding a place to hide to be deeply stressful. Sure, there were some go-to places—the nook in my bedroom between my bed and the radiator, the drapes in the living room next to the floor lamp—but when those options had been exhausted, I often found myself increasingly anxious. I would run in and out of rooms, head spinning, as the voice of the seeker got closer and closer to those six key words. “Ready or not, here I come!”
I’ve been thinking about that phrase, “Ready or not, here I come,” a lot lately. Unlike most adults, I have lived my entire life on the academic calendar, which means September brings a new school year along with the new Jewish year. This means that, come September and Tishrei, my anxiety vibrates on two frequencies, one somewhat mundane and the other existential. One involves thinking about whether my students will learn a lot, and what I should wear for the first day of school, and how I’ll make sure I have time to eat breakfast and go to the gym while still making it to work on time. The other asks whether I have been anything other than deficient in the past year, calculating my failures and my triumphs as I wonder if I will ever measure up to the person I aspire to be. These two waves of anxiety each ebb and flow, one overtaking the other and then switching again, but never diminishing until, finally, the rhythm of October and the quietness of Cheshvan settle over me, allowing me to rest until the next time the cycle begins again.
And now, inevitably and yet surprisingly, the calendar has reached this moment again. It calls out to me: Rachel, ready or not, here we come. But this year, maybe more than ever, I want to yell out, No! Not yet! I’m not ready. Please, I need more time.
Because here’s the thing. In many ways, I’ve never felt less ready in my life. Everything is moving, but I am standing still. I, a regular shul goer my entire life, have not stepped foot in a synagogue since Parshat Zachor in 2020. I used to daven multiple times a day; now I can barely remember the last time I said Shacharit. Shabbat tables that used to be filled with friends and family are now set for only two. The devastation wrought by Covid combined with the joys and challenges of new parenthood have separated me from the community that I love, and removed me further from my relationship with God. Next week, for the first time in 18 months, I will join with my community on the street of the neighborhood that has been my home my whole life, and cry out for another year that I hope I merit to deserve. And yet, I feel inadequate. I haven’t done the work. I’m not ready!
But still, the rule of the universe is that time keeps moving. Ready or not, here it comes.
As I let this vulnerability wash over me, I’ve found some comfort in the words of the Hineni prayer. Hineni is said by the shaliach tzibbur before Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, acknowledging the audacity of the requests made during the Musaf amidah. Recognizing the chutzpah inherent in asking God for another year in the Book of Life, the shaliach tzibbur begins by saying:
Behold, I stand here, impoverished in good deeds, perturbed and frightened in fear [of God,] Who is enthroned upon the praises of Yisrael. I have come to stand and to plead before You in behalf of Your people, Yisrael, who have appointed me their messenger; even though I am not worthy or qualified for the task.
“Even though I am not worthy or qualified for the task.” Even the shaliach tzibur, who has prepared for days or weeks or months, isn’t ready.
In fact, our liturgy reminds us, we will never be ready. As humans, we are inherently flawed, and it is our way to feel inadequate. In fact, perhaps the person who is most unworthy to beseech God is the one is certain that they are worthy. Humility allows us to see our weaknesses, and acknowledging those weaknesses is what allows us to strive to change and do better.
In his book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew writes about this process of seeing our failings is the only way to change them:
I have thought these things a thousand times before. Still, to get them out makes a tremendous difference. I know them, but as long as they are unspoken, I can ignore them... Now that I have said them out loud to another human being, they are out there in the world. It would be much harder to ignore them anymore; harder to deny them; harder to act in a way that failed to take them into account.
So perhaps, instead of trying to be ready—when that readiness will never come—I should instead prepare myself to feel unprepared. Rather than fighting the anxiety of trying to find that perfect proverbial hiding place, I will stand, raw and exposed, ready to be found.
Shana tova u’metukah to all of you. May it be a year of sweetness, light, growth, and togetherness.
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I want to end with a special shout out to all of the rabbis, cantors, and other synagogue professionals and volunteers out there who are working around the clock to create beautiful and meaningful prayer experiences for us in the face of impossible conditions. We love you, we are grateful to you, and we hope you can find some nourishment for yourselves, the way you nourish so many others.