It was early autumn and the days were getting shorter and the year 2020 was wearing heavily on me. My husband turned 70 and the big plans we had to celebrate this milestone got dramatically curtailed due to Covid.
Overall, I was feeling a heaviness that bordered on despair.
It was a Friday afternoon when my phone dinged. It was a text from my sister wishing me a good Shabbos — a salutation for welcoming the Jewish Sabbath, which begins on Friday at sunset and ends on Saturday when the first star appears in the night sky.
Her text was one word. It simply said, “Shabbos.”
We’d been sending this text to each other every Friday for months now. My sister was navigating a challenging health crisis in isolation and this simple ritual became a way for us to touch in at the end of each week — our way of saying, “You there? Did you make it through another week? I love you.”
This particular Friday night, rather than simply reply to my sister’s text with a “Shabbos” in return, I decided to pull out the candle holders that my husband and I had bought in Israel years ago when we visited Jerusalem.
They were the candle holders collecting dust on the shelf in our dining room. I pulled out two emergency candles from the utility drawer that I had bought on Amazon during the recent electricity outage due to fire danger in the Bay Area. They are about the same size as Shabbat candles.
I put the candles into the holders, melting the bottoms so they stood sturdy, and lit them.
Then I sat and watched.
Though I could feel it welling up in my voice, I could not muster the prayer that is traditionally recited when the candles are lit. After shedding my allegiance to the Jewish religion years ago, I just could not put out into the universe a prayer that acknowledged allegiance to a commandment made by a God I did not know, nor cared to know.
So instead I just sat there watching, quieting my mind, and listening.
Soon … I began to feel my ancestors.
I did not feel the prayer.
The prayer showed up as a memory locked into my neural circuitry. It felt familiar, but not alive.
I did not feel God.
The God of Judaism always felt patriarchal to me and, frankly, somewhat contrived — way too anthropomorphized and static for me.
Yet I did feel something when I lit those candles — a whisper of something mysterious and grand — a familiar awareness descending upon me.
So I leaned into that feeling and from there emerged the sense of my ancestors — those people who lived before me and who lit these same candles for centuries … possibly for millennia.
I could feel them around me in the miraculous way we might experience something or someone when time collapses and memory and imagination converge. I felt them everywhere and eternally reflected in the flames before me.
I then granted permission to my voice to speak as I found my own prayer.
It went something like this …
I light these candles in honor of my ancestors, who for centuries enacted this same ritual. I send out my love and gratitude to you for all that you endured and laid down so that I might be here today.
I light these candles as a way of marking time… acknowledging that another groundhog week has passed in these Covid times. I realize that now is a good time to pause and reflect, to rest, and to remember the sacred holiness that continues to breathe life into this magnificent world.
The following week, our six-year-old granddaughter Mae came for a sleepover and we lit the candles together. I explained to her that her father was born to two Jewish parents and, even though her dad does not celebrate any of the Jewish holidays or rituals, he shares the same ancestry with me and with all those who light candles on Friday nights.
The following week, Mae’s ten-year-old sister came for a sleepover and we did it again. And when our eight-year-old came, we did it with her, as well.
Now, most every Friday, we have a sleepover with one of them and we light the Shabbat candles and tell stories … weaving in tales of Jewish holidays and traditions into our conversations … bringing our granddaughters into a relationship with their Jewish ancestors.
Simultaneously I mend and tend to my troubled relationship with Judaism.
It’s highly likely that, without the Covid context, this renewal would not have happened. Pre-Covid the pace and content of our lives simply did not deliver up the proper conditions for Shabbat candles to be rekindled and shared with our grandchildren — and I was not in a place of wanting to make room for it.
It’s mysterious how things unfold in our lives — and especially rewarding when we lean into the hard times and allow them to yield their fruits.
Now I have a new ritual …
Instead of texting a word to my sister every Friday, I take a shot of the candles I lit flickering in the dusk and send a photo instead.