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I had no intention of writing two posts on the High Holidays, but something happened the other day while playing tennis with Sammy that was in sync with the spirit of the season.
Sammy has been playing tennis since the age of four. He has progressed from group lessons to private lessons twice a week. He truly loves the sport and started to play competitively last year. His game has improved exponentially and there is no longer a need for Cameron and me to take a little off our strokes when we hit with him.
But while Sammy has become hard to beat, we are still bigger, stronger and more experienced. No matter how close the games are, more often than not, one of us is on the winning side. This is hard for Sammy. We donâ€™t care if we win, but Sammy has an intense desire to beat us.
When I was a kid I too wanted to beat my parents. Winning against them symbolized a kind of independence. It said I wasnâ€™t a baby; I was strong enough to beat an adult. So I understand Sammyâ€™s pursuit of victory. I just donâ€™t like it when the intensity with which he pursues his goal leads him down the path of unsportsmanlike behavior. This is what happened the other day.
Sammy had won the first set 6-2. I was up 2-0, 40-30 in the middle of the third game of the second set. I could see Sammyâ€™s frustration building at having easily given-up the first two games. Now I had the chance to take a 3-0 lead if I won the next point.
I served, he returned the ball and after a short rally he hit it out. Sammy didnâ€™t like the call but instead of asking if I was sure that the ball was out, he exploded, â€śThat ball was in!â€ť
â€śIt looked clearly out to me,â€ť I said. â€śIt landed in the green space behind the baseline.â€ť
â€śNo it didnâ€™t! It was in,â€ť he yelled. â€śYouâ€™re a cheater! You just called it out so you could win!â€ť
â€śSammy, Iâ€™m your mom. I love you. Why would I cheat?â€ť
â€śYou do cheat!â€ť he shouted before he started to serve the next game.
Â As I waited for his serve, I hoped that hitting the ball might help him work out his anger and frustration.
â€śZero serving three,â€ť he said. â€śBut it should be deuce!â€ť
â€śOut,â€ť I called when his serve landed wide.
â€śI donâ€™t even know why I play with you. You make me so frustrated. I hate you!â€ť Sammy screamed. This insult was followed by a cry of â€śUggh,â€ť as he fired his next serve.
The serve was a bullet and the force of the shot made me think that he was channeling his emotions into better play. But I was wrong. I soon saw that rather than raising his game he was spiraling into a complete meltdown. After I won the set, I suggested that we go home and continue the match the next day.
Sammy protested and I agreed to play more, but after the first game of the third set I decided I had enough of Sammyâ€™s unsportsmanlike behavior. The tantrum wasnâ€™t working itself out. It was time to set some boundaries.
â€śIâ€™m done,â€ť I said.
â€śIâ€™m tired of listening to you use hurtful language. Iâ€™m tired of you throwing your racquet and whacking the fence. Iâ€™m going home,â€ť I said in a calm, but stern voice as I picked up balls.
Sammy walked over, sat at the net, put his head in his hands and cried. I went over and sat too. â€śCan I give you a hug?â€ť I asked.
â€śNo! I donâ€™t deserve one,â€ť he mumbled.
â€śSometimes when weâ€™re angry and frustrated a hug is exactly what we deserve,â€ť I replied. â€śI may want to believe this because Iâ€™m your mother, but I donâ€™t think that you really meant what you said today. Your words and actions were your anger and frustration speaking.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m sorry,â€ť he sobbed.
â€śI know you are. Listen, Iâ€™m your mom. I love you. I will never cheat you. Iâ€™m also human and humans are flawed. Sometimes Iâ€™ll get the calls right and sometimes Iâ€™ll make mistakes â€“ just like you. But Iâ€™ll always try my best to make an honest call.â€ť
Sammy inched closer. We hugged. â€śIâ€™m really, really sorry,â€ť he said.
â€śI know. Sometimes we say things that we know are wrong or that we donâ€™t mean, but because we are so emotional we canâ€™t seem to stop the words from coming out. I know you didnâ€™t mean what you said. I forgive you.â€ť I gave Sammy a kiss and then said, â€śI love you â€“ always.â€ť
I didnâ€™t intend to make our tennis game a High Holiday teachable moment. It just happened to be a reminder that as we seek to return to wholeness we not only want Godâ€™s forgiveness, but also each otherâ€™s.Â
As the High Holidays approach, Iâ€™ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when Iâ€™ve been my best self and those when I havenâ€™t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As Iâ€™ve gone through this psychological housecleaning Iâ€™ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.
Iâ€™ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are wellâ€¦minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?
As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holidayâ€™s food restrictions. Sammy said, â€śWeâ€™ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re right,â€ť I said. â€śSome years Iâ€™m good at making sure we keep it, and others years Iâ€™m not. Itâ€™s always easier when weâ€™re home. Since weâ€™re away Iâ€™ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t think God cares,â€ť replied Sammy. â€śI donâ€™t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I donâ€™t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.â€ť
At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point â€“ eating matzah instead of bread on Passover wonâ€™t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.
Then I found an article, â€śA Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,â€ť that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless â€śuniversal spirit.â€ť Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, â€śIâ€™ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of Godâ€¦ I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.â€ť
After re-reading Pittsâ€™ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy â€“ care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Donâ€™t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if weâ€™re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.
So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year Iâ€™ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I donâ€™t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.