Here it is, the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, our most holiest of holidays, and I wake up mute. Stricken with laryngitis. What is the meaning of this, I ask? Why am I voiceless on this particular day, a day I should be spending in shul and with my closest family and friends? Instead of spending time in synagogue, I run to my acupunturist’s office to see if he can do magic to make my voice reappear. Instead of sharing matzoh ball soup with my Aunt Cooky, I am reheating leftovers and watching old movies in bed. Why?
My first thought is that God is punishing me for something I must have done wrong. They don’t call it Jewish guilt for nothing. My second thought is that maybe God is sending me a message that I should get off the radio. But that can’t be true, since I love it too much.
Laryngitis is familiar territory. I usually get it about once a year, and always in the fall. It has a pattern. If my voice shuts down completely, I am mute for an entire week. I can drink all the ginger tea in the world, and I do, but nothing will bring it back for at least seven full days once it has gone really dead. If I am lucky enough to retain a whisper, I can cut that to four days with a good massage. The massage breaks up the spasm and puts the fluid back where it belongs.
I do seem to contract laryngitis during periods of great stress. I came down with a memorable case during the week I ran for the Zoning Board of Appeals. My father stood with me on the campaign trail, pointing in the most endearing way, and saying “This is my daughter Lisa. Will you vote for her? She can’t speak.” I won by the way, proving the point that the public prefers politicians who keep silent. At least that way they can’t break promises they had no intention of keeping.
When you can’t talk, you can’t do a lot of things. You can’t answer your phone, because every time you try, the other person hangs up. You can’t make a call yourself because they think you are making an obscene phone call. In the days before e-mail (which was not as long ago as it seems) having laryngitis meant that I was on an enforced vacation. I am an attorney. You can’t make a deal when you can’t talk about it. For the last five years, I have been on the radio. Even more is at stake now.
This is the beginning of our New Year, a time when we Jews traditionally go inward, asking God for forgiveness as He and we tally our sins. We resolve to repent and do better in the future. We implore God to seal us and our loved ones into the Book of Life for another year. Our tradition is to ask forgiveness by throwing bread in running water, symbolically casting away our old sins and starting the year with a fresh, clean slate.
As I was walking toward the duck pond, bread in hand, I had a revelation. I knew why God had struck me voiceless today. When you have laryngitis, you are forced to conduct a dialogue with yourself in your own head. People don’t pay much attention to you when you can’t answer them back. You become a non-person. Most people aren’t patient enough even to wait for you to finish writing down your sentence on a notepad. Try pretending to be mute for one whole day and see how much of life you are disconnected from, how you more fully inhabit your own cerebral space.
There is an awful lot of stuff going on in my personal life right now. I have hard choices to make. This Rosh Hashanah is not as unencumbered as some others; there is so much transition going on with every member of my family. I like things to be settled. I often refer to myself as a tree that plants roots and grows branches. Downward for a strong and wide foundation, upward for growth and learning. But life comes at us anyway. Life forces us to be unsettled. Life shakes our complacency. It rearranges the furniture. No matter how many people I ask for advice, in the end I have to be the decider. To decide well, I need that enforced quiet that comes from having only one’s own thoughts as company. I need to converse with God and myself. And I need to be surrounded by enough quiet to hear some of the answers.
I have decided to be grateful for this year’s bout of laryngitis. Perhaps it will do me some good. In the meantime, I am praying it will disappear by Monday. I still need to be on the radio.