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Finish Line

Tehilla Shapiro

No matter how hard I tried, though, I never seemed to make it to candlelighting on time

Thursday, October 06, 2016

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Teetering on the brink of insanity. That was me in the months after my traumatic divorce.

Crying on the bus, at the kitchen table, at work. Staying awake way into the night, unable to unwind. Trying to stay on top of all the myriad responsibilities that came along with running a home and taking care of small children on my own. Feeling lost, alone, devastated at the dashing of my dreams. If I made it through the week without falling apart, it was a miracle.

But before I could crash on my couch Friday night and be swallowed up by the oblivion of sleep, there was still one more hurdle to overcome: making it to candlelighting on time.

Er… well, not exactly on time, but at least before shkiah. That was the important thing, right? The siren could blare but I still had plenty of time to finish washing the floor, throw food into the oven, clear the muktzeh items off the table, shower and change, and find Shabbos clothing for my kids.

After all, here in Yerushalayim, that siren goes off way before anyone needs to light, I would assure myself, trying to ignore the guilt that engulfed me each week. In my rational mind, I would never light so close to shkiah, but as I tried desperately to beat the clock, the justifications came fast and furious. No matter how hard I tried, though, I never seemed to make it to candlelighting on time.

It’s not my fault, I told myself as I struck the match, breathless from the exertion. I used to have someone else to set up the candles and now it’s just one more thing to deal with before Shabbos. I used to have someone else around to keep the kids busy and help me clean up and…

All through that miserable spring and summer, I found more and more things to accomplish each week, more and more things to keep me from reaching the finish line. When my neighbor’s four-year-old knocked on the door one Friday afternoon and asked if he could play, I let him in, wondering, Who in the world sends their kid over to someone’s house on Erev Shabbos? Later, as I got to know his mother better, I realized that she assumed I’d say no if it wasn’t a good time. But back then, I was too overwhelmed for the option to even occur to me.

Another week, after lighting precariously close to shkiah, I noticed my bedroom light was still on. Oh no! I can’t spend a whole Shabbos with the light on…. And I need my sleep so badly. Quickly, I had my three-year-old turn it off, pretending not to notice what time it was.

And then came the week when I missed my deadline entirely. I don’t remember what made that week different than any other, but there I was, the minute hand on my watch at the exact point that the calendar said was the cutoff time.

I lit anyway, but the guilt and recriminations attacked me almost at once. How could you have done that? Why can’t you get your act together? What is the matter with you?

I tried, after that, to make it to the finish line a few minutes earlier. I never again lit that close to the red zone, but my Shabbos prep methods hadn’t changed.

Fast forward several months. Slowly I’d come to terms with my new status. I made a few new friends who were also divorced, and I no longer felt so alone. More importantly, I finally found a therapist who could help me sort out all the tangled and torturous emotions battling inside. A measure of calm returned to my life.

But I still hadn’t solved my Erev Shabbos dilemma. I seemed stuck in perpetual last-minute mode.

One day I picked up the phone to call a rav from my hometown. I’d never spoken to him before, but someone had suggested that he could help with a divorce-related crisis I was going through. When I explained the situation, he regretfully told me he couldn’t be of assistance, but asked if there was anything else I needed.

It was shortly before the Yamim Noraim, and the incident from the year before rose to my head. Before I could lose my courage, I blurted out my sin. “Last year I lit candles too close to shkiah. Maybe it was even after shkiah, I’m not sure. What should I do?”

Without even missing a beat, he responded, “That’s what teshuvah is all about.”

There was no shock that I, a Bais Yaakov girl from a good, frum home, could have fallen so far. No reproof, no guilt-inducing recriminations. That’s it? I thought, wondering if I’d heard him correctly.

“So… so what do I do?”

“Don’t people in Yerushalayim light candles 40 minutes before shkiah?” he continued gently. “Why don’t you aim for that time from now on, so you don’t have this problem again?”

“Okay,” I stuttered, and hung up the phone, an indescribable feeling of relief flooding through me. There was a solution to my problem. And it was called teshuvah. I could say I was sorry to Hashem, and He would forgive me. I didn’t have to carry this burden with me for the rest of my life.

That week, I carefully calculated how long it would take me to wash the floor, finish my food prep, and put the house together, and then got started with plenty of time to spare. When I lit candles within a minute or two of the siren, no one applauded (my kids didn’t really know the difference), but I could picture the Heavenly badge of honor being handed down.

And when I recited Vidui in shul that year, I asked Hashem to forgive me for my, gulp, probable chillul Shabbos, and promised to be more careful. No more cheating for me. I was aiming for the siren now, and that was that.

Many years have passed since that heartfelt teshuvah and commitment to start over. I can’t say I always reach the finish line, that is, the candles lit exactly at the 40-minute siren each week, though I certainly try. Some weeks I’m five to ten minutes late; if I’m really behind schedule, it could even be up to 20. But I find that the last-minute things don’t take forever if you know what you’re really aiming for.

I’ve never gotten that close to shkiah again, and b’ezras Hashem I never will. 

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