Reckoning With My Past Abortion on Yom Kippur

Last Rosh Hashana as the shofar beckoned us toward the new year, to become brave as the breath of the Baal Tekiyah, to feel time wrap us in its tallit of embrace and release; I heard the cries of women, of mothers who had to let go of what they held most close-their children.

The shofar, which in the past has been a celebration of connection to the higher spiritual realms and joyous journeys inward that although tinged by trepidation, always led me to a spiritual and emotional place of moving forward. But last year it blew my spirit elsewhere.

Midrash and text have likened the shofar sound to the wails of Sarah as she assumes Isaac has died at her husband’s hands. Hagar’s sobs from seeing and not being able to see her son die as she turns from him are also part of the shofar’s tomes, as are Sisera’s unnamed mother who stands at the window and weeps for her son, and Rachel’s weeping for her children on their exile. Women’s tears and laments contain much of our tradition, our mourning and tears illuminate our humanness, connection and responsibility and accountability we hold to each other.

 This primal agony surges and spins into a tornado contained by the wildness of too many feelings to sort. It reverberates with the power of a broken heart. It is soul seared grief that is soaked by tears. This shofar blew an unexpected torrent of notes of reckoning about something I had done years before. It could be silenced no more. It was time to see deeper and to make amends, to do teshuva.

It was the day after Yom Kippur. I looked out the window of the room I ‘attended’ services in the day before. The leaves wafted gracefully from their branches to the grass when the wind was a gentle lilt and then plummeted to the ground when the wind became a harsh gale.

This is what my prayers were. I was being shown that Nature and the Divine will not forget. I was heard, and I was seen. And now I am being led to see myself and not to forget. This year’s prayers were particularly deep as an old pain and grief joined the pain and grief of today. They mingled upward like the smoke of incense in the Temple.

I had an abortion when I was 22. Over the years the pain I hold about it would step forward. I would ride it till it retreated. But this year it came like a frost heave. It erupted from the deepest, most buried part of me. It expanded and contracted with the pressure of not being able to hold this any longer. It had to breathe. It had to speak. It had to be healed.

I was suffering from a serious back condition when I became pregnant. My doctor was not optimistic that I would be able to walk if I went to term. I would likely find myself in a wheelchair as a result. Although I knew in my gut this was the right choice, I also believed, and still do, that life begins at conception.  

So, life went back to what it was…except it did not. The primal topography of my being shifted like tectonic plates of Earth in days of formation. I did a series of paintings about it, I cut my hair, I wrote, but I remained and remain in the two pieces of this fissured state.  I had to learn to live with knowing I determined the fate of another being. While I took solace that Judaism does not have a non-negotiable restriction of abortion, especially when the mother’s health is at stake, I wanted to reconcile the morality of abortion and the iniquity of ending a life, but I found no way to do it. This year I was pushed toward finding a way. That way was asking for forgiveness.

I watched services from my couch. I found myself in a squatting position. My body was birthing my prayers. They were strewn with flowing tears and solid stillness much like the physical births I have nurtured in other women as a healer. I was in a liminal space between the present Yom Kippur and the pith of emotional pain. It was filled with an anguish that was too heavy for tears to move. It had been tethered to my soul for so long that it had been unable to receive any touch of comfort.

I faced the soul that I had taken toward its death and asked its forgiveness. I asked permission for connection in order to come to a deeper healing for both of us. Was I presumptuous to think this innocent one needed healing? I was not sure, but I did it anyway. It didn’t matter that I still felt my choice was correct, this was an act against another, and I needed to reconcile it. But I realized that I could not. I could only ask, again, forgiveness for the stark truth that there are some things that cannot be reconciled. We need to learn to live in the haziness of ambiguity

 This spirit was part of me. Did a part of me die along with it? Is that crevice of my inner geography made of my death as well as the death of this soul that was inside of me? I asked for forgiveness for myself from the Creator. I asked that this loss that will never leave, how could it, be taken to a place within myself where it can rest swaddled in love and compassion.

My heart reached toward my unborn child’s soul.  My invocations for forgiveness and peace squeezed my breath to a whimper, but my soul roared. It bellowed through my blood releasing decades of immobile torment. I was finally able to let the self-hatred and shame be washed away. I was being cleansed and nurtured on this most holy day. My child and I were held together by the Supernal’s strength of love for us both.

Today is the last day of Sukkot, the last of the High Holy Days. The rise and the dive of this time when inquiry of our darkness and celebration of our light heals and restructures us. It invites us to muster the faith that Spirit is supporting our walk. I have been in my inner Succah, my place of rest and recuperation. Each day when I shook my lulav and etrog, I did it for myself and for this child who is now wrapped peaceably within my heart.

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2 Responses to Reckoning With My Past Abortion on Yom Kippur

  1. I am sorry you suffered as you have. If you had asked for guidance you would have come to know that Judaism believes that the soul does not enter the infant until 3 independent breaths of air have been breathed by the born infant. I am sad that you incorporated beliefs from other faiths and from fables. I hope you have been able to comfort yourself after all these years. Bless you with peace.


    • Nanci Bern says:

      I do know that Judaism believes what you referred to, yet my kishkes told me otherwise. I could not reason my way out of my feelings. I do not feel that I committed a ‘sin’ yet I still impacted another life. I support whatever choice a woman makes. I did not ‘incorporate’ anything from anywhere else. That did not ever occur to me, so no need to feel ‘sad’.


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