The Days of Awe feel more like days of woe this year

Growing up in Washington, D.C., I had plenty to worry about. Even before the Sept. 11 attacks brought terrorism to my backyard, I knew subconsciously that if ever America were attacked, we’d probably be first.

Washingtonians stockpiled water during the Gulf War and non-perishables after 9/11; at school we had terror drills, all of us lined up like ducks, marching to safety behind thick concrete walls.

But there are some disasters you just can’t prepare for.

As I watched the financial markets deteriorate last month, at first I shrugged it off. I have a 401(k) and some stock, but I’m not retiring anytime soon. I still have a job, I can pay my rent. Sure, things are bad. They’re just not that bad for me.

But as the days wore on, and things got worse, I started to get more and more depressed. Curled up in bed at 9 p.m. reading Alan Moore’s Cold War-themed comic book “Watchmen,” I began to have a distinct sense of déjà vu. In the book, the United States and the Soviet Union are mere minutes from making good on Mutually Assured Destruction. People wander the world in a murky daze, fearing for their lives and livelihoods as each morning’s paper brings even graver news and the doomsday clock edges ever closer to midnight.

Sound familiar?

In times like these, it’s so tempting to turn to religion for help and answers. When I was a kid, one of my favorite prayers (yes, I had those) was from the Hallel service: “Min ha’metzar karati yah, anani ba’merchav yah” — from the depths I called out to God, and God answered me with abundance. Being a somewhat cynical child, I didn’t really believe that God would answer me if I called out. But I liked the prayer because I liked to think it could happen. I liked to think that if I were ever really, truly in the direst of straits, I could pray to a higher power and, somehow, I would be saved.

Sure, God had never answered my prayers before. But I’d never been in real trouble before, either.

One particularly bad morning, I woke up and couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. I knew the Dow would be down another 400 points. I knew the government would have some foolhardy plan to borrow a trillion dollars from China. What was the point? Our entirecountry was hanging on the edge of a cliff. Falling off was inevitable. Why bother leaving my nice, warm cocoon?

In the depths of my malaise, I thought of God. And lying there in my dark room, I said the prayer. Min ha’metzar karati yah. Anani ba’merchav yah. Do something. Save us.

When my alarm went off for the fourth time, I dragged myself out of bed. Sitting down sleepily at my computer, I performed my morning ritual of checking my favorite news sites.

The Dow was already down. The U.S. was borrowing a trillion dollars from China. HP was cutting 24,000 jobs. The credit market was drying up like a plum in an oven. And then there were the unwritten headlines: Millions losing their homes. Unaffordable health care. Half the country on the verge of poverty.

What had happened to my prayer? Didn’t God care? What more could it take for God to answer me with abundance, to reach out a hand and offer some solution, some salvation?

The Jewish New Year has just begun, but it’s been hard for me to feel happy. This year, Rosh Hashanah felt more like Yom Kippur.

It’s not easy to keep the faith as the world seems to crumble around us. But a part of me hopes beyond hope that God’s silence, too, is a sign that God is listening — that it is a message in and of itself, telling us that we can answer our own prayers. That these aren’t the depths. We can pull ourselves out of this without a divine hand.

Either way, our fate is up to us.

There are no crystal balls or starlit signs that can tell us what this new year will bring. With luck, our current situation will be like a bad dress rehearsal.

So I’ll keep praying from the depths. And as long as God doesn’t answer, I can imagine that it could always be worse.

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected]