The book of Judges contains some powerful stories. Some years ago I wrote a trio of poems exploring three of those stories and the women who feature in them: the judge and prophet Devorah, Yael who slew the general Sisera, and the nameless daughter of Yiftach (in English, his name is usually rendered Jephthah.)
Tekufat tevet, the winter solstice, is regarded as the date when Yiftach's daughter was killed. These are dark stories, but powerful ones. Today's the solstice, so I thought I'd share my trio of poems arising out of the book of Judges. If this interests you, don't miss Alicia Ostriker's long poem / ritual script Jephthah's Daughter: A Lament, available at Tel Shemesh.
Beneath her palm tree, Devorah
(the honey bee, her sting intact)
judged the acts of the Israelites
the people came with gifts
of oil and flour and yearling lambs
and she answered them with justice
she sent for Barak in his leathers
words fell from her mouth like honey
and he yearned to taste her sweetness
come with me, he pleaded
I will relinquish my own glory
if I can have you by my side
nine hundred iron chariots thundered
the Infinite cast panic like a spell
and all Sisera's army was slain
and Devorah slept, and dreamed
Sisera stumbles into a woman's tent
Jael's doors open wide to let him in
he drinks milk fermented in goatskin
he slides into sleep: her tent pin rests
at his sweaty temple: she drives it home
Early sunset in early November. Five years ago.
The fingertips on my left hand ache faintly this afternoon. When I haven't led services in two weeks, my guitar calluses begin to wear away.
It felt good to pray in our sanctuary again. We were only seven, this morning, but it's a gift to be able to sing with six people I have known for years.
Driving home I smiled at the line, stretching across the leafless hills, where the purple of distant bare trees gives way to the frosting of high-altitude snow.
I am grateful for the quiet whirr of the washing machine rotating our clothes, the even quieter hiss of wood crackling in the fireplace.
Even though I think I'm prepared, tomorrow I'll be startled by how early the sun goes down.
Equinox and solstice photo courtesy of NASA.
The September equinox was yesterday.
Back at the end of June, I was blessed to celebrate Rosh Chodesh (new moon) with the women of my congregation, and this past June, the start of Tammuz fell right around the time of the June solstice -- what is, in our hemisphere, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. We celebrated with a havdalah ritual for the turn of the seasons, and it was wondrous.
Ever since then, I've been meaning to create a similar ritual for the fall equinox. And I did create one! I just didn't manage to post it in advance. (Please forgive me. Life's been a bit hectic around here lately.) Enclosed with this post is a havdalah ritual which marks and sanctifies the division between summer and fall.
What's the use of posting such a ritual after the equinox has passed? Well -- some sources indicate that while 9/22 is the equinox, the day when we will actually experience equal hours of daylight and darkness is Tuesday. So I think there is meaning in observing this special havdalah anytime between now and Tuesday, anytime between now and Yom Kippur.
Deep thanks to Rabbi Jill Hammer, whose Tishrei wisdom at Tel Shemesh provided much of the inspiration for this havdalah!
Download FallEquinoxHavdalah [pdf]
Leaves under water. Margaret Lindley Pond, Williamstown.
First day of fall. The hillsides' green has shifted, yellow beginning to reveal itself as chlorophyll starts to hide away. I think of John Jerome's Stone Work, of how he wrote about yellow leaves falling, about the old year becoming mulch.
After the rush and flurry of September -- the start of the Hebrew school year, the first Family Shabbat service, Drew starting preschool, the spiritual work of leading two days' worth of Rosh Hashanah services -- it feels strange and wondrous to have a weekend off. Ethan takes Drew to Caretaker Farm; I stay home with a cup of coffee, eat challah with honey, knead bread dough, get the dishwasher running.
It's time to begin moving the summer clothes back into the attic and bringing the fall wardrobe back out again. In the span of a week we've moved from weather which makes me want sandals and flowing linen to weather which makes me want bluejeans and layers, socks and closed-toed shoes.
I love summer. I was born and reared in south Texas; I bask in the heat. And every year I brace myself against the darkening of the days. In high summer I think: how will I ever survive when the sun goes down at 4:30 in the afternoon? It seems inconceivable that we will spend so much of the year in the cold and the dark.
But then the Days of Awe roll around, and the leaves start to turn, and I realize I have missed autumn. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is to watch the mountains' slow color-shifting dance. I'd forgotten the appeal of cozy sweaters, of patterned tights, of Sundays watching football, of pumpkins brightening our doorsteps.
It's not cold enough yet for the real winter wear -- the fleece-lined jeans, the heavy wool sweaters. They still seem as implausible as armor, so they stay in their boxes...for now. But the summer clothes go into the attic, armload by armload, and the autumn clothes emerge. By the end of the morning I am sniffling like mad, my allergies reawakened by the inevitable encounter with our household's particular brand of dust.
But my closet is transformed. Gone are the flowy bright skirts and tanktops, replaced with velvet and corduroy and denim. I remember again how much I gravitate toward brown and purple at this time of year -- a mirroring of the colors our hillsides will take on once the leaves have offered their final farewell.
We move through so many gates, so many doorways, at this time of year. From summer into fall; from the old year into the new; from anticipation into celebration; from the light half of the year to the dark half of the year. What will be nurtured and nourished in us during the season now beginning? What gifts will the velvety darkness of fall and winter offer this year? What qualities will I clothe myself in as the new season unfolds?
For an explanation of the equinox, including a truly gorgeous photograph of the earth seen from space at both equinoxes and both solstices, try Autumnal equinox: Equal Hours of Daylight and Darkness? Or Not?
You might also enjoy the poem I posted a few years ago on the autumn equinox, titled, appropriately, Equinox.
Tonight at sundown we'll enter into the new lunar month of Tamuz. In a day or two, we'll reach the solstice -- in the northern hemisphere where I live, this is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year which is also always the beginning of the days starting to shorten again. The name of this month on the Jewish calendar recalls the Sumerian deity Tamuz, who died at this season and went into the underworld. Like Tamuz, we too will experience a kind of remembered death during the season to come, as we descend into mourning for the temple which has long fallen.
I've spent the past few weeks collecting teachings about the month of Tamuz in Jewish tradition (the Tammuz page at Tel Shemesh is extraordinarily helpful) and about the summer solstice in Jewish tradition (hat tip once again to Rabbi Jill Hammer; also to Rabbi T'mimah Ickovitz for her solstice teachings) and preparing a short ritual for the new moon of Tamuz which is also a ritual of havdalah, separation, between the spring now ending and the summer we're about to begin.
Tonight (many of) the women of my congregation will gather in my backyard for this havdalah new moon ritual and then for some learning about this new moon and about the solstice in Jewish tradition. There are some tough things about Tamuz. In the coming month we'll remember the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem; we'll enter into the Three Weeks, the period called bein ha-meitzarim, "between the narrow straits," during which we prepare ourselves to mourn the fallen temple and the broken world at Tisha b'Av.
And yet this month contains blessings, too. Rosh Chodesh Tamuz is the birthday of the patriarch Joseph. Like the Sumerian god Tamuz, Joseph descended into the earth -- not into the underworld, but into a pit, and then into Egypt. And it was because of that descent that he was able to ascend so high, and to bring his entire people with him. May our descent during this season also be for the sake of ascent!
For those who are interested: here are two pages of collected teachings about Tamuz and the summer solstice, and also a two-page ritual for entering into summer / celebrating havdalah ha-tekufah, a solstice havdalah. (This is what we'll be working with at our Rosh Chodesh group tomorrow night, so if you're part of that group, you might want to skip these downloads in order to encounter the ritual and the teachings fresh. Or, you might want to download them in advance in order to spend more time with them! As you prefer.) I am deeply indebted to Rabbi Jill Hammer, from whom this ritual is adapted. Feel free to use and enjoy. Chodesh tov / a good new month to all.
Our back deck: table and chairs buried in snow.
I've spent enough time around neopagans of various sorts to know that today is a cross-quarter (a day which falls precisely between a solstice and an equinox.) In the Northern hemisphere, today is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. We're halfway between the first day of winter and the first day of spring.
Some call today Imbolc. In some traditions, the festival is celebrated with hearthfires, consumption of dairy, and weather prognostication; Wikipedia suggests that this might be a precursor to the North American Groundhog Day, which is also celebrated today. Others know today as the Feast of St. Brighid or as Candlemas. (The Wikipedia page is pretty good; if you're interested, you might also check out Imbolc 2011 -- The Spring Quarter.)
Call it what you will; I'm just happy to be able to mark the midpoint of winter! A week ago our local newspaper ran an article with the headline Whole winter's worth of snow already here. And it's snowed several times since then. I'm not sure I need to add much commentary to that.
The solstices and equinoxes have become meaningful to me since I moved to New England. I'm keenly conscious of the dark days of December, and I celebrate every drop of increased light we receive. These days I derive quiet satisfaction from the fact that if Drew and I stop to buy diapers on the way home from daycare, it's not pitch-black outside by the time we exit the store. Little steps.
On the Jewish calendar, 5771 is a leap year. (Seven out of nineteen years are leap years, containing an extra month.) We'll insert an extra month of Adar into our calendar, and the festivals which fall during Adar will be celebrated during the "real" Adar -- the second one. That extra month, Adar I, begins this coming Friday. In a non-leap year, it's one month from Tu BiShvat to Purim, and another month to Pesach; this year, Purim and Pesach are still a long way off.
Maybe that's why I'm making a point of paying attention to today. Our spring festivals won't be here for a while yet, but today marks a seasonal midpoint between winter and spring. The snow may still be falling, but I believe that spring will come.
I tend to think of the equinoxes and solstices as happening on the 21st of the months in which they occur. There's a simple reason for this: my birthday is March 21, and when I was growing up I was told that my birthday was the first day of spring. (Of course this is only true in the northern hemisphere. To anyone reading this in the global South, my apologies for the boreocentrism.) I loved the idea that spring began on my birthday, and it fascinated me to think on the equinoxes, everywhere in the world gets 12 hours of daylight. (There's a lovely image of this at Wikipedia if you'd like a visual aid.)
I've since learned that technically the equinoxes and solstices don't always fall on the 21st of their requisite months. (This year, for instance, the September Equinox falls today, on September 22.) Also that it's not exactly true that everywhere in the world gets exactly 12h of light on the equinoxes. That equinox page tells me that "during the time of the September and March equinoxes many regions around the equator have a daylight length of about 12 hours and six-and-a-half minutes. Moreover, the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator and the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations."
But even if it isn't scientifically exact to think that the equinoxes are cosmic balance-points, when the earth is perfectly poised between one season and the next, on a spiritual level this idea still really works for me -- especially coming, as this one does, during the Days of Awe. I like to think that today our planet pauses, perfectly aligned, before beginning to tilt again.
The equinoxes (and solstices) are times of year when I'm especially conscious of changing light. Today the earth's tilt is vertical, neither toward the sun nor away from it; tomorrow we begin to shift. In my hemisphere, this is the official first day of autumn. Though in south Texas where I grew up that didn't really mean much, in New England where I've lived for the past seventeen years the outside world is already visibly changing. High places in my region had their first frost a couple of nights ago. (We didn't, here at our house, but it was a near thing; it's coming soon.) The angle of light at my desk has changed. While most trees here are still green, here and there a branch or a whole tree is alight with red or gold, the first flames of fall.
This shift puts me in mind of other shifts which are on their way. By the time we reach the first day of winter -- even if he is late in coming, as many first babies are -- my son will have emerged from my body and entered the world. This is the last season before his birth.
[T]he ancient book of Jubilees tells that on the night of the autumn equinox, Abraham looked up to the stars to try to see the future. At that moment, the Holy One spoke to him. As the nights grow longer, we spend time telling the stories of our ancestors and remembering our traditions. From this, we learn who we might become.
That's from Yom Kippur and the Autumn Equinox: A Comparison by Rabbi Jill Hammer, published at Tel Shemesh in a year when the two days were right up next to one another. It was from Reb Jill that I first learned the traditional Jewish blessing recited on the equinox (which can be found in Talmud:) ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם עושה בראשית / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, oseh vereishit. (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, who makes creation.)
The precise moment of equinox today has been calculated to fall at 21:19 UTC, which will be 5:19pm here in my time zone. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to go outdoors and make this blessing at that moment, or whether I will find a time which arises organically out of my day when I can go outdoors, breathe deeply of the autumnal air, and bless the Source Who fills and fulfills all things. Either way, today is a hinge-point between what has been and what is coming. What, in your life, is poised on the cusp of change?
Winter sunrise. December 13, 2008.
Once every 28 years, the Jewish community celebrates the return of the sun to the place which our tradition says it occupied in the heavens at the precise time and day of its creation. The celebration is called Birkat ha-Chamah -- the Blessing of the Sun.
Twenty-eight years! Last time Birkat ha-Chamah was celebrated, I was six. Next time, I'll be 62. Good thing I'm planning to make the most of it this time when it rolls around....at sunrise on the morning of April 8, 2009, which is the morning of the day which will lead to the first seder of Pesach.
If you've been reading VR for any length of time, you won't be surprised to learn that I understand this not as a scientific celebration, but a metaphysical and metaphorical one. A few times in each life, if we are lucky, we have this opportunity to pause and take notice of the wonder that is our sun. To recite blessings and prayers. And to be thankful for this source of light -- and to the Source of Light which sustains it, and us, every day. How cool is that?
Spring sunrise light. March 18, 2008.
Interested folks can find a list of celebrations around the US and Israel here at Bless the Sun.org. (The list is growing; hopefully folks will add info on celebrations in other parts of the world, too.) I'll be at the 6am sunrise celebration at the entrance to Mt. Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown, sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel. (Sounds like an odd location, I realize, but across the street from MGRHS is an apple orchard which overlooks the Hopper and Mount Greylock. Gorgeous.)
Bless the Sun.org also offers a listing of ceremonial materials and resources. Hands down, my favorite liturgy for the ritual itself is written by my teacher Reb Marcia Prager, and is available on that page as a pdf download. It includes both traditional and creative texts in English, Hebrew, and transliteration. I also recommend Masekhet Hahammah, "Tractate Sun," a compendium of teachings and texts about the sun and this celebration which would make a great resource for studying between now and Pesach.
After celebrating the sun, I'll hop in my car and drive to Boston to celebrate Pesach with my sister and her family. I'm excited to see how and whether having begun my day with once-every-28-years sun celebrations shapes how the day unfolds, and how it reverberates into my celebrations of the festival of freedom which begins that night.
How will you celebrate the sun next Wednesday morning?
Summer sunrise. August 13, 2008.
Today is the December solstice: the shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere. (A fine day to keep the home fires burning; and, indeed, we are doing just that! Ethan's chopping wood even now.) And today at sundown we'll celebrate the first night of Chanukah -- chag urim, the holiday of lights.
On the first night of Chanukah, the flame of the single festival light (and the single shamash or helper candle) can feel tiny -- maybe especially tonight, against the weight of all that darkness. The solstice and Chanukah always feel congruent to me but it's rare for the festival to begin on the solstice itself. Night falls early in the Berkshires at this time of year. The longest night is long indeed.
It always takes a leap of faith to choose to kindle light in a time of darkness, to trust that our small flames can actually make a difference in the great cold world. But they can, and they do. Lighting the first candle of Chanukah is a chance to affirm our ability to bring light into the world.
As we kindle the holiday lights tonight, may we rededicate ourselves (as our stories tell us the temple was once rededicated at this season) to the work of creating light. Even, or especially, on the longest, darkest night of the calendar year.
11:45 eastern daylight time
is when this hemisphere,
balanced on the knife-edge
of summer, tilts into fall.
Rise from the clutter of your desk
rotate your creaking neck
and slide the screen door open.
Remember how to breathe.
Walk across the wild thyme.
In the corner behind the lilac
past the tiny backyard meadow
the berry canes are fruiting.
Here are tight red berries
on their way to blackening.
And here ripe ones, dark and lush
glimpsed beneath serrated leaves.
What a way to mark the moment,
the hard work of two springs ago
paying off now as if by magic.
Recognize grace. Open your hands.
Sunset, winter solstice, 2006: 3:50pm.
Today is overcast, white snowy earth mirrored in white clouded sky, so we won't see the sun actually drop behind the hills. One way or another, this is the shortest day of the year; starting tomorrow, the light lengthens.
In honor of the solstice, a story, courtesy of Tel Shemesh:
"When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, "Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity." (-- Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)
In this story the first human being is distressed over the decreasing light and believes it is a punishment. Only when he learns that the light will begin to grow again is he comforted. We too often feel sad or anxious when the light diminishes and are glad when it comes again. Adam's drama of fear and acceptance helps us to accept our own moments of not knowing.
After the truth is revealed to him, Adam is able to celebrate before and after the solstice. This Jewish story of the winter solstice teaches us to honor darkness as well as light. We can also wonder: where might Eve be in this story? What would she think of the changing seasons and how would she celebrate them?
I don't have good answers to Rabbi Jill's questions about how our sense of the winter solstice might change if we approached it from Eve's point of view. Maybe for Eve, and for us, winter can be a time for curling up by the fireside, savoring home and hearth, and biding our time to see what germinates in us as we follow the increasing light into spring.
Wishing all a happy tekufat Tevet! May we all be blessed with light!
I've written here about the amazing, overwhelming, and beautiful Yom Kippur retreat I attended last weekend. But I haven't posted anything here about the sunrise equinox ritual that Rabbi Jill Hammer offered up, before dawn, one week ago today.
That's because I was hoping a short piece I'd written about it would appear on the pages of qarrtsiluni, and to my great pleasure the guest-editors for this issue graciously accepted the piece.
It's here: Equinox. I'd love to know what you think, both about the piece as a short nonfiction vignette and about the ritual, which I found really remarkable and sweet.
You're welcome to post in response here, or there -- I've subscribed to the comments thread on that post (one of the perks of qarrtsiluni having moved to WordPress) so I'll see feedback in either place.
The current theme at qarrtsiluni is Making Sense; that link will take you to a description of the theme, along with the revised submission policy. Some real literary luminaries are starting to publish work there, along with bloggers and writers whose work you may not know yet but will soon be glad that you do. If you've got anything that fits the theme, or feel like writing something specifically for this one, hurry; you've got until October 15.
"It gets dark so early now," one of my friends sighed recently. "Isn't it terrible?" Indeed, when my alarm goes off most mornings "sunrise" manifests only as a lightening of the sky and a thin smear of red along the horizon. And by the time I leave work at five in the afternoon, it is night. When I moved from Texas to New England twelve years ago, I didn't understand entirely what I was getting myself into; my first winter I quailed at the shortness of the days, the bareness of the trees, the way winter here stretches on.
But these days I actually like the foreshortened light and the snow. Somehow I've come to relish winter. I like the balance between the seasons, the sense that as one thing contracts another expands. In summer, the long high light of evening expands the sunlit day; in winter, dark expands and we meet it with fires and feasting. One would be incomplete without the other.
And this landscape needs winter; the trees and plants want their long snow-covered nap. That whole lilies of the field thing isn't from my Scripture, but I can see the wisdom in it. If the blackberry canes and the forsythia and the lilacs want winter, why shouldn't I? In their inchoate way they know spring will come in its time. And the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, is a necessary precursor to the coming of spring.
If you want to get technical about it, charting the actual solstice can take some work, and involves concepts like the obliquity of the ecliptic. (I recommend last year's Washington Post article on the subject). For my part, I like the convention of considering the solstices and equinoxes to fall on the 21st days of December, March, June and September. That I was born on one of these might have something to do with my preferred mode of reckoning; I like to think that my equanimity relates to my equinoctial birth.
I like the way people come together in the cold and the dark. No one can survive a northern winter alone. Once that was true in a purely practical way; these days the survival tends to be more emotional than physical, but it still depends on connections with community. And in response to that need, community arises. At this time of year I feel an affinity with people in places even further north than we are: Finland, Chena Hot Springs, Nunavut. I imagine people all over the northern edge of the world rejoicing. The coldest days are yet to come, but we're headed towards summer's long light again.
I celebrated the solstice two nights ago at a congenial gathering hosted by friends C and A. They set a beautiful table, adorned with evergreen boughs and candles; we drank hot mulled wine, and ate a cake shaped like a Yule Log (a reference to an old solstice bonfire custom, now a traditional French dessert). I brought homemade eggnog (a quintessential taste of the season, for me, though my recipe is pretty high-test, so we drink it in very small glasses) and a tin of rosemary cookies, made with some of the summer's harvest.
Dumplings are a traditional solstice food in China; in Japan some eat pumpkin while others favor soba noodles. Mulled wine and buche du Noel aside, I'm not sure I know anyone who takes solstice food traditions seriously; maybe we've replaced them with New Year's Day foods. (Among my people, black-eyed peas are de rigeur on the first of the year, and I'd feel weird starting a year without them.)
If you're interested in the symbols and stories of winter solstice and yule, Candlegrove's Yule page is terrifically informative. (I'm especially amused by the part about the yule cat.) For my part, I find satisfying balance in the fact that so many cultures hold festivals of light around now, ensuring that these days which are our darkest in literal terms are also, metaphorically, our brightest. (In my hemisphere, anyway. I suspect the December summer solstice is an entirely different thing than the December winter solstice. If anyone out there is blogging about midsummer this week, send me links...)
I'll close this post with a couple of my favorite solstice-related links. Here are photos of the earth seen from space which show gradations of light and dark around the globe. Here's a bunch of Jewish Winter Solstice tales, thanks to the fine folks at Tel Shemesh. And SB at Oratory posted a beautiful small solstice poem last year. Regardless of whether you celebrate solstice, I hope you can join me in a moment of thankfulness for having made it through the darkening days of another year.