Light in the darkness

Ark-technology-oil_lamp_open_litEven in times of greatest darkness, when it seems that hope is gone, when you feel tapped-out and drained, when you have no more resources to draw on, when you've done everything you know how to do: don't give up. Do the tiny thing you can do, even if it doesn't feel like enough.

That's the message of the Chanukah story. Not the tale of military victory (which doesn't appear in the Hebrew Scriptures anyway; the books of Maccabees are in some Christian Bibles, but not in ours), but the story of the oil that shouldn't have been enough. The story of the rededication of the Temple, the place where we connected with God. The story of the light that burned in the darkness even after it should have gone out.

The light that burned in the Temple in days of old was supposed to be kept burning all the time. From that comes the custom of the ner tamid, the "eternal light" that burns at the front of every synagogue now. The light (whether oil lamps of old, or today's LED lightbulbs) is meant to remind us of what's truly eternal: God's presence. Our connection with something greater than ourselves. Hope. Love. 

Kindling the eternal light in the Temple when they knew they didn't have enough fuel to keep it burning was arguably foolhardy. But most leaps of faith look that way, until one takes them. And they so yearned to bring light into the world, to rekindle their reminder of divine Presence, that they kindled it anyway... and what shouldn't have been enough, became enough. 

Maybe you're feeling lately like you're not enough. Maybe you're feeling like the world demands strength and perseverance that you can't seem to manage. Maybe you're feeling like the darkness presses in on all sides and will not be defeated. Maybe you're feeling worn-down and hopeless. For personal reasons, or for national reasons, or for global reasons, or all three at once.

Chanukah comes to remind us: don't give up. Don't give in to the voice that says you aren't enough. Do what little you can, even if it doesn't feel like it's enough -- maybe especially if it doesn't feel like it's enough. Make the leap of faith of continuing to try to build a life, a nation, a world that is better than the one we've got now. Start tonight, with one little light -- one tiny flame against the darkness. And tomorrow night there will be two. And the night after that there will be three. 

Of course, it's not really about the candle flames. The literal flames on our chanukiyot are symbols. They remind us of a deeper spiritual truth: that we can bring light. That what we are is enough. That all hope is not lost. That when we can hope for better, we can work for better, and we can take back all of the places that have been desecrated and make them holy once again.

 

Related:

(You can find all of my Chanukah-related posts in the Chanukah category.) 

 


Stick season

37922047004_3e8e84a50d_kI used to own a long, soft, narrow-wale corduroy dress that always seemed to call to me around this time of year. Its colors were muted: taupe and pale purple and deep fir-green. One day I realized that it matched the Berkshire hills in their November colors: the taupe brown of bare trees seen from a distance, the muted purple of distant hillsides at early twilight, the deep green of conifers on the highest parts of the hills. 

I rejoice when springtime paints the hills chartreuse. I relish the boldness of their summer green coats. I thrill to their yellow and orange autumn garb, though that beauty feels bittersweet because it presages the cold season to come. And now we're in the season I don't look forward to: "stick season," when the hills are bare and the nights are growing longer and plant life begins to go dormant because of the cold. 

The challenge is finding the beauty in this spare, sere landscape -- because it is still beautiful. The hills reveal their contours in a different way. Other neighborhood houses, once hidden by stands of trees, become visible again. The grass gives up on being green and begins to turn pale wintery gold. Hints of red pop against this muted backdrop: old apples still left on the trees, berries nestled among the thickets of sticks. 

In my mind I anthropomorphize our local plants and trees and bushes, imagining that they heave a sigh of relief when their performative season ends and they can rest. Okay, that's a stretch, but I know that the plants and trees that live here need to have a dormant season. It's as though the earth herself is taking a Shabbes: some downtime, some time when she doesn't have to produce (whether food or fruit or blossoms), some time when she can just rest and just be. Can I better learn that practice by paying attention to the world around me? 

Instead of being (too) attached to any particular season's gifts, I want to learn how to seek the beauty in whatever the world around me presents. Right now my task is retraining my eye to notice the gifts of New England November: the subtle gradations of color, the delicate traceries of bare branches, the sweetness to be found in this gentle, muted visual palette. Mother Nature isn't always showy, but there's always something worth noticing, if I can maintain the practice of being willing to see.

 


the skies here

All through the long winter, I wait with eager anticipation for the long days of June. I have this in common with my mom, who also loves summertime's long days -- though at her latitude the winter days aren't as short, nor the summer days as long, as those I experience here. One of the things I anticipate most about summer is sitting outside in the late evening, listening to birdsong, watching the sky change color.

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The house where I used to live was on a mountaintop, and it had absolutely spectacular views. When we first went to see it eighteen years ago, the real estate agent who was showing it to us laughed at the look on my face when I got out of the car and looked out at the view and the sky. Leaving that view was one of the hardest things about leaving that house.

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But I am blessed that the place where I live now has a little mirpesset, a little balcony overlooking an expanse of green. (That's where I built my sukkah in the fall.) And here too, there is a patch of horizon and trees and sky. It may not have the over-the-top splendor of the view from the old place, but it has afforded me some beautiful glimpses of the changing sky.

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The sky's transition from afternoon to evening, sunset to nightfall, is predictable. It happens every day (unless there is rain.) It is the very definition of mundane: ordinary, worldly, banal. And yet sometimes it opens my heart to connection with transcendence. In this, it is like other ordinary and banal things: rainbows, or the way my heart dances when I see my child joyful, or what I feel when I marinate in love. 

 

Related:

Who rolls back light before dark and dark before light, 2016

Summer gratitudes, 2015

Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light, 2013 

 

This post borrows its title from the name of my first collection of poems, published by Pecan Grove Press in 1995.


New in The Wisdom Daily: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters.

31967190051_a22ff3cf91_z...On my scraps of paper, I jotted down phrases like “the sorrow of my divorce” and “tendency to diminish my own needs” and “feeling silenced.” I felt both humbled and hopeful: humbled by the recognition that there’s much I need to shed, and hopeful at the prospect of truly letting those things go.

When we were done writing, we went around the table and took turns reading each scrap of paper aloud and then holding it in the fire until it began to burn. We dropped the flaming bits of paper into the dish that held the tealight. We burned old griefs and bad habits.

When we were done, one of my friends suggested a variation. We each wrote blessings for each of the others,  read those aloud, and lit them on fire too — not because we wanted the blessings to burn up, but because the act of setting them aflame felt like a way of offering the intentions up to God.

As we finished reading and burning our hopes and blessings for each other, we heard a loud crack. We promptly blew out the flame, but it was too late — the ceramic dish holding the tealight had broken in two....

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters

 

 


As the year draws toward its close

End-of-the-yearAt the end of the Jewish year, there are practices of introspection designed to help us re-align ourselves. The work of teshuvah (repentance / return / returning to our deepest and truest selves) calls us to look seriously at who we've been and who we want to become. The end of the secular year isn't as much a time of inner work for me as the end of the Jewish year, but it's still a natural time to pause and take stock of who I am and where I'm going.

It's a truism to say that no year is quite like any other, but 2016 was particularly unusual for me because it was the year during which my eighteen year marriage came to its end. Midway through 2016 I moved out of the home I'd lived in since 1999, the home in which I had once thought I might live out the rest of my days. And I began to live on my own for the first time. Not "alone" -- thanks to my seven-year-old -- but on my own.

That's a big transition, and it's one I'm still navigating. Those of you who have lived on your own for a long time may take those rhythms for granted. Those of you who have lived with a partner, or with other family members, for a long time may not realize in how many subtle ways one comes to rely on the patterns that evolve between people who share a household and a life. I knew this would be a big change, and it has been as momentous as I expected.

Spiritually speaking, the latter half of this year has been an exercise in drawing on what sustains me. Sometimes that means meditation and prayer, sometimes singing in harmony with friends, sometimes hot tea and solitude.  It's also been a time of navigating grief. It's also been an exercise in finding small pleasures to savor: the chickadees discovering the bird feeder I hung outside the kitchen window, or my mastering a new recipe in the slow cooker I bought at a tag sale over the summer.

As I look ahead to 2017, I know that I will need to continue being attentive to what nourishes my heart and spirit. I will need to continue learning how to rely on myself and trust my own strength -- and also to lean on community, family, and friends sometimes, and not to isolate myself from the communities of which I am a part. I'll keep working at making a home for myself and my son, brightened by Shabbat candles and by the presence of friends.

2016 has been a difficult year, but has contained gifts that counterbalance its sorrows (on a personal level, at least; I'm not looking in this moment at the traumas of the globe, which have been substantial.) I'm grateful for the old year's gifts, and I know that the secular new year will contain gifts too. Whatever your 2016 has been, I hope that you can find blessings to uplift as the secular year begins to wind down -- and may we all release the sorrows of the old year, and let them float away.

 


Moving into late January

Late January can be a difficult time. It's cold outside: this morning my car's thermometer registered seven degrees. The world is mostly monochrome: white snow, brown and grey tree trunks, sky which is often clouded in shades of pearl and grey. Midwinter's excitement (whether that means Christmas, or New Year's, or the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy) is over and gone, but winter's not going anywhere. Whether or not you put stock in the idea of Blue Monday, this time of year is tough.

I've learned over the years that this is a good time of year for small pleasures. A glass of vibrant, tart, bright-red hibiscus tea. Luxuriating beneath soft blankets. Making the effort to bring in wood and light a fire, even if it's just me in the house, because it feels good -- both the warmth from the burning wood, and the emotional warmth evoked by the crackling flames. This is a good time of year to paint my nails some outrageous bright color, and to wear my insulated purple gloves: anything to gladden the eye.

Some days I manage to pause and sing the the evening service. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who with Your word bring on the evening...  The Hebrew suggests that evening is a mixture, a blending of day and night. It's the cusp, and as evening transitions toward night the sky's palette shifts and deepens. One evening last week I sat outside with a friend and as chevrons of geese flew overhead we caught sight of streaky pink clouds of winter sunset -- there and then gone. 

I am a creature of summertime. I love the long days, the warmth, the light, the effusion of greenery, the gloaming of a long summer twilight. I'm happiest in sandals and something sleeveless. At this season I have to work harder to notice what's beautiful: the sparkle of sunlight on crisp snow, or the late afternoons where moon and stars illuminate the sky. My gratitude practices remind me to seek something every day for which I can be thankful. I'm thankful for those practices, at this time of year.


Hidden light

EarthshineAt this time of year where we live, it's dark by the time the students and I pour forth from the synagogue at the end of Monday afternoon Hebrew school. And now that my son is in kindergarten, he comes to Monday Hebrew school just as the older kids do. So the two of us walk out of the shul together into the afternoon dark.

Last night as we approached the car, he looked up at the sky and crowed, "I see the moon!" And then, a moment later, he added -- with wonderment -- "it's a crescent, but I can see the rest of it, look, it's dark grey!" I told him that this is a waxing crescent moon; we are four days into the lunar month of Kislev, so the moon is growing bigger.

The waxing crescent moon is beautiful, of course... and so is the more muted light which my son admired on the remainder of the satellite, the dim but perceptible silhouette of the rest of the moon. That pale glow, it turns out, is earthshine -- light reflected from the earth onto the moon. When the moon is a crescent, if we could stand on its surface we would see a full earth hanging in space. Earthshine is the glow from the full earth, reflected back onto the night side of the moon.

Earthshine isn't visible all night long -- only for a short while after sunset, and a short while before sunrise. But if you catch the crescent moon at those liminal times, you can glimpse the rest of the moon, too. That the moon illuminates the earth is no surprise to me. The full moon is a thing of beauty, and shines so brightly! But that our earth illumines the moon in turn -- I never knew that. I'd seen it before, but didn't know what it was.

In Jewish tradition the moon can represent Shekhinah, divine Presence: sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, but always with us. If the moon represents divine Presence, then maybe earthshine represents how our yearning for God makes God more present, more "visible," to us. As we gaze upward and yearn for the One, the light of our souls shines forth -- and even though our individual lights are tiny, collectively we shine enough light to illuminate God from afar.

As earthshine illuminates the moon which in turn beams more light upon us, so our souls -- thirsty for connection -- shed light on God Who pours light down on us in turn. Earthshine only manifests when the moon isn't full -- or in Jewish mystical language, it's precisely when God seems most hidden that we are called to yearn and to seek. (The Zohar has a phrase for this: אתערותא דלתתא, "arousal from below." Sometimes connection between us and God comes from "on high;" other times it's sparked by our yearning "from below.")

There are times when God's light is brilliant -- full moon, as it were. And there are times when God's light is scant... and it's precisely at those times when our yearning can most fully call divine light forth, just as earthshine is only possible when the moon is mostly hidden from view. God's hiddenness is an invitation to us to seek and to yearn. And the very act of our seeking makes God more findable -- just as the light of our faraway planet helps the moon herself to shine.

 


Summer gratitudes

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Summer twilight, Williamstown, close to 9pm.

I love breathing the air here during the summer. The fresh green scent of cut grass, whether newly-mown lawns or newly-shorn hayfields. From lilac blooms in late May to wisteria blooms in August. Right now the scent of blossoms I can't name, caught in the currents of the breeze.

I love listening to the world here during the summer. Birdsong starts early, and on a good day I get to lie in bed drifting in and out of sleep for a long time after the early dawn, listening. Behind the synagogue, redwinged blackbirds. Come evening the calls of the veery thrush spiral through the air.

I love the sky here during the summer. Some days it's a dome of infinite eggshell blue. Some days streaked with cloud. (And some days it's overcast, oh well.) At twilight there can be blue at one horizon and pink at the other; it is so beautiful that I have to stop what I'm doing and gape at the sky.

I love the tactile experiences of summer. My feet are happiest in sandals, toes free to wiggle; my arms are happiest in the sunshine and the open air. I love walking barefoot on the patches of our lawn which are shot through with curly patches of wild thyme so that every step releases spice.

I love the tastes of summer. Little local strawberries, just picked, still warm from the sun and the earth. Peaches, romaine hearts, slabs of pineapple streaked with marks from the grill and sweetened by fire. The soft-serve ice cream I enjoy with our son after a game of minigolf, licking every last drop.

It's easy for me to offer praise at this season. I see the sun disappearing behind the hills and the words of ma'ariv, the evening liturgy, flow through me. I wake to a day which has already dawned and words of gratitude are already in my heart. I'm thankful for the summer solstice, and for so much light.


You make the seasons change...

New-elm-leavesAt this time of year, one of the things I most love about where we live is watching the shifting shades of green. This year the trees leafed out while we were in Texas visiting family. When we left the branches were still bare. When we returned, everything was that extraordinary chartreuse of brand-new chlorophyll, so bright it's almost fluorescent. Baby green with a hint of neon behind it.

Only a few weeks have passed since that trip, but already the landscape has shifted. Most of the trees are wreathed in mature green now, a green that feels more substantial. Often the leaves are larger, too; they've reached what I think of as their summer size. I forget, every winter, what it looks like when trees explode with leaves. They go from sticks to puffballs, from stark lines to rustling softness.

I catch my thoughts snagging on thorns: these leaves are so beautiful, I'm going to miss them when they're gone. Or I notice the long low light of early-summer evening, and even as I'm reveling in this moment the whisper comes: someday the light will wane and the days will be short. Where did that come from? Why can't I be in this moment, instead of worrying about losses I might someday feel?

The leaves have only just grown; the summer's barely begun; the light is still increasing. Why am I already thinking about what it will be like to lose them? But this is what the mind does: it tells stories about things which haven't yet come to pass. Sometimes they are sweet stories, as when I anticipate seeing a loved one. Sometimes they are stories marinated in old fear: what you have will go away.

When I notice my mind spiraling down those old fearful pathways, I try to pause and take a deep breath, and on the exhale, to let those thoughts go. The thoughts happen. It's okay; there's nothing wrong with having them; and I don't need to become attached to them. I can notice them, name them, and then let them slip away like goldfish darting beneath the surface of a pond.

One of my favorite evening prayers is the ma'ariv aravim, the prayer which blesses God Who "evens out the evenings." The word comes from a root which means to mix; in this context it seems to hint at mixing afternoon with night. "You roll back light before dark, and dark before light," the prayer says (in translation). Light and dark take turns, and our task is to notice and sanctify the changes.

"You make the seasons change and order the stars in their appointed paths across heaven's dome," that prayer reminds us. The changes in season are part of the divine design; they are built into the world as we know it. In order for the season to hold still the earth would have to stop spinning -- catastrophe. God is the One Who cycles us through change, and change doesn't have to mean loss.

The Hebrew word for year, shanah, relates to the word for change, shinui. The year is made up of change, and God is the very process of change -- God Who describes God's-self, at the burning bush, as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." The trick is to trust the hand of God at work. Change is how the world is renewed. Our task is to embrace that, and not to be afraid.


Attuned to the rhythm

SpaceThere's a rhythm to the Jewish year. Our major seasons of spiritual work and celebration come in the fall and in the spring, and after each of those seasons comes a lull. It's as though the year were set up to give us spiritual downtime, an opportunity to integrate whatever learning or insight the festivals enabled us to attain. Was that the intention of our sages? Who knows -- but it works well for me.

In late winter I begin counting down the time until Pesach. I love Pesach; I love the coming spring; I love the story of liberation. Then there are the seven weeks of the Omer, a journey of cultivating different qualities within myself as I prepare to open my eyes and my heart to Torah anew at Shavuot. Shavuot will come whether or not I am ready, but I want to feel ready! Then comes Shavuot...

...and after Shavuot comes the downtime. (Thank God!) I'm grateful for this lull. I don't know that I could sustain the pace of the last few months, not just in terms of holiday practices but in terms of spiritual work, too. Fortunately, the summer is relatively quiet on the Jewish calendar. Sure, there are a few things here and there, but nothing of the magnitude of the spiritual journey we've just taken.

In late summer I'll begin counting down the time until the Days of Awe. I love the Days of Awe; I love the coming fall; I love the chance to begin again. There are seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, a journey of repentance and return. Or: there are 40 days between the start of Elul and Yom Kippur, an intense corridor of teshuvah. What needs repair? Who is God calling me to be?...

...and after Sukkot comes the downtime. (Thank God!) I know I will be grateful for that lull when it comes, too. Fortunately, the winter is relatively quiet on the Jewish calendar. Sure, there are a few things here and there, but nothing of the magnitude of the spiritual journey of the High Holidays and Sukkot. The calendar provides time to be "on" and time to be "off." There is an ebb and flow.

Every year is a slow and stately dance. We turn inward and focus on improving ourselves; we turn outward and focus on improving the world. We plant, and we harvest, and we lie fallow, and we prepare to plant again -- if not literal seeds, then metaphysical ones in the soil of the heart. One season leads to the next, one holiday leads to the next, and every period of activity is balanced by stillness.

And the stillness is part of the pattern. The stillness, too, is holy. There are beautiful Hasidic teachings about how the stillness which follows an intensive holiday season is itself part of the season. It's the white space which cradles and contains the letters of the Torah. Without that white space, there would be no Torah. Without these seasons of quiet, we would be unable to experience the holiday cycle.

Whenever I am blessed to visit the ocean I am soothed by the endless rhythms of the waves. Each wave rolls in and flows out. The tides rise and then recede. Those who are attuned to the rhythms and patterns of the sea know when the tides will be high and when they will be low. I want to be as attuned to the rhythms of the Jewish year as sailors and fishermen are attuned to the rhythms of the sea.

 

 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also dig my 2009 post The year as spiritual practice.

The image illustrating this post comes from a multilingual journal called מרחב الفضاء space, published in Tel Aviv.


Forty. New beginnings. Also, blogExodus!

Today I will have the inestimable joy of leading davenen at my shul alongside my friend (and ALEPH partner) Rabbi David Markus. I can't think of a sweeter way to begin my 40th birthday.

Perhaps this is a good day to reread the poem I wrote a few years ago -- Forty Lines About 40 -- which is full of rabbinic teachings about the deep symbolism of this number.

According to an oft-quoted (and rarely-sourced) teaching, being now 40 and married I am finally qualified to study kabbalah. I've been at it for more than 20 years, but I hope my studies will deepen.

I like to think of turning 40 as a time to pause and honor the harvest of these first four decades -- and perhaps also a launching pad for whatever the next four decades (God willing) might hold.

Of course, I also regard today as the first day of spring. (At least in this hemisphere.) Even if there's still snow on the ground (which there is, where I live), today marks a new season, a new beginning.

And we're also beginning the lunar month of Nisan. Pesach (Passover) begins at the full moon of Nisan. That's only two weeks away. Our people's central journey of liberation is about to begin.

New moon, new season -- both feel like seeds, packed with potential still curled tight. Where will that potential take us as the coming weeks unfold? Today is the start of a story. "In the beginning..."

 

Blogexodus5775This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

 


More light

Icicles

I snapped this photograph out of our bedroom window yesterday morning. The giant mass of ice at the right of the frame is a series of icicles -- some of which are far taller than I am! -- which have begun to merge into a rippling wall of ice since we've had a few slightly warmer days. I love the delicate pink of the icicles washed by the first rays of morning sun. That color only lasts for a moment.

One of my strategies for surviving a long (and this year, both very-cold and very-snowy) winter is trying to find the beauty in the world around me. At this time of year, that might mean admiring the sweep of bare tree branches, or the way those branches are limned with freshly-fallen snow. On clear days, it definitely means admiring the pinks and golds of early morning daylight.

One day recently I picked our son up at preschool to take him to an after-school activity which we hadn't done in a few weeks. "But Mom," he said, "you usually pick me up when it's getting dark!" I explained to him that 4:30 is dark in December and January, but by late February, 4:30 is still daylight. To my great delight, it was still light at 5:30 when his afterschool activity ended, too.

Our son keeps talking about how March will be spring. (I think there is a calendar at his school which features a picture of flowers and green grass, and I keep trying to explain to him that all of this snow is not magically going to disappear on Sunday -- and that it can snow here all the way through March!) But March will feel more like spring, even with the snow. Because in March we get more light.

Next week will bring Purim, which is definitely a sign of spring. And with Purim comes the knowledge that Pesach is only one month away, and that's one of the sweetest signs of spring I know. Someday the snow will melt and the robins will return. For now, I'll keep looking for glimpses of beauty in the wintery world around us, and thanking God for more light -- more light -- more light.

 

 


Snowy Tu BiShvat

I've come to love celebrating Tu BiShvat in the snow. I know that in the Mediterranean, where this festival originates, this time of year means blooming fruit trees. In south Texas, which has a very Mediterranean-like climate, things are beginning to bloom at this season too. (Plenty of things which thrive around the Mediterranean -- oleander, bougainvillea, date palms -- are native flora where I grew up too.) In a climate like that, it makes sense to think of this as a season of new life.

But in New England -- maybe especially in the Berkhire hills which I call home -- this January-February corridor usually means snow. And this year we've got even more of it than usual. On our deck, the snow reaches almost to the tabletop of the glass-topped table, and then tops that table with a two-foot-tall white cap. Our barbecue grill: topped with a two-foot-tall white cap. Even the bird feeder is topped with a comical little cone of snow. The world around me is white on white on white.

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This is our deck with table and chairs.

It's fortunate for me that I really like snow. It was so magical and unusual when and where I grew up that even after more than two decades living in the north, I'm still not tired of it. (Sleet and freezing rain, on the other hand, I could do entirely without.) And I've learned, over the years, that a snowy winter often presages a good sugaring season. When the mercury rises above freezing during the day and dips back down at night, those are the conditions which make for good sweet sap.

I love Tu BiShvat because it feels like the first step out of winter and toward spring. Even though everything around me is snow-covered, Tu BiShvat reminds me that there are stirrings of growth deep beneath the surface. The trees will awaken, and in time they'll unfurl leaves. And along with them, what in me is biding its time and preparing to blossom? What would it feel like to truly grow where I'm planted? What sweetness might rise in my heart and my spirit as these winter days unfold?

 


Sylvan stirrings in the still and chill of winter

BJV

For those who don't live locally -- here's the Rabbi Reflections column I wrote for the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of the Berkshire Jewish Voice. (I didn't come up with the title, though I quite like it.)


Every winter, as we turn the page on the secular calendar and welcome the Gregorian new year, I begin to look forward to Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. For me, Tu BiShvat is the first step away from midwinter and toward the longer days and brighter light of spring.

Every year I remind myself that a good cold snowy winter, followed by late-winter days where the temperatures skate above freezing and dip again at nightfall, ensures a good maple syrup harvest. I await the days when steam will rise from sugar shacks across the region -- a kind of secular Tu BiShvat, celebrating the trees and the gifts they bring.

I didn't grow up celebrating Tu BiShvat, but it has become one of my favorite holidays, perhaps in part because of where and when it falls in the cycle of our festival year. It begins a series of months during which we celebrate something wonderful at every full moon: first Tu BiShvat, then Purim, then Pesach. (Except during leap years, when there's an extra month of Adar -- but this isn't a leap year.) These festivals are stepping-stones across the season's frozen expanse.

Living in New England where the trees are leafless and seem dormant at this season, I love Tu BiShvat's reminder to celebrate the glory of nature even at this moment in the year. I love taking time, in deep winter, to thank God for the abundance we receive from the trees of our world. And I love thinking about how human beings too are like trees. Just as trees need sun and water and earth in order to flourish, so too we need light and fluidity and rootedness in our own lives.

At Tu BiShvat many of us read an excerpt from the Talmudic story of Honi the Circle-Drawer, who mocked a man for planting a carob tree which takes seventy years to bear fruit. "Just as my grandparents planted trees for me," the man replies, "so do I plant for my grandchildren." It's a fine environmental sentiment: we must care for our earth so that the planet will be here for our children's children.

But the continuation of the story -- not usually read at Tu BiShvat seders -- is equally compelling to me. Honi falls asleep for 70 years, a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle. When he wakes, he sees the grandson of the man who planted, now harvesting the carob.

Then he visits the house of study where he once learned. He finds students lamenting the fact that they no longer understand Torah as clearly as did (the now legendary) Honi the Circle-Drawer. "That's me," he exclaims, but no one believes him. He dies, whereupon the Talmudic sage Rava says, "Hence the saying 'Either companionship or death.'"

What can we make of the latter part of this tale? For me, the first part of the story is about the vertical connections of one generation to the next; the second part of the story is about the horizontal connections of one friend to another. Honi becomes uprooted in time. And without being known for who he is, he can no longer thrive.

We all derive sustenance from being part of a communal context. We all yearn to be known and recognized and cherished for who we are.

As we approach Tu BiShvat this year, may we experience rootedness in our own generation, our own communities, our own context -- even as we reflect back with gratitude on generations before us, and hope for sweetness for generations to come.

 

 

Tu BiShvat, the full moon of the month of Shvat, falls on Feb. 4 on the Gregorian calendar this year. (If you're in western Mass, you're welcome to join us at my shul on the following Shabbat morning, Feb. 7, for a vegetarian / dairy potluck lunchtime seder. RSVPs are requested; here's more information about that.)

 


Deep winter

Winter in the city is unlovely, all slush and grit. But even here in the country it's not always a picture postcard. Snow which was soft and fluffy when it fell has thawed and refrozen. Driveways are uneven hockey rinks of lumpy ice. Hillsides which had been white are scraped with grey and brown. The small river which runs through Williamstown is jumbled with ice. Cars are gritty and crusted with dirty slush and rock salt. On cloudy days, everything feels frozen and grey.

The twinkling lights of December are well behind us, and the first glimmers of the coming spring are too far ahead to anticipate. The new moon of the lunar month of Shvat has just begun to wax; we're almost two weeks away from the full moon which will herald Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. And besides, here in the Berkshires Tu BiShvat is still deep winter. The almond trees may be preparing to bloom in the Middle East, but God knows nothing is blooming here.

Winter's novelty has worn off, well before winter itself is even thinking about unclenching. For a lot of us, this can be a difficult season. I'm not talking about seasonal affective disorder per se, though I know plenty of people who struggle with that to one degree or another. But there's a general sense of malaise which can set in during late January and into February, especially in places like New England where the days are still short and our movements are circumscribed by ice and snow.

Over the years I've tried a lot of different remedies. Eating clementines by the box, as though warding off scurvy with their bright sweetness. Hot baths. Endless pots of tea. Making the effort to light a fire in the fireplace, because even though it takes some time to get it going, there's a kind of primal comfort in sitting beside a warm, bright blaze. These days I try to retrain my eye to see the beauty even in the low grey skies and the dirt-streaked ice. To notice subtle gradations of winter light.

 The work of hashpa'ah, spiritual direction, teaches me to ask the question "where is God in this?" So where can I find God in this wintery world leached of color? Where can I find God in my reaction to the low-ceilinged clouds and the early sundown? Where is God for me in ice and snow, dirt and road salt, the work of mitigating winter's isolation? Where is God for me in the work of maintaining my own even keel at this season? And where is God for you, in whatever your struggles may be?


Anticipating the return of the sun

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Human beings have been paying attention to the ebb and flow of daylight for a very, very long time. Stonehenge, that iconic circle of stone slabs in Great Britain, was built sometime between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE. Its central sight-lines point to the location where the summer sun rises on the summer solstice (June 21), and where the winter sun sets on the winter solstice (December 21).

In the fifth century BCE, in Persia, December 21 was the most important holiday of the year. It was called Shabe Yaldā, which means 'birthday eve.' According to Persian mythology, the god Mithra was born on the 22nd of December (to a virgin mother, no less! Dear Christianity: apparently the Zoroastrians came up with this sacred story first.) He symbolized light, truth, and goodness.

Among Romans, in early centuries of the Common Era, December 25 was the date of the festival of Sol Invictus, the birthday of the returning or unconquered sun. Sol Invictus was the official sun god of the later Roman empire. Elsewhere on the continent, among the Vainakh peoples of the northern Caucasus (think Chechnya), the 25th of December was the date of Malkh, the sun's birthday.

In the 4th century of the Common Era we find the first written documentation of the festival of Yule, a midwinter festival held by Germanic peoples of northern Europe around December 21. (An Old Norse variation on the name also appears in Icelandic eddas of the 13th century.) Yule traditions include the burning of a yule log, keeping a fire burning through the longest night until the sun begins to return.

Among pre-Christian Slavs, the 21st of December was Koročun, the day when the "old sun" of the old year was defeated by darkness; the day transitioned into Koleda, when the "new sun" of the new year is born. One Polish tradition for Koleda was hanging evergreen boughs decorated with apples, colored paper, stars made of straw, and ribbons. (So decorating evergreens was a solstice custom.)

Among Christians, the 25th of December is of course Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century rabbi whom they consider to be the son of God. He is referred-to in Christian scripture as "the light of the world." In the Christian scriptures there is a recapitulation of Isaiah's "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;" for Christians, this light is Jesus.

Jews celebrate light in the darkness of midwinter via the festival of Chanukah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev. (Because our calendar is lunisolar, that date moves around on the Gregorian calendar.) The moon of Kislev is always waning when the festival of Chanukah begins. A few days into Chanukah we get the moon-dark night between the old moon and the new moon -- truly winter's darkest night.

During each night of Chanukah we kindle an additional light in the chanukiyah, literally bringing more light into the world as each long winter night (in this hemisphere) passes and is gone. We light our candles in remembrance of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days instead of for one -- a representation of God's presence in the world and in our hearts, burning ever-bright.

I love knowing that since time immemorial, human beings have marked the hinge-point when the earth tilts in the other direction and the days begin to change again. I love knowing that when I kindle my sweet little Chanukah lights, not only am I part of a chain of Jewish tradition of bringing light into the darkness, but I'm part of a practice which spans much of recorded human history.

Happy Solstice to all! Here's to the returning sun!

 

Related: Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice at My Jewish Learning by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

 

 


Wintertime haiku




1.

Thumbnail punctures peel:
the reproachful cat
leaps off of my desk.


2.

Juncos, chickadees
flitting from roof to feeder
a quick minuet.


3.

Red boots, purple coat:
vivid colors bright against
snow and trunk and slush.


4.

Crumpled tissues rest
like soft misshapen snowballs
everywhere I go.


5.

Last summer's dry wood.
Woodsmoke: incense offering.
The sun will return.


I wrote this as a series of prose lines -- Midwinter means -- but then I started carving away at it, to see whether these images would work better in poetry, and I came away with five haiku. I think I like the haiku better; what do you think?

Shabbat shalom to all!


Midwinter means

Midwinter means a world of white outside my window. Fine lines of white limn every branch and twig. The distant hills vanish beneath a scrim of snow.

Midwinter means fragrant clementines like tiny hand-held suns. When I puncture the peel with my thumbnail, the cat gives me a reproachful look and leaps off of my desk.

Midwinter means listening to Värttinä in the car. I don't speak a word of Finnish but their music comes from long nights and crisp snow.

Midwinter means the decadent pleasure of hand lotion and lip balm softening my thirsty skin.

Midwinter means the pleasure of watching juncos and chickadees flitting to and from the birdfeeder on the deck. From feeder to railing to roof and back again.

Midwinter means a dozen kinds of hot tea, usually with milk. Black tea with apricot. Earl Grey in all of its variations. Chai. But green tea with toasted rice, I drink plain.

Midwinter means the eye takes a keen pleasure in vivid colors against the white and brown and grey of snow and trunk and slush. Red boots, purple coat.

Midwinter means I scatter crumpled tissues like misshapen snowballs everywhere I go.

Midwinter means the repetitive rhythm of wrapping paper, fold and crease and tape in place.

Midwinter means last summer's wood burning bright, a stand-in for the sun which will always return.


Once the leaves fall

I always forget that once the leaves fall, the trees reveal their elegant bones. So do the mountains. With branches bare, the contours of every hillside come clear. I can see houses, hills, horizon through what used to be a solid wall of leaves.

The hills take on their late-fall garb. Now they're turning a faded purplish-brown with patches of evergreen -- starting from the tops of the mountains, where the leaves are all already down. These colors are comforting and gentle on the eyes.

The skies here have been overcast lately. I tell myself that they are pearlescent and dove-grey rather than gloomy. I think of how beautifully Dale writes about diffuse light, about light during rain, and resolve to savor these variegated clouds.

We're on the last week before the time change. Next Saturday night, while we are sleeping, our nation's clocks will shift backwards an hour. In early mornings, the time change is a mercy; our wakeup time won't be pitch-black anymore. (Not until midwinter, anyway.)

And early evenings...? That's the trade-off. We're heading toward the time of the year when it will be dark by the time we finish Hebrew school on Monday afternoons. Every summer I remember that fall and winter are like this, and I can't quite remember how it's bearable.

But this time of year has its beauty, too. There's one house on Route 7 which I pass on the way home from work every day which is already lighting an electric candle in every window at nightfall. Some mornings now when our son wakes me I get to see the sunrise.

And after twenty-odd years in New England I find that there's comfort in the turn of the seasons, the inevitable change in the mountains' everyday dress, the way that month leads on to month and the year unfolds exactly the way it always does, the way it should.

Sunrise


Fall's beauty

At this time of year I want to take photographs all the time. Everywhere I look, fall colors blaze. The hillsides are a slowly-shifting tweed of late-summer green, orange, yellow, rust, and bright flares of pure red. Every day the color balance is different. Every day the color balance is beautiful.

Bailey

When light shines through the trees everything looks golden. Against the backdrop of dark clouds, the colors pop. And I know that at any moment the winds or the rain could knock the leaves off the trees and reveal bare branches beneath. Part of what makes it so gorgeous is that we know it can't last.

Noppet

Fall highlights the reality that everything in the world is always changing. I want to capture the beauty as though I could keep it, hold on to it, save it for another day. And I can -- to an extent. I can photograph it and write about it and remember it. But I can only inhabit the now right now.

Cemetery

This is one of the lessons of Sukkot for me each year. The beauty around me is always changing. We build the sukkah and it is beautiful. We decorate it, and it is beautiful. And as soon as it's built, it starts to come apart, and that's beautiful too. The trick is learning how to see the beauty in its changes.

Field

The challenge is finding the beauty in what is -- whatever is. Saying thank-you to God for the radiant splendor of a northern Berkshire autumn -- and for the muted colors which will follow it. This moment is all there is, and it is always passing. And it is always right now. And it is always beautiful.