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.

Snow1

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

101747615

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.


Through the equinox door

32062We're approaching the doorway between the old year and the new.

Just as Jewish tradition teaches us to put a mezuzah on our doorposts, to make us mindful as we transition from one place to the next, the holidays act as mezuzot on the doorposts of our year. We're moving from one place to the next. What memories do we want to bring with us? What baggage do we want to leave behind, outside the door?

This weekend we're approaching another doorway, too: the equinox, the hinge between summer and fall. Every door offers a chance to pause and look back. In the season now ending, where did I live up to my hopes for who I would be, and where did I fall short? What do I want to lift up and remember, and what to I want to let go of, to release?

What do I want to bring with me into the new year, and into the coming season of preparing to lie fallow for the winter? What do I need to focus on so that the qualities I want to cultivate will naturally arise in me?

I posted recently about Why I love Selichot services. (Those who receive this blog via email may have received an incomplete version of the post by accident -- please do click on the link and read the whole thing if you are so inclined!) But one thing I didn't mention in that post is that this year, Selichot comes on the eve of September 21, which is for me the first day of autumn.

For what do I need to say "I'm sorry" in order to enter the new season, the new year, with a clean slate? Where do I need to create repair in my relationships with other people, with my own soul, with the Earth, with my Source? What old resentments or frustrations do I need to shed in order to walk through this doorway with my spine straight and my shoulders unclenched?

Fall is coming. The new year is coming. Who do I want to become on the other side of this door?

 

This is a variation on the teaching I offered during this morning's meditation minyan at my shul.

Related: First day of fall, 2012.


Summer solstice

ThesunDay Before the Solstice

a psalm of thanksgiving

 

For sky as implausibly blue
as a plastic kiddie pool,
scrawled with the white streaks
of self-erasing contrails.

For grass stretching up,
for the rustle of oak and birch,
for sumac spreading its canopy
over blackberry and wild grape.

For this canvas umbrella
once red as a tomato
now leached by sun
to Nantucket pink.

For cold coffee, milky
as a silted river
and sweet as birdsong,
ice cubes rattling in my glass.

 

(Originally posted in 2013: Psalm before the solstice.)

 

Every morning, in our daily liturgy, we bless God as the creator of light and former of darkness, maker of peace and of all things. Our prayer speaks, I believe, not only of the literal light of the star which we call our sun, but also the light of wisdom and insight. In our creation story, the very first thing God spoke into being was light, before the creation of the heavenly bodies we call stars and sun and moon. That supernal light still shines forth. We find that light in Torah. We find that light in wisdom. We find that light in moments of insight, illumination, en-light-enment.

As we move through the summer solstice (in this hemisphere -- aware that for our cousins in the global South this weekend brings the shortest day of the year), may we find ourselves filled with light: not only literal light but also the light of understanding and insight. And may we carry that light within us, and share it with all who we meet, in months to come.

Shabbat shalom!


A poem for the winter solstice

THE LONGEST NIGHT

for Phyllis and Michael Sommer

We all tell ourselves stories
about grief to come.
Anticipating the dark
we think, how can I live
without the sun I turn toward?
We wrest what gifts we can
from the dying days.
One morning we wake
and the doorway we most dreaded
is behind us.
The ice may not recede
for months to come
but day by day
may there be more light.

 


As I wrote this poem, I was thinking about the way I brace myself for the long dark nights of winter. Even in high midsummer (maybe especially then), some part of me thinks, "how can we possibly survive with so little light?"

I was thinking about lessons I keep re-learning, about how the anticipation of something scary or painful can sometimes tie me in worse knots than the thing itself when it arrives.

And because I wrote the poem this week, while they were sitting shiva, I was also thinking about R' Phyllis Sommer and R' Michael Sommer, and their children, especially their son Superman Sam (zichrono livracha), whose light shone so very bright. May the increasing (physical) light of the coming days be mirrored with spiritual light to bring comfort to their bruised hearts.

 

 

For those who are interested: this year's September equinox poem and this year's June solstice poem.


Excavating the Herodian oil lamps

 


Oil-lampSlit the packing tape. Lift the inner box.
Slide a knife again and listen to muted rainfall:

styrofoam pebbles pouring down.
The stand emerges first, round and heavy.

Then nine swaddled packages, light
as birds' bones, sized to fit in a palm.

Scissor gently through the bubble wrap,
unfold the layers to reveal ancient clay.

What foot pedaled the wheel, what fingers
wet with slip attached each graceful spout

and smoothed it with the flat of a knife
when Herod ruled in Jerusalem?

Two thousand years ago these held light
in the gloomy season on the cusp of Kislev.

Even now, in a world of compact fluorescents
and taillights glowing in the rain like rubies

we guard our wisps of flame, whatever lets us
hope even as the days grow dark.

 


My parents bought these lamps decades ago, while visiting my middle brother who was at the time working on a kibbutz. They date back to the early years of the Common Era. The person who sold them said, "they were found all together in a house; they must have been a menorah!" I suppose it's possible; the Chanukah story comes from the second century B.C.E., so it does predate these. In any case, the simple fact that they were made that long ago takes my breath away.

These used to be in my parents' bedroom, in the house I grew up in. I remember seeing them there countless times when I was a kid, and learning what they were, and how old, and where they had come from. In unboxing it now, there's a way in which I feel as though I'm excavating not only these artifacts from their storage, but also my own childhood. They grace my synagogue office now, a reminder of our deep-seated need (on both literal and metaphorical levels) to kindle light against the darkness.

For more on the lamps in question: Ancient Pottery Database: Herodian oil lamps; Fowler Bible Collection: Herodian Oil Lamp.


Turn of the season

Pumpkins Mums



Maybe today's the day it won't warm up.
Goldenrod burns fall's first fire.
Doorways and front stoops sing
pumpkins and mums, pumpkins and mums.

The woodchuck waddles low across driveway
from grass to grass.
Everything's green, though yellow lurks
beneath the visual spectrum, waiting.

Listen: there's the rise
and fall, rise and fall I wait for,
breath half-held. One of these days
I'll forget there should've been sound.

Three months and the wind will whisk snow
against windowpanes, but today:
breathe warming dirt, the lawn's wild thyme.
The woodchuck munches, focused, getting ready.

 


This is a revision of a poem which I wrote ten years ago. In 2005 it became part of a manuscript called Manna which I sent around to first-book contests for some years. I had thought that this poem had appeared in The Berkshire Review, but my records show other poems in that journal during that time, not this one. Anyway: I find myself thinking of the "pumpkins and mums" line every year at this season, so I dug up the poem and did a bit of polishing and am sharing it here in honor of the equinox. Hope y'all enjoy.

For those who are so inclined, here's the traditional blessing for the tekufah, the equinox (which comes from Talmud):

Blessing for the Tekufah / Equinox        
 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.


Psalm before the summer solstice

Day Before the Solstice

a psalm of thanksgiving


For sky as implausibly blue
as a plastic kiddie pool,
scrawled with the white streaks
of self-erasing contrails.

For grass stretching up,
for the rustle of oak and birch,
for sumac spreading its canopy
over blackberry and wild grape.

For this canvas umbrella
once red as a tomato
now leached by sun
to Nantucket pink.

For cold coffee, milky
as a silted river
and sweet as birdsong,
ice cubes rattling in my glass.

 


Three poems from the book of Judges

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.




JUDGES TRYPTICH


1. Devorah

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

Continue reading "Three poems from the book of Judges" »


Early November in an image and five lines

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.


A havdalah ritual for the September equinox

Seasons_msg_2010-2011

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]


First day of fall

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.


Summer solstice and Rosh Chodesh Tamuz

NewmoonTonight 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.

Download RoshChodeshTamuzRitual [pdf]

Download RoshChodeshTamuzTeachings [pdf]