Why The Stillness After The Wave Of Jewish Holidays Is So Important
Every year, as I reach this point in the holiday season, I feel empty.
The last six weeks have contained special services at all hours of evening and morning and afternoon. There’s been a service at the cemetery, two days of new year services, five Yom Kippur services over the course of a 25-hour fast, the building of two temporary houses (one at home, one at the synagogue I serve), and a week-long harvest festival that culminates in three minor holidays in a row. Plus the start of the Hebrew school year, the start of a new grade of elementary school for my son, and visits from relatives who live far away.
No matter what, early autumn is a marathon, Jewishly speaking. And as we reach the finish line, I always feel as though I can’t take another step.
I used to fret that this hollowed-out, empty, post-partum feeling was a sign that I was doing something wrong. But I’ve come to think that it’s exactly how I’m supposed to feel at this time of year. In fact, it may be exactly what the marathon of observance is designed to induce.
All year long we oscillate on the gentle cycle of six days of work, one day of Shabbat rest. Overlaid atop that cycle are two forty-nine-day bursts of spiritual intensity: the counting of the Omer in the spring, and the counting of the days between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah as autumn approaches. Juxtaposed with those two sets of waves (one big, one small) are the three ancient pilgrimage festivals: Pesach in the spring, Shavuot in early summer, Sukkot in the fall. (Today the Days of Awe may feel like the autumn’s most important spiritual peaks, but in antiquity they were mere preludes to Sukkot.)
Over the course of the year, we inhabit all three of these cycles. There’s one that repeats each week, one that builds over two parallel forty-nine day periods, and one that offers three big psycho-spiritual crests. If the Jewish year is an ocean, we’re emerging from the place where waves of all sizes converge to create some of the year’s strongest currents. If the Jewish year is a polyrhythm, we’re emerging from the time when our slow and gentle rhythm and our long and steady rhythm and our most intensely dramatic rhythm collide in a sonic frenzy.
Now the sonic overwhelm gives way to blissful quiet. Now the psycho-spiritual waves deposit us on the shore. We’ve been doing the inner work of teshuvah (turning ourselves in the right direction, discerning where and how our lives need to change). We’ve been experiencing the emotional dynamics of all of these holidays one after another: the new beginnings of Rosh Hashanah, facing our mortality at Yom Kippur, inhabiting impermanence at Sukkot, pleading for salvation at Hoshanna Rabbah, lingering with the Holy One of Blessing on Shemini Atzeret, ending and beginning the Torah at Simchat Torah.
And now we’re exhausted. Tapped-out. We can’t imagine saying another prayer, entering into another practice, taking another step to create change. And that’s exactly where we’re meant to be. This is part of our great annual ebb and flow. It’s time for stillness — not as the absence of spiritual work, but as the space that allows the spiritual work we’ve just done to settle in us. The white space that cradles the letters that make up the story of our lives. The quiet in which the song, no longer being sung aloud, continues to reverberate.
This plays out in the natural world around us, too. In the northern hemisphere, the days are getting shorter and the nights growing colder. In some places, deciduous trees are putting forth spectacular color in one last burst of glory. Soon they will shed their leaves and lie dormant for the winter. Where I live, at this time of year, people plant bulbs in anticipation of eventual spring. But the bulbs need a cold winter before they can sprout and thrive. Deciduous trees need a cold winter before they can grow new green leaves. Our hearts and souls need that kind of downtime, too.
This is our time to rest, like bulbs cradled in the embrace of the earth. It’s time to slow our breathing, like the shavasana pose that ends many yoga classes. We’ve been pouring out our hearts: now it’s time to wait and see what flows in to replenish us. Like the trees, like the bulbs, our souls need to lie fallow. In the stillness of the turning season, it’s time to let the seeds we’ve planted rest, and sleep, and deep in the soil of our hearts begin to nurture dreams of what will come.
March 25, 2020
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