So much of healthy life is a matter of balance and boundaries. In Jewish tradition, performance of mourning supplants life for one week, coexists with life for thirty days or one year (for parents), and is thereafter absorbed by life and given voice for only a few brief occasions – yahrzeit and four Yizkors – in each year. Grief makes its own schedule and charts its own course, but by balancing and bounding the rituals of mourning, we hope to induce our grief to follow a similar program and stay within healthy limits as well.
In similar fashion, though on a more joyous part of the spectrum of human experience, after nearly a month of back-to-back (to back-to-back) holidays, preceded by a month of spiritual preparation, which was in turn preceded by six weeks of thematic precursors, our tradition has concluded that we need to restore balance and boundaries by taking an extended break from holidays for a full two months, from the last week of Tishrei to the last week of Kislev, with the entire month of Cheshvan in between.
In a more practical view, you will also note that the annual biblical holidays cluster exclusively in the fall and spring. These holidays were occasions for pilgrimage to the Temple. In the Levantine summer it was just too hot for it. Israeli winter, on the other hand, would never be confused with Buffalo football weather, but it is the rainy season. Imagine tens of thousands of people streaming into Jerusalem, many riding horses and donkeys, many bringing bulls, sheep, and goats for sacrifice, all on unpaved ancient roads. Now add a good rainstorm and you’ve got Woodstock in the streets of the city, minus the Grateful Dead.
That is not to say there is nothing exciting coming up on the Jewish calendar, though. Between the time you read this and the end of the secular year, we’ll be reading Sefer Bereishit (The Book of Genesis) in our weekly Torah portions. This book of the Torah is narrative-driven, and as the focus narrows from the story of all humankind to the story of one family – our family, not coincidentally – it is also among the most relatable and affective parts of the Torah. Sibling rivalries, generational changes, births, brises, and burials: these all play major roles in the Bereishit stories, but they are all part of real life to this day, making them perhaps a little easier to feel our kishkes resonate with than stories of slavery, pyramid building, and parting seas, or stretches of the Torah that sideline storytelling to focus on architecture or legislation. Those parts of Torah are full riches to be mined with a bit of digging, but this opening book offers gems in plain view.
Over the course of the upcoming months, we’ll also come to the end of our break from holidays, with Chanukah. Although every Shabbat and Yom Tov includes candlelighting, it is no coincidence that a holiday that comes at the darkest time of year is celebrated primarily by kindling lights. Along with the historical story of the holiday, which involves the tiny Jewish nation resisting the general cultural pressure and specific religious coercion of one of the superpowers of the age, the observance of the holiday by symbolically resisting the darkness of the season is a reminder that we don’t always need to give in to larger forces around us. From under the domination of decadent paganism, we can assert ethical monotheism; in the darkest of winter, we can share light; in a society and age that obsesses over celebrity and ostentation, we can demonstrate humility, decency, and generosity.
As we prepare for winter in our neighborhood – still not quite Buffalo football weather, but a good deal colder and certainly snowier than Israeli winter – don’t forget that you can join us in shul to warm up with good company (and good stories from Bereishit) on a Shabbos, but also that when the weather is just too much to brave, you can still join us over Zoom for the foreseeable future. Stay warm and stay well, and I hope to see each of you, whether in two dimensions or three, in the coming weeks.