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Sunday, December 21, 2014

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To everything a season

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I just finished reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five Windows on the Season (Massey Lectures, 2011). I know – I’m either way behind or a bit ahead of that part of the year, but his lectures got me thinking about the change in seasons we are undergoing right now.

We out here in La-La Land have rejoiced in the most wonderful, warm autumn in recent memory. For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we saw delightful sunshine, while on Sukkot, most days and evenings, one could sit in the sukkah without earmuffs. Instead of grey and gloom, we had light!

In Israel, the climax of these holidays is a ceremony called Bet Hashoevah, the water-drawing ceremony, held at the site of the spring that long ago fed a vital pool of water at the foot of Jerusalem’s City of David.

The Mishnah records ecstatic celebrations that took place on the last evening, as throngs danced, prayed and pleaded for rain after a long, arid summer. They stood, if you will, at the corner of dread and desire. An outsider would be forgiven if he were confused: are they beseeching the God of Israel or the goddess of nature? As the season changed, the fate of the next agricultural year hung between heaven and the dry earth. No rain meant hunger, and perhaps famine. Only rain would assure a sturdy and plentiful crop.

No wonder we ask for the rain to fall.

Exiled from Eretz Israel, Jews still retained prayers for abundant rain, even without access to the land.

The rabbis of the Talmud did well to shift the emphasis on Sukkot and Simchat Torah from waiting for rain to the receiving of Torah, which would satisfy our thirst for spiritual nourishment just as rain did for crops. The result was to focus the fall celebration on the moment when the membrane between physical needs and spiritual thirst is thinnest.

As with all three pilgrimage festivals (the Shalosh Regalim), we invoke the redemption of the messianic era: on Sukkot, we pray “renew for us the sukkah/kingdom of David, fallen” and to be restored at the end of all seasons.

Annually, Vancouver rabbis remind their flocks that the prayer is for Israel, not the Pacific Rim.

Who needs to pray for that which falls from the heaven without prayer? However, this year we gloried in the postponement of the wet.

We enjoyed an autumn rarely seen, one in which maples and other trees have presented intense reds and yellows, russet and golden in the sun. It’s all the more striking when these trees are nestled among what one local columnist calls “fifty shades of green.” Particularly amazing was our recent ferry trip from Vancouver to Victoria, past island inlets where the contrasts were most vivid. We sailed past an island ferry nestled up to a harbour teat, the whole picture framed by an array of green, gold and scarlet.

Lately, snow has appeared on the far mountains. At the shoreline, brilliant colors still make a unique contrast.

Autumn also signifies the season of aging, when we decline into frail old age. However when John Donne contemplated change in seasons in his poem The Autumnall, he compared autumn to the changes we undergo in our relationships as we age. Donne made beautiful his beloved’s season of maturity: “nature did blesse her youth with ages glory.”

It’s now time to enter the dark time of the year. Fall colours can’t stave off the winter. We’re moving from a season of hope to a season of dread and darkness, cold and ice, the season that shaped Gopnik’s reflections.

So, rain, Torah wisdom of age, season of hope – autumn is all of these.

And after all, when winter comes, can spring be far behind?

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