Seasons of the Soul
Rosh Hashanah 5782 | Delivered on September 7, 2021
If I were to ask you how you were doing, how might you reply? Good. Fine. Busy. Crazy busy
Consider the question: How are you? Three words we often ask in passing, answering just as quickly with little thought. Yet, the question carries expectation. In answering, we can be self-protective, or we can overshare. We answer differently to the clerk behind the CVS counter than we do with our family members. The clerk does not need to know the details of our day, while our partners and friends do.
It can be tricky answering the question How are you? Because, in answering honestly we tacitly recognize that we are vulnerable beings.
Toward the start of the pandemic, I called an older relative of mine to check-in. She lives alone, and I was worried about her isolation. I asked her how she was doing, and she started to laugh. "Horrible," she replied. She explained that the isolation was difficult, that she was struggling with bouts of sadness. But, she was on almost daily calls all of us from the family on FaceTime, she had her synagogue’s weekly Shabbat services by Zoom, and she was taking that online writing class she had always promised herself she would take one day. "I cannot imagine how I would have managed the pandemic without the internet," she said. Still, she was struggling, and was glad I had called so we could talk.
In reply, I felt gratitude for her honesty.
So let me ask: How are you doing?
The longer the pandemic goes on, the more complicated it becomes to answer because life keeps happening to us. Even amid the pandemic, we have gotten married, lost jobs and started new businesses, we have been sick, and we have healed, bought and sold houses, we became bar and bat mitzvah, and attended funerals of loved ones. Life just keeps happening to us. We live through seasons that continue to alternate, and we continue to transform as people in and around a COVID reality. "For everything, there is a season, a time for everything under heaven," said Ecclesiastes, even in pandemic times.
Personally, I have found that how I'm doing is connected to the season. Winter can make a person feel isolated. It is hard when it gets dark so early. The warmth of summer prompts joy and ease. For that reason, I think that the seasons describe well how we are doing emotionally and spiritually, too. Our souls have seasons, too: In Winter, I struggled. Spring brought healing. Summer was about growth. And the Fall, as we begin again, is a chance at radical restoration. As the seasons change, we transform. By tracing through each season, we find language that captures the chapters of our lives. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall: each yields quality, honest answers to the question, How are you?
So first, Winter: In Winter, we struggled.
I--for one--have a difficult time admitting that things are hard. As a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist, I know the glass is both half empty and half full, that if I work hard enough, I can make it overflow. But, I contest the claim that God only gives us what we can handle. I have seen that for some of us, sometimes God can dish too much. That is when we find ourselves in our own personal winters. "Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again," writes Katherine May. We get sick, as do our loved ones, we lose a job, our children struggle, the air feels colder than expected, and the dark comes earlier than we would like. Winter is the hardship that comes our way, and no matter what we seem to do, we cannot come up with an adequate remedy. Winter happens to us all.
Shortly after the High Holy Days last year, Liz and I found ourselves planning for the upcoming Winter with an intensity I do not recall prior. We were already fatigued from months of pandemic living. Our dog had been sick, and we could no longer care for him. We lost our childcare and did not know how to bring another caretaker into our house without anyone vaccinated. We had not seen family or spent time with anyone else in person for months. The first wave of vaccinations was close, but no one knew when it would arrive. We were anxious about being stuck inside because of the Winter outside and the Winter we were already feeling. I would step outside in the mornings, sniff the air, and like some character from Game of Thrones declare, "Winter is coming." We were living with a sense of foreboding. The Winter was going to be so hard. It was. COVID has been a long winter, carrying with it a great deal of suffering, which we mostly carried in private, at home, shut away from one another.
In winters, we struggle, whether we stay in place or try to run from it. We can escape the cold, but winters of the soul set in no matter our location. Recognizing that we are stuck in a winter then serves a purpose: "It tells us that something is going wrong" (May, 42). And when we notice we are Wintering, we have permission to say that we wish it were otherwise. We long for warmth when we are stuck out in the cold. Our ability to declare that we are stuck in a winter is our superpower that brings on Spring. But we should be cautious about our own desires to shorten our wintering too quickly.
Sometimes we feel the urge to shorten Winter, to get away from the bite of the cold. Any of us who have sat together in a tragic or difficult season know we cannot outrun the suffering that is a part of the Winter. No one should experience more pain than necessary, nor are we afforded a life full of ease. Just as the gardener dreams of the first perennials to push up through the frost, our winter-time suffering can be a prayer for a different reality. It lasts as long as it lasts, and suffering through Winter can yield imagination, hope, and dreams. "The world, our friends, the self-help books, our colleagues and acquaintances, they all want us to move on... the world leaves us so little permission, so little space, so little time," writes Rabbi Steve Leder, "Pain is the house that will listen patiently to your tears." It signals that something is amiss and sparks thought of how things ought to be and how they could be. And so, in the depths of Winter, we search within for the invincible summer.
And when we find that source of heat, the cold begins to ease, and maybe our challenges do not just give way to restoration just yet, but possess some healing powers themselves. "After all, you apply ice to a joint after an awkward fall. Why not do the same to life?" (Leder) We cannot wipe away our scars or undo our bruised egos, but giving things time--going through Winter--can give way to a personal Spring.
Because in Spring, we heal.
Throughout the pandemic, we have welcomed many families to the Berkshires. Over the last eighteen months, Rabbi Gordon and I have had conversations with many of you, our newcomers, about what living in the Berkshires full time is like.
My seven years living here full time does not make me an expert in Berkshire living, but it does provide hindsight. I am evangelical about how great it is to live here full time. Still, any place you call home has a few challenges. When looking at the seasons in the Berkshires, I find the most difficult is Springtime--Mud Season.
At first, the white snow of Winter has not fully thawed, and it is more brown slush filled with gravel, salt, and sand. That last errant snowstorm catches us off guard, shutting us in when we are ready to bust out. In Springtime, we are not without pangs that remind us of the injury we experienced in our Winters. We enter Spring like those coming out of mourning. In Jewish tradition, after observing seven days of Shiva, a family ends this first period of mourning by taking a walk around the block. Doing so signals their re-entry into the community. A Winter of mourning approaches a Spring for healing.
Out of Winter, the healing of Spring comes with the warmer weather. The ground goes soft, and the mud smells ripe. Spring days were made for muck boots. Mud Season an in-between time taking us from the injuries of Winter, pulling us toward Summer. In Spring, runners and bikers get off their treadmills and Pelotons to head outside again, no longer fearing black ice. Gardeners thumb through seed catalogs, putting in orders for all they will grow in Summer. The Tanglewood and Pillow seasons are announced, and we quickly buy tickets for a summertime of concerts and plays.
Spring is healing because it is transitional. After all, time softens our wounds. In Springtime, we Jews spend our time counting across the season. From Passover to Shavuot, we pace out 49 days, the counting of the Omer. Growing up in Texas, my grandmother would not allow us to go swimming before Shavuot. It was not yet Summer, she said. No one goes swimming in the Spring.
Our souls go through a transitional Spring, too. When the trials we endured in our personal Winters have passed, looking back, we can put first words to what we experienced. And perhaps that distance also allows us to start to dream of what is to come. I am not certain if we are still amid the long Winter of COVID or have reached the Spring of this pandemic. Either way, while looking toward Summer, this past Spring convinced me that we need vacations as much as we need mass vaccinations. Dreaming in Spring of those summertime vacations transport us to the next season for our souls. And, oh, how Summer is good for the soul.
Because in Summer, we grow. Growth is joyous. This past April, Liz and I welcomed our second child to our family. With Mikah's birth and subsequent days, weeks, and now months, we have become those parents again, taking thousands of photos, willing to share with anyone who asks. We delight at how such a small person grows so quickly, figures out her surroundings, and learns to smile for the first time. Her growth is joyous.
Everyone deserves to experience joy in their lives. Under some circumstances, joy is serendipitous. And sometimes, we do all we can to cultivate Summer and growth. We Jews mark seasons by holidays. Winter has Chanukah and Spring, Passover. In the Berkshires, we have Tanglewood. In the Hirsch family, it is not summer without shlepping a wagon up to the Lion's Gate. It makes me feel like a pilgrim coming into Jerusalem. The ritual of finding a place on the lawn, putting my feet in the grass, enjoying a glass of wine, and listening to the BSO: it is absolute heaven.
That sweetness of Summer makes all the other struggles worth it. Knowing the path we have had to travel to get there makes it meaningful. Were it not for the cold, we could never appreciate the heat of the sun. Were it not for the healing the Spring offered, we would have never found the calm that comes in Summer. There is a reason Jerusalem was always understood to be a holy city. It is a city on top of a hill; one is always walking uphill in Jerusalem. Summer is the satisfaction of having made it to the top of the climb.
When standing with wedding couples under their chuppah, often in the Summertime, I find myself encouraging them to linger in the warmth of the moment. After all, how often do we have this particular collection of people together for such a wonderful moment in our lives? When we gather for a happy occasion like a summertime wedding, we should do all we can to bottle it up, to call upon its warmth and joy at other seasons. Summertime is a mountain top that can sustain us across more seasons than just the summer itself.
We are called to do all we can to save our personal summers, because another truth about the seasons is that they are impermanent. Summer eventually gives way to Fall.
And in the Fall, we find radical restoration. This restoration is born out of what we do together today and on Yom Kippur. The Fall--and especially the High Holy Days--is a season for honesty with ourselves, with one another, and with God. And in telling the truth, responding to the vulnerability that comes with the question, How are you?, we bring a fresh sense of solidity. In the High Holy Days, we refresh.
In Sefardi circles, it has long been customary that for each morning during Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, members of the community gather at the synagogue before sunrise. An elder makes sweet hot tea, bringing it around to everyone gathered. The atmosphere is quiet. The congregation chants Psalms and prayers together, the Selichot service.
I attended one of these services when living in Jerusalem. The tea was some of the best I have ever had. The meditative music allowed a sleepy person to wake up as we made our way through the service, which concluded with Avinu Malkeinu. We stood before the open ark. In the early morning light, something about the synagogue, coupled with the familiar tune, forced my heart open. I felt something shift. And as soon as I noticed that, someone called out T'kiah! and a long, strong shofar blast welcomed the sunrise. It was radical restoration.
It was the t'shuvah of Rosh Hashanah. Two types of t'shuvah happen during the High Holy Days. The more familiar version of t'shuvah is that of Yom Kippur, the t'shuvah of repentance, in which we beat our chests, promising transformation, and seeking forgiveness.
The shofar is the signal for the t'shuvah of Rosh Hashanah. T'shuvah has to do with turning; Lashuv in Hebrew means to turn around. T'shuvah is an internal metamorphosis, with the shofar reminding us to wake from our sleep, and to live life fully. We are called to beg off vain pursuits, and reorient ourselves to what really matters. T’shuvah is recalibration.
As we endure through this phase of the pandemic, we need this sort of recalibration. We are not going back to the way things were. We have learned new patterns for work, new ways to be a community in person and online, figured out that outdoor dining can be quite lovely. We have both been denied the opportunity to mourn as we expected and gained the gift of the Zoom shiva, being able to comfort friends or family when travel otherwise precludes us. The word that comes to mind is adaptation. We have suffered, we are healing, we are growing, and we can be restored. Restoration is being ready to say yes to the changes we go through, whether we seek them out or they come by circumstance alone. We are the sleepy worshipers in that Sephardi synagogue, who wake up with the sound of the shofar. We are the slumberers for whom t'shuvah is a call to be alert and embrace the seasons' constant change. In walking through Winter, Spring, and Summer, the Autumn, our souls cry out for profound transformation.
And so, let me ask you: How are you doing? In what season do you find yourself today? Now is the time to be honest with ourselves because we define the path before us with the answer we give. Our souls have seasons, too, and we can say: This Winter, I struggled. Spring brought healing. Summer, growth. And this Fall is a chance at radical restoration.
Pandemics, by definition, end. And one season flows into another. We are transformed in the process. This is the ultimate goal of t'shuvah: to say I am not the person I was before. The spiritual task is to notice how our sowing tears reaps joy, how the healing we experience in one season carries us toward the restoration of another. When our soul recognizes the chill of Winter, the growth of Spring, the joy of Summer, and promise of Fall, there we sense the honest answers to that most essential spiritual question: Really, how are you doing?
Shanah tova u'metukah. A sweet and happy new year.