Segal: Fear and trembling in Aspen
September 6, 2013
It has always made sense to me that the Jewish new year occurs in autumn. With school starting and the season changing, it is a time of new beginnings. In the Jewish tradition, the holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to do "heshbon nefesh," an accounting of the soul. (Rosh Hashanah, the new year, began Wednesday evening; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins Friday evening. The 10 days between them are known as the Days of Awe.)
A central image in the Jewish liturgy of these holidays depicts God as a shepherd, making his flock pass under his staff, sealing each one's fate as it trembles with fear and dread in the face of divine judgment. It's not a warm and fuzzy metaphor, but it is a powerful one. Although we might not accept it literally, it can prompt us to take stock of our misdeeds and address our shortcomings in the new year.
Most important, it reminds us that we are mortal. As another prayer continues: "Man's origin is dust, and his end is dust. Life is striving for bread. Each of us is like a shattered vessel, grass that withers, a flower that fades, a shadow that passes." Much of our liturgy this time of year is designed to take us down a notch, to remind us that we are not in control. Our span on this earth is finite, and we do not decide the length of our days but only how we fill them.
Aspen is uniquely suited to inspire this kind of soul-searching, as nature herself seems to join us in our spiritual endeavor. The leaves change from green to gold and fall away as the trees prepare not only for winter but also for the rebirth that awaits when spring's melting snow gives way to the blossoming of new life. (It's not a coincidence that Passover and Easter, both holidays of rebirth and renewal, occur in the spring. The ancient Jewish sages even understood Passover as a new year in its own right.)
We can learn a deeper lesson from the trees, too. The word "aspen" means "trembling" or "quaking," so named for the way the tree's leaves tremble in even the slightest breeze. While we may associate quaking with the God-fearing imagery of the high holiday prayers, the aspens embody a softer side of spirituality. There is a gentleness to their trembling, a quiet strength in their quaking without breaking. Rather than fear and dread, the aspens speak to us about awe and reverence. They guide us to create beauty even when buffeted by life's storms. When they turn gold, for that brief, magical window in the fall, they remind us that some joys are all the sweeter because they are fleeting. For a poet's vision of what we can learn from the trees, visit http://bit.ly/amongthetrees.
Dwelling among reminders of mortality is important, but it is only one part of a balanced spiritual life. And so the cycle of the Jewish year leads us out of this heaviness into a festival, the holiday of Sukkot, which begins in the evening on Sept. 18 and lasts for a week. It is unique among Jewish holidays for the Bible's command to rejoice in it — we are required to be joyful! We celebrate by eating meals and receiving guests in a sukkah, a temporary structure with a porous roof that allows a view of the stars. (You can celebrate with us at the Aspen Chapel on Sept. 20 and at Rock Bottom Ranch on Sept. 22.) The holiday has its roots in the fall harvest, and some scholars suggest that early American Thanksgiving meals were based on the biblical Sukkot festival.
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During the Days of Awe, we look within and own up to our failings. Then during Sukkot, we rejoice in the beauty of creation, despite our brokenness and mortality. We embrace joyfully our partnership with God in the ongoing work of creation. We recommit to the hard but fulfilling task of bringing forth bread from the earth and together bringing the world closer to redemption.
Here's to a healthy, happy, sweet new year, overflowing with blessing for us all.