In the land of the living


The Jewish calendar packs what seems like a year’s worth of holidays into less than a month. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and ending with a celebration of the Torah — the five biblical books that we read from start to finish every year — it’s the completion of a cycle. The birth of a new one. The season of t’shuva, of return, again and again.

And then comes Heshvan, a month without holidays. The rabbis of tradition named it “Mar Heshvan,” bitter Heshvan: a barren time to be endured until Hanukkah, the next celebration.

That has never completely rung true for me. After the hectic fall holiday season, Heshvan comes as something of a relief — a return to normalcy.

But this year is different. My feeling this Heshvan is not of moving away from the holidays, but of moving toward, moving into.

Rabbi Yael Levy, one of my (mostly online) teachers, refers to Heshvan as “spacious time.” It’s an opportunity to reestablish daily and weekly rhythms. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to shift those rhythms: back, to the fundamentals we’ve lost sight of, and forward, to accommodate new realities. As the earth turns and circles the sun, we return to the same spot — but it’s never exactly the same.

Starting a month before Rosh Hashanah, and continuing almost until Heshvan, we recite Psalm 27 every day. A complex, powerful poem for a complex, powerful season, it expresses faith in the face of enemies who want to “devour my flesh,” and a longing to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”

Three years ago, I focused on what it might mean to dwell in the house of the Lord — not in some imagined afterlife, but in all the days of this life. I concluded that “sitting in God’s house can mean sitting, humbly but compassionately, with my whole self, imperfections and all.”

Last year, my mother’s death, five years after my father’s, forced me to confront a different line of Psalm 27: “Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will gather me in.”

This year, the cycle of return and renewal has brought me to a new place. A better place.

Near the end of Psalm 27, the psalmist declares: Lulei he’emanti lirot b’tuv Adonai b’eretz hayim. Translators differ on the meaning of the first word, lulei. But the rest of the sentence is clear: “I have faith that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

On every holiday and every new occasion, Jews recite a brief prayer known as the Shehecheyanu. In 11 words, it thanks God for granting us life, sustaining us, and bringing us “to this season.” Five weeks ago, on the evening of Yom Kippur, I joined my voice with hundreds of others in chanting those words to the solemn and haunting melody that we use only once a year. With a chill, I felt the deep power of giving thanks for having completed one more year of life, and of praying that in another year, I can stand in the same spot and say it again.

Now, halfway through Heshvan, we have stopped reciting Psalm 27. But I’m ready to make my own declaration: I have rejoined the land of the living. And I am seeing the goodness.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

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