As the warm weather recedes and is replaced by quintessential fall days, early sunsets and frosty mornings, many of us feel a sense of loss. We are already nostalgic for those long summer afternoons, the barbeque heating up and the sound of kids’ voices as they chase each other along the beach. American culture’s answer to this seasonal despondency is potatoes. A lot of potatoes, preferably served next to a lovely roast turkey and cranberry crumble. Comfort food, expressing gratitude, and getting cozy together as the winter approaches are wonderful antidotes to the sadness of saying goodbye to summer.
In Jewish time, this moment is not only the parting of ways from the carefree summer months, but also saying goodbye to the period of spiritual connection and community celebration of the High Holiday season. As Jews, many of us used this time to reconnect to our innermost selves, to recommit to our personal goals and the spiritual relationships we seek to nurture for the rest of the year. We might have raised our voices in prayer, whispered our confessions, and danced with the Torah in gratitude for all our blessings. Now the sukkot are packed away for another year, our challah boards are no longer sticky with honey, and we face a few months of regular life. What spiritual comfort food will help ease the transition from kodesh to chol, from the holy to the everyday? What rituals and traditions will help us bring the holiday season with us as we re-enter our regular lives?
There are three primary themes from the recent holidays that may be on our minds, three repeated motifs that knit together a journey from repentance to celebration.
The High Holiday liturgy describes that repentance, prayer, and charity can bring about a positive outcome for the coming year. The holiday season closes with the joyful release of Simchat Torah, adding simcha, joy, to this list of key themes. How can these themes be applied to our everyday reality as we say goodbye to the warmth and connection of the holidays? How can we use these tools as spiritual comfort food?
Spiritual connection through prayer doesn’t have to mirror the experience you find at synagogue. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov encouraged prayer in your own words, exactly as you are at this moment. He saw prayer as a spontaneous, individualized conversation with G-d that could lead to personal transformation. Rabbi Nachman called this hitbodedut, the practice of being alone with G-d in a quiet place. By introducing this practice in our everyday life. By carving our space to come to G-d—however we personally experience G-d—just as we are, we prolong and deepen the connection that we worked hard to create in the Holiday months.
Prayer can also be expressed in action. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, he described the experience by saying that his feet were praying. In a time of civil unrest, critics questioned why Heschel chose to join the ranks of marchers peacefully protesting for equal rights for all. They did not understand why a spiritual leader and Torah scholar would choose to leave the halls of learning to intervene. Heschel’s answer made it clear that marching in Selma was a form of prayer. By getting involved with our feet or our hands or our ballots, we pray for and help to shape a better world.
There are so many forms of prayer available to us, once we see tefilah as acts of hope and integrity that create a more just or beautiful reality. Composing a meal for loved ones out of beautiful ingredients, crafting a quilt to warm a much-awaited baby, creating a song that lifts the soul when before there was only sadness; all of these are forms of prayer.
Another way to bring the impact of the holidays into our mundane routines is to incorporate intentional kindness into our calendars. The Midrash explains that respect and decency towards others outweighs all other Torah obligations, so we know this is a good place to start. Brainstorm some doable ways that helping those in need can be scheduled into your regular routine. From providing mentoring to a student or young professional, lending your talents to a local non-profit, or just taking a moment each week before Shabbat to drop a few coins into a charity box, there are many bite-sized acts of kindness that will ward against a spiritual chill.
This one seems like the toughest to schedule, especially during a time period that does not obviously lend itself to spiritual joy. One helpful idea might be to identify a mitzvah or ritual that has always resonated with you. Each one of us is different in our passions and strengths, and there is a ritual or mitzvah that fits each of us. Reminding ourselves how much happiness we find in that one mitzvah and its intentional practice brings joy and warmth to the winter days ahead.
Spiritual joy does not always come from a prescribed formula. Stretching oneself physically to climb mountain peaks or to complete a memoir or documentary can bring the spiritual exhilaration of fully living and enjoying the world and all its blessings. For some, the feeling of looking out at a complex and magnificent world brings this happiness, while for others it hinges on contributing something of lasting value, creating a legacy that immortalizes and consecrates the human story.
These ideas build upon everything we may have accomplished in the High Holiday season and give us the tools to extend that good work and feeling of celebration into the months to come. In this way, we ease the pain of separation from the warmth of this time together and set off into day-to-day life with some solid strategies for accomplishing everything we wish to in the coming year. So while we definitely won’t say no to mashed potatoes and stuffing, we know that we also have a helping of spiritual comfort food to get us through.
November 18, 2019
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