Galilee Diary: Fade to Black

September 21, 2010Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

The Lord, the Lord is gracious and compassionate, patient, and abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon. -Exodus 34:6-7

In the years since we made aliyah I have become much more conscious of the connection between the Jewish calendar and the cycles of nature.  I suppose that I could have developed that consciousness anywhere in the northern hemisphere - it's the same sun and the same seasons; and indeed, for example, my memories of Sukkot in the United States are very much seasonally bound - whether the schach for our sukkah roof was reeds from the local wetlands, or cornstalks from a nearby farm. I don't know whether my heightened consciousness here stems from my own learning, from the central presence of the holidays in the public space, from living in a rural setting where nature is more "present," or from all three.  In any case, I get a lot of satisfaction from the awareness of the reflection of nature in the calendar - both the lunar and the solar cycles.

Like many liberal communities, Shorashim does not shift the time of kabbalat Shabbat every week as the time of sunset changes.  We simply have a winter time and a summer time.  However, for Yom Kippur, we are careful to time the services to match the actual sunset.  Thus, knowing pretty precisely how long the afternoon service and the "ne'ilah" (closing) service take, we time the end of the afternoon break so that the service will end just at the moment when it is dark enough to see three stars, sound the shofar, and end the fast.

The western side of our synagogue is a wall of windows, with a view over the treetops out the Hilazon Valley toward Haifa Bay.  The last 40 minutes of the ne'ilah service, the selichot portion, opens with the words: "the day is waning, the sun is low, let us enter Your gates..." In the prayerbook we use, this service is structured around the repetition, seven times, of the above passage from Exodus, separated by various biblical passages and medieval poems.  The young woman who led ne'ilah this year has a very pleasant and clear voice, the kind that invites participation, and the synagogue really echoed as we all joined in the familiar melody of "The Lord, the Lord..." with gusto. As we began, I noticed a large bank of cumulus clouds gathered over the valley. The sun was already low enough that the tops of the clouds were outlined in radiant gold, and the clouds themselves appeared gray in contrast.  The treetops were a tapestry of different shades of green. The clouds were significant, as we haven't really seen any for six months, and we were beginning to feel that summer was just not going to end.

By the third repetition, the gold had faded to a thin outline, the clouds to near-black.  By the fifth, the trees had gone to gray, and the lights of the Arab village of Sha'ab, across the valley, could be seen to glow.  By the end of the seventh repetition, all I could see in the window was the reflection of the worshippers in the synagogue - whose numbers had swelled throughout the service, until all the seats were full and it was standing room only along the sides and in the entryway.

The shofar was sounded. The gates were closed, for now; yet at the same time the clouds reminded us that we are about to enter a new season, a new year, a new beginning.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary

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