This week is the Autumn equinox, the time of year when Earth’s northern hemisphere prepares to move into the inward looking months of Winter, longer, darker nights, and a period of slowing down. Historically Autumn was that period of plenty, when the fruits of Spring and Summer filled our store cupboards, and we began to hunker down ready for colder, shorter days. Perhaps for that reason, it was the time chosen for the Jewish (and Islamic) New Year. A season of plenty when we might reflect on how we have used our time; whether the outer stores of meat, grain and other food for winter are reflected by inner stores.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus is born during the darkest point of winter. Having conceived in the early part of Spring, Mary’s pregnancy progresses through the cycle of seasons, concluding, not with darkness, but a symbol of great light. Right now She is visibly heavy with child, Her aura no doubt radiating in the way that pregnant woman do; in Mary’s case perhaps more so, given whom She was carrying!
This is also a good time for clearing away the baggage of the past and looking ahead to a brighter future. I especially value the Jewish tradition known as Tashlikh, which literally means “cast off”. This is a ritual performed next to flowing water, where one symbolically casts off one’s sins into the water to be carried away. I like to broaden the meaning to include not only sins but any psychological baggage that is holding me back.
In the Gospels, Jesus heals a man saying, “Take up your bed and walk … and sin no more”¹. This is often interpreted in a limited way – the word “sin” obviously has a negative association – but we know that to facilitate change in our lives we need to change the way we live. “Sin no more” can mean do not continue in those kinds of behaviour, both physical and emotional, that have held you back. So my prayer in casting off the baggage of the past year is something like,” Help me, YHVH Elohim, to move forward in my ways, to end the patterns of behaviour holding me back and lead me toward paths that nourish and bring me closer to You.”
Following soon after Yom Kippur, the festival of Succot (literally ‘booths’, we’d probably say ‘Yurts’ these days!) celebrates the harvest, while reminding us of the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. They lived a nomadic existence, in temporary homes that could be assembled and disassembled quickly. This is a wonderful analogy for the spiritual life. No one in ‘The Work’ can afford to rest in one place too long – I don’t mean that literally, but rather psychologically and spiritually. I have seen too many people, even among those who regularly attend schools of the soul, stuck in the belief that outward practice, or even intellectual understanding, is enough. The message of Succot is to recognise that the journey requires us to look within and step out of our comfort zones, awake to whatever challenges confront us along the way.
The reward for such endeavour is symbolised by the festival of Simchat Torah (“rejoicing in the Torah/Law”) that follows immediately after Succot. It represents the point at which the Israelites received the Aseret Ha’Dibrot (Ten Commandments, literally “Ten Statements”) and became the Am Yisroel (“People of Israel”²). Accepting Divine Law opens the way to spiritual growth. Just as the harvests of Autumn provide nourishment for the body, the harvest of Divine Law provides a basis for spiritual growth; it nourishes the soul. Conventional religion recognises this through reading and studying scripture, both of which are central to Jewish and Christian practice. But it is equally important for any Spiritual Pilgrim.
This does not mean you have to sit down and read the Bible every day, though you might find it to be a powerful form of meditation. It means awakening to how Divine Law functions in our everyday life. This is both a challenge and a blessing. Without it we merely go through the motions of daily routine; with it we embrace the subtlety and wisdom contained within the very cycles of life. Appreciating this symbolism is a pathway to the understanding of Self, a light shining in the wilderness.
Shana tova u’metukah. G’mar Chatima Tovah. (May you have a good and sweet year. May you be inscribed for good in the Book of Life.)
¹In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus simply says “Pick up your bed and walk”. However, according to John, Jesus meets the man later and tells him to leave his sinful ways, lest he suffer worse.
²Bear in mind that Israel (Yisroel) means “One who struggles with God” – in other words, one who commits deep within her/himself to a life dedicated to spiritual awakening. That the Israelites become the Am Yisroel at this point is a personal reading, so not everyone will agree with me. I would suggest that when one truly accepts the Torah, i.e. one opts to live one’s life according to Divine Law, one ceases to be a child and joins the ‘Am Yisroel’ (People of Israel) rather than the ‘Bnei Yisroel’ (children of Israel).