I was talking with a friend yesterday, as we stood on the sidelines for a few minutes' break from dancing, about the the emotional highs and lows of the cycle of holidays. When I awoke this pitch-black Monday morning to face a new, ordinary week, I was struck by how closely this cycle mirrors human behavior. It begins with Tisha beAv, the remembrance of tragedy amidst the fattest time of the year, as crops in neverending daylight grow heavy with the fruits of our labor. Today those crops are mostly metaphorical, but I can imagine our ancestors lazing in succulent fields sure that all is well and always will be. And then Tisha beAv arrives to remind us of our folly.
But Judaism, like a compassionate parent, tempers rebuke with love. Seven weeks of consolation culminate in Rosh Hashanah and the promise of a new beginning--and the injunction to take resposibility and acknowledge the errors that led us to sadness in the first place. On Yom Kippur we share this burden and find ways to forgive ourselves and each other, and celebrate our new hope four days later at Sukkot. Now we are mature, and a little more realistic; we've learned that life is fragile, and spend the week under temporary shelters just in case we're tempted to forget. We gather one final time during Shemini Atzeret, when there's no further need for symbols and rituals--we've finally internalized the meaning of this cycle, and understand that the purpose of the day is simply to be with one another and, during Yizkor, with the memories of those we loved.
Finally it's Simhat Torah, when joy overflows in celebration of the words that taught us how to be human in the first place.
We get older, and the days grow shorter. Hanukkah arrives to remind us that there's always hope in the darkness, and Pesah and Purim a few months later to mark our new growth. And then we bask in the the summer sun once more--"Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked," Deut. 32:15--until Tisha beAv comes back, and we get another chance.
Judaism, human behavior, the cycle of nature--they are one and the same. I've read this interpretation many times, but didn't really get it until this year; maybe I was too caught up in myself to notice. Joy is tinged with sadness, grief lined with hope--there are no absolutes, and the cycle will always repeat and allow us infinite opportunities to heal and grow. Our end of the partership with God is to make that choice, or not. Freud had another take on this, but I prefer Kohelet, chapter 9, after he was done sighing about utter futility:
7. Go eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. (JPS translation)
I agree: God wants us to choose happiness.