and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field. -Exodus 23: 16
and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. -Exodus 34:22
It is interesting to consider the correlation between the cycles of nature and the spiritual contents attached to points in the calendar, here and in the Diaspora. In the temperate climate of Europe and North America, summer connotes plenty, green, lushness, warmth, and light, when the living is easy. The transition through fall to winter represents a kind of dying. The light fades, the color goes to black-gray-and white, warm and green goes to cold and barren. Nights are long and even during the day the sun is often out of sight. The High Holy Days and Sukkot occur during the autumn, and thus, though a crisp fall day can be invigorating, the stage set for these days is one of a fading, dying world. Perhaps by repenting we can fend off the encroaching darkness. While these are joyous days, they carry a tinge of melancholy, of loss, of threat, as the sun turns its attention to the other half of the world. In a way, the joy of Sukkot as a harvest festival is the joy of being secure that the products of summer are plentiful, and salted away for the long barren season that is upon us. The early pilgrims to North America celebrated a feast of thanksgiving for their first harvest during October of 1621, which may have been a reflection either of their identification with the Children of Israel in the Promised Land or of European customs of autumn harvest celebrations, like Michaelmas in England.
Here on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, even though the days are getting shorter and summers warmth is fading, the feeling in the air is not that the world is dying, but rather that the world is about to be reborn. The end of summer sees the land gasping for water, and it is as though we join it in the sensation of painful anticipation of the first rain, of the return of life. End-of-summer is the season of the chamsin, or sharav, a hot, dry dusty wind from the desert, usually lasting for several days at a time, that saps ones energy and brings with it brush fires, irritability, sand flies, and headaches. We know (or we have faith) that the rain will come, that the earth will re-green, that the dust will wash away and the air become breathable again. And so, the High Holy Day season is not a time of fading, of preparing for cold, lean, dark times, but rather a time of high anticipation, of looking forward to renewal. Those occasional days when there are clouds that last, or even a shower, the first cool nights, infuse this season with hope and optimism. The smell of the first rain after six months with none makes everyone smile even though rain after a chamsin coats everything in mud as it washes the dust out of the air and even if the first rain on six months accumulation of oily soot on the roads causes a rash of accidents.
The spirit of the season here is not dominated by concern for how bad the winter will be, but rather by concern for how good the winter will be: on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of the succession of fall holidays, we recite the prayer for rain, reminding God of the importance of water and water imagery in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and the 12 Tribes, and asking for the wind to blow and the rain to fall, for a blessing, and not for a curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for scarcity.