“What’s the secret of survival during a Scandinavian winter?” I ask my hosts, late this past Friday night, as we walked along Stockholm streets, the Baltic Sea winds blowing not so gently. “Layers” is the immediate answer, followed by “patience.”
These seem to be the best answers to a lot of things – not only the long winter nights but also how to handle all sorts of difficult days, challenging periods and dark nights of the soul. Layers help us deal with multiple meanings of what’s going on; Patience is the brew that even in our fast paced world reminds us that there’s rhyme and reason to the seasonal tempo of change.
I’m here in Sweden for a few days teaching in the Jewish community and involved in some interfaith dialogue, just in time for the Winter Solstice – the Longest Night of the Year – December 21. This year, the date coincides with the Jewish fast day of the Tenth of Tevet – marking various moments of woe and tragedy in our long history.
Making sense of both these two holy days and nights as they converge this year is a study in layers and a portal into some of the oldest and most helpful secrets of spiritual survival, across all cultures.
The Solstice, once kept on Dec. 24th, is one of the longest observed holidays on the planet. It has gone through an incredible re-branding process over the centuries, with layer after layer of co-opted meanings. It is the origin of Christmas, very likely of Chanukah, and is alluded to in Talmudic tales and mystical maps as the origin of all winter rituals of hope: Out of the darkness come the insistence on natural light, human-made light and whatever it takes to take on the gloom of winter and the primal fears of cold and death. Few remember it today and the Solstice is a quasi pagan thing but it is, for me, for many, a precious opportunity to delve into internal darkness with a candle in our hand towards the light at the end of the path.
The Tenth of Tevet, marking a political moment of loss in Jewish history has been re-branded in the mid 20th century as the day of Kaddish for those for whom there are no known dates or graves – especially from the Holocaust. My grandmother is one of those victims whose memory is invoked on this night.
This year I will mark this longest night closer to the Arctic circle than I’ve ever before, grateful to the warmth of friends old and new, and safe in the shelter of serenity and hospitality. I’ll recite the Mourners Kaddish, light a candle, raise a glass of some local Swedish spirit when the fast is over, and bless the darkness and the light, layers of mystery, unwrapped each year as we go through another season ideally with patience and an eye on the warmer days ahead and all the joys we long for.
I’ll be thinking of the countless homeless refugees on the road through this long winter, of the many in the world torn by terror, for whom each night is so long already and hope is but a glimmer on the horizon.
I hope to be joining friends of mine here, working through the Church of Sweden’s refugee center to welcome Syrian newcomers on this night and offer hot soup, a warm word of welcome, a human hand and hug.
I invite you to find some way of making meaning during this longest night and shortest fast. Go out of your way to do the simple but powerful gesture of turning on the lights in your life and/or someone else’s. (I know you’re totally over Hanukkah and that Christmas is around the corner, but still…) The gifts of the season are about much more than shopping – they are about the power of kindness and generous love. It goes around.
It’s a good idea to be extra generous these last long nights of the year and prudently invest in tax-free projects that help turn on more lights in the world. So: Be generous. See where you can help. Please consider Lab/Shul as a recipient of your light in honor of all the work we’ve being doing to bring some light to you and others. Or find other ways to support noble efforts to let there be more light.
Good night y’all, merry and meaningful holy days and nights, and easy fast. Spring is on its way.