When I lived in California people complained that they missed the seasons. I always wondered about that. Having come from the East Coast, I often told them that if they were looking seasons, I could tell them exactly where to find it. They came to California for sunshine so why complain about the lack of seasons?
It is true that human nature is to look for the negative. When we have seasons, we wish we lived in warm climates. When we have perfect sunshine, we complain about the lack of seasons. Having lived in both climates, I can certainly appreciate the beauty of seasons.
The turning leaves in the Fall, the snow covered rooftops in the Winter, the budding flowers in the Spring, and the endless sundrenched days of the Summer. I am as flawed as the next person. When any of the seasons are too extreme, I complain. I don’t like it when the Winter gets too cold or drags too long and I don’t like it when the summer gets too hot. But all in all, I love the change and resilience of seasons.
Hills and Valleys
When our ancestors were poised to enter Israel, G-d told them that unlike Egypt, Israel is a place with hills and valleys. Like the seasons, hills and valleys provide contrast. In the desert, the vista spreads out before you monotonously and endlessly. There is room to expand as far as the eye can see. But there is no contrast. That is not authentic. That is not a replica of life.
Life is filled with contrast. There are good days and bad. High moments and low. Victories and losses. Happy days and sad days. Life is not all bright and cheerful. If it were, we would miss the seasons. That is because the valleys of life, the dips and ebbs, are not negatives. They are just different. They provide variety. A different experience. A different perspective.
Victories reinforce our belief in ourselves, but losses force us to regroup and plan anew making us stronger and more resilient. Happy days put a bounce in our step, but sad days force us to seek the larger rhythms of life. They summon us to dig deep and find meaning. They expand our horizons and the band of what we think is possible.
The peaks and the valleys, the ups and downs, are not good and bad. They are the variety and spice of life that comprises the human experience. As much as we can’t survive perpetual sorrow, we can’t thrive on perpetual joy. Ultimately, it is human nature to yearn for challenge, for new opportunities for growth.
The same is true from a spiritual perspective. Some days are filled with blessing, and we respond to G-d with love. We are so grateful for the good things that we sing spontaneous odes to G-d. Then come the days when we question our ability to survive. Days of such challenge that we know not what tomorrow might bring. These days are laced with fear, but they too are real. They are an authentic part of life.
Such days force us to examine our vulnerability and dependence on G-d. They cause us to pray in desperation and cry out in fear. This is a real form of engagement with G-d. Love of G-d and fear of G-d are both authentic. If we had one without the other, we couldn’t soar. Just like a bird can’t fly with one wing, so are we unable to ascend and reach G-d with only love or fear. Both are critical. Both are real. Hills and valleys. Highs and lows. They make a relationship real.
The Land Of Israel
Israel provides ample opportunity for both. It is a land that flows with milk and honey. It is a land that has historically only yielded its bounty for the Jewish people. When we were on the land, it flourished. When we were banned from the land it lay fallow and arid. This is true even in recent history. Despite the efforts of many nations, only the Jews could drain the swamps and turn Israel into an oasis in the desert.
But this oasis is constantly vulnerable. Surrounded by enemies, one never knows what tomorrow will bring. Riddled by terrorists, one never knows if one’s children are safe. With meager water resources, one can never depend on next year’s crop. It is a vulnerable country with highs and lows. With strengths and weaknesses. It is a country with hills and valleys. A country of seasons.
But these are not lows or troughs. They are opportunities to deepen our relationship and dependence on G-d. Psychologists say that you can’t always escape you fear by bolstering your confidence. Sometimes you need to face your fears and acknowledge that they are real. Sometimes by acknowledging that the danger might be greater than you, you can come to terms with the fear.
The same is true about the traumas and vulnerabilities of life. Sometimes it is best to accept them, embrace them with all their intensity and horror, and let them run through you. When you come out of it on the other end still safe and sound, alive and well, you know that G-d is with you. You know that you have a strength greater than your own. You have G-d on your side and are you all the better for it.
Another element of the hills and valleys is that it leaves room for individual expression.
Sometimes people think that religion leaves no room for individual expression. Everyone must hear the Shofar on the same day, and it matters not whether you are primed and spiritually ready. Everyone must celebrate Passover on the same and it matters not whether you are feeling free and liberated. Everyone must celebrate Simchat Torah on the same day whether or not they are feeling joy or love of the Torah.
The truth is that these days are not expressions of our feelings. They are tools to summon our feelings. To tease out what is buried inside and bring them to the fore so we can feel them too. But still, that leaves little room for individual expression. It bolsters the impression that Judaism is not about the individual.
However, the truth is that there is plenty of room for individual expression in Judaism. Perhaps not in the days of our calendar, but in the choices of life.
You see, when our ancestors divided up the land, they allocated regions and resources in accordance with the strengths and needs of each tribe. Some tribes received their section by the water because they were sea-merchants and would have felt trapped in the landlocked regions of the land. Other tribes were allocated mountainous regions because they were spiritual introverts who loved the heights and the serenity of the mountains. Tribes that loved to plant were given the fertile plane, etc.
The flat unchanging topography of Egypt would not have provided the variety required for individual expression. Israel, the land of hills and valleys, provided enough variety for everyone to find their niche.
Judaism is the same. While we can’t choose the mitzvot that we like or when to celebrate them, we can select the way in which we celebrate. Some celebrate alone with family. For them festivals are intimate family time. Some invite friends and neighbors. For them festivals are boisterous happy times. Some disburse large sums to charity. To them festivals are days to help the poor.
The same is true in other areas of life. Those who have a knack for teaching, can serve G-d by teaching. Those who have a penchant for singing, can serve G-d through song. Others with dance, others in contemplation or meditation. Some people serve G-d in the study houses, others in the marketplace.
Examine your strengths, choose your passion, and select your niche. Make Judaism your own and let it be an organic expression of your authentic self. Find your hill and your valley. There is one Judaism for all Jews, but it can be beautifully expressed through the unique prisms of your individual strengths.