Summertime is always a quiet time in the life of a synagogue. The families with children are away on holiday, the classes and courses stop for the duration, the long evenings and good weather tempt people to venture further away from home, and an atmosphere of indolence and tranquillity reigns. Well, almost. Because while there may be fewer people around and routine committee meetings and classes take a break, the summer is in fact a time of frenetic activity. It is just that the activity is ‘behind the scenes’ that it can go unnoticed.
There are a variety of levels of summertime behaviours in the Jewish world. There is of course all the hard work that goes into making sure that the Autumn festivals – what one colleague calls the “Autumn manoeuvres” go well. The choir and musicians rehearse their set pieces till souls soar on hearing them. The administration sends out numerous letters and tickets, the wardens plan mitzvot and page numbers, the security people organise rotas, parents organise children’s services and activities, crèches and rooms, the Chair considers charities and writes the Kol Nidrei appeal, the Rabbis plan sermons and readings…. A beehive would look like a slothful place in comparison to the work that goes on behind the scenes planning for these special days. And whatever date the services fall upon, they still seem to take us by surprise – have we notified the schools that our children wont be in? Have we invited people to break the fast with us? Is our sukkah still in working order or was last year’s rickety effort the final time it could be constructed? The list seems to grow longer the harder we work….
But there is other work to be done in preparation for these awesome days, and the work needs to also be planned and executed in these lovely summer days – that is the work of the soul, the taking stock of our lives and our selves in the bright yet warm light of God’s overseeing judgement.
Many years ago I took a December holiday in the Southern hemisphere. Sitting on a beach and watching the people frolicking in the water, my mind kept wandering to phrases from the Machzor for the Yamim Noraim – the high holy day prayer book. Whole chunks of liturgy inserted themselves into my head, the Avinu Malkenu which begs God not to let us go empty handed, the Vidui – confessional prayers. The rather ominous image of the Master of the House who was waiting…. It was all so incongruous and rather disturbing. Here I was some three months after the introspective fest, had celebrated Sukkot and danced at Simchat Torah – yet the powerful awareness of the days of Awe was pulling at me again. And suddenly it clicked – it wasn’t that I was spiritually out of synch. but that I was temporally so – the change in hemisphere brought about a lurch in the seasons, and my whole body was geared to summer time means preparation, introspection, consideration of my life. It was then that I realised just how much we are attuned to the cycle of nature in order to be attuned to our festivals. Spring time means crocus, daffodils and matza. Dark evenings mean chanukiot and doughnuts. Summer time is the time to begin the work so that when we arrive at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are already engaged in the process that those festivals will clarify and enable. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often surprise us simply because we haven’t begun the work early enough. Then suddenly it is time to stop and think, and there is too much to do, too little time.
F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the Great Gatsby “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
So this summer, while the weather is glorious and the temptation is to slow down and relax a little, do just that, but remember too that this is the signal to begin the preparation if you are to get the most out of the solemn period that constitutes the yamim noraim, the days of awe and repentance.