Summer is drawing to a close, a sense of purpose overtakes the languorous days that are vanishing, and, even here, in northern California, there is perceptible change in the quickening of the weather, colder evenings and the Indian summer warmth of days, dark overcast mornings and the first leaves turning into vibrant reds and gold and amber, while above me, migrating birds, a dark bruise against the horizon, leave for more hospitable places. A shift takes place in my heart and mind and body that turns me in anticipation to another season. Yet this has been no ordinary summer. It felt as though the very earth was burning beneath our feet and, in fact, it often was.
Uncontrollable wildfires, unlike any we have seen before, have tragically swallowed up homes and lives like a beast that has escaped from hell. Day after day smoke and haze have filled the skies and choked our throats and burned our eyes. There is a sense of urgency, as though a clarion call is issuing forth from the beleaguered universe itself, like the sound of the ancient Shofar that comes in this Hebrew month of Elul to remind me during the thirty days of contemplation before Rosh Hashanah, The Jewish New Year and the ten days that culminate in the Day of Atonement, that time is short and attention must be paid not only to my own spirit, but also to the earth— and to the anguish of many people who live on this planet— to the violence and discord in a world that seems to be uprooted and has lost its moorings. Perhaps it was always thus. But now we are not spared the knowledge of what is happening in every corner of the globe. And yet, hearing the cry of the Shofar this year, I am still filled with hope, not only for my own transformation during these traditional Days of Awe, but also replete with hope for a world that can be transfigured. The 27th psalm recited daily during this time so clearly encapsulates for me the fragility and duality of the human condition: confidence in the possibilities of life and assurances of my place in the universe, but also an awareness of the vulnerability of what it means to be human. This is the narrow precipice where we all live.
This duality was evident in many of the books I read. I am an eclectic reader. I read not only for enjoyment but also in search of the healing strengths and insights of literature. Over the past few months, I have read the posthumous collection, Last Stories, by one of my favorite authors, William Trevor, the haunting stories by Lauren Groff in Florida, and the superb compilation of nonfiction of Philip Roth and his insightful essays on American fiction, published by the Library of America in their living legacy series, that also features his own writing and commentary on several of the great authors of his time, such as Franz Kafka, Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz, Primo Levi, and the American writers, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, a true pleasure to read and savor.
Now as the season invites me to turn even more to introspection, I am rereading two volumes that I have found essential, S.Y. Agnon’s classic work, Days of Awe written by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a slim volume that I have treasured for many years, and Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe As A Journey of Transformation, to help guide me through these days. In only a few short years it has become a modern classic. I knew Rabbi Lew and as I follow the succession of his thoughts, I remember once more his creativity, his kindness and compassion, and his ability to find meaning and relevance that touch me with his wisdom.
In all of these writings, from the 27th psalm that is believed to have been written by King David centuries ago, to the most recent books of our time that have enriched me and helped me to think through the complexities and ambiguities of my own life and the inevitable dualities of being alive in this time and place, I am reminded again of the infinite power of words to inform and change our lives.