Rabbi Ilyse Glickman on a green banner with the title: The Word from the DJC

Wintering: Letting Within and Without Lie Fallow

I had the pleasure of sharing my thoughts on the topic of  “Wintering: Letting Within and Without Lie Fallow” with our neighbouring congregation at NUUC this past Sunday morning. We are fortunate to share wisdom and community through this unique Multifaith relationship.

A few months after my 29th birthday I was in a serious car accident, hit head on by another vehicle. What followed was 5 years of a very different life than I had imagined, assumed, or anticipated. I was not able to work anymore, my social life was all but gone, and living with chronic pain took an immense toll on my joie de vivre and sense of purpose. I felt a deep sense of loss and missed potential professionally: here I was in my “prime” earning years but unable to capitalize on them. I imagined where I should be “by now” and looked to my spouse, colleagues, and friends with a longing I have only recently started to acknowledge. 

I remember those years almost like a hazy dream: lots of sleeping and reading. Lots of movie-watching and poetry-writing. Lots of alone time. Looking back on these difficult years of recovery I see now that there were gifts to acknowledge amid the pain and frustration. This – I have come to learn – was a time of Wintering for me. My life sat in a state of fallow, at least my social and professional life. In other ways I was quite productive, most especially in my efforts to heal from my injuries. I found a grit and will and worked hard in the hopes of returning to the physical state I once was. 

This Wintering phase of my life was thrust upon me, by happenstance in the form of a head on collision less than half a kilometre from my home. Since those years I have thought a lot about this concept of Wintering through a Jewish lens. I wondered: what does my tradition have to say about this idea of letting things lie fallow?

We begin with the story of Creation in the Torah: The Divine One, Creator of All, is exceedingly busy creating all that is – from the stars to the ants to the great oaks to humanity. And here we are presented with a radical concept: Shabbat. A cessation of creation and work and productivity on the 7th day, every 7th day, in honour of this origin story. And because we are created B’Tzelem Elohim – in the Divine Image – we thus model our actions and behaviour after God. So we were gifted Shabbat, a day once a week that invites, asks, urges, even commands us to STOP. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks to this idea so eloquently in his work titled “The Sabbath”. He writes: 

One who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. One must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling one’s own life. One must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of humanity. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. (p. 13)

And from this cycle of 7 days our tradition widens the camera from the self to the land. And here we learn about the practice of Shmita. Torah teaches us that we may (nay, must) cultivate the land, work it, and harvest from it…but we must pause these efforts every 7 years. This Sabbatical Year, called the Year of Release, is a time when agricultural lands are to life fallow. The year is a great leveling of humanity, when access to food is available to all regardless of socio-economic standing or position in society. What we know about the science of food growth and production is that the Shmita experience is profoundly helpful to the soil, allowing it to regenerate and become primed for planting when the Year of Release is over. 

I can’t help but turn this teaching back to Shabbat: our souls are the soil of our lives and when we gift ourselves Shabbat – in whatever way feels good and whole and meaningful – we allow our souls to rest, regenerate, and hopefully enter the new week with clarity and curiosity.

So we’ve explored the Wintering of self in the gift of Shabbat and the Wintering of land/Earth in the religious obligation to observe Shmita. Amazingly, the cycle of Torah itself also fits well into this theme. Each week Jewish communities around the world read the Torah and we all read the same Parashah – the same Torah portion – whether we’re here in Toronto or in Marakesh or Paris. We are situated right now in the Book of Shmot (Exodus) and yesterday’s Torah portion, called Bo, tells the story of the final three plagues (last week’s Torah portion included the first seven plagues). Each year as we read this story of Pharoah and the Israelites, and Moses’ leadership in bringing us to freedom, we relive the narrow places of Egypt followed by the expansiveness of freedom on the other side of the Sea. We breathe and we sing and we dance as we revel in this newfound freedom. 

And this nearly matches up with our seasons, at least in this neck of the woods. We here in Toronto are in the season of Winter. It is cold and we may feel closed in and we may turn inward for warmth as we manage all of the darkness. But when March and April arrive with new buds of Spring, our freedom is reflected in Torah for this is the part of Torah that brings freedom from slavery, called Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Leaving from Mitrayim, Mitzyayim literally meaning the Narrow Places but also the Hebrew name for Egypt.

Whether we examine the theme of Wintering from a global, agriculture perspective, or a communal and deeply personal practice of Shabbat, or maybe even a fallow time of our lives prompted by loss or grief, the lessons remain the same: letting that which has been incessantly produced simply be; letting go of what “should” happen in favour of what needn’t; and trusting that the benefits – to soil and soul – of rest and rejuvenation are just as important as feverish production.

I’ll conclude with the following words, written by Rabbi David Ingber, that so poignantly encapsulate what we’ve been exploring here. As I share this piece of Torah, I’ll invite you to find a moment of rest, perhaps even of rejuvenation:

Something miraculous happens when we stop. We get to experience the power that nature knows called dormancy. Dormancy, that which is holding; the heartbeat that rests; the hibernating animals, all of winter; waiting and waiting…There are seeds inside each and every one of us, inside this culture, that cannot emerge because we do not know that dormancy does not mean death, resting does not mean disappearing. What keeps us from stopping is that we are terrified of resting. We are afraid of the imaginative terrible things we will feel in the quiet. We fear that when we stop, even for a moment, the sheer enormity of our lives will overwhelm us. Our outspoken and unspoken fears, they speed up our lives. Like a stone being thrown over a lake, we’ve learned to skip so we don’t get too wet, and we are terrified that if we let the stone fall, we will disappear. And so we think that our speed will save us from the void. We dance around the security that is offered from touching what is underneath the speed. Can we let go of the obsession of finishing what can’t be finished?


Rabbi Ilyse Glickman

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