Autumn Equinox Ritual at Camp Isabella Freedman
This autumn equinox ritual was performed at midnight between Sept. 22 and Sept. 23 on the first night of Rosh haShanah, at Camp Isabella Freedman in Connecticut.
One of the highlights of the wonderful Rosh haShanah retreat at Camp Isabella Freedman this year (Oct. 22-24, www.isabellafreedman.org) was that more than twenty people came for the midnight autumn equinox ritual in the woods. It was such an amazing ritual that I want to share it with others.
When I realized that the moment of the autumn equinox would fall around midnight on the first night of Rosh haShanah, I knew I had to plan something to mark this event. So, I invited the other retreatants to join me for a Jewish ritual welcoming the autumn, and asked Tel Shemesh drummer Shoshana Jedwab to bring her drums. Mati, a camp resident, agreed to be our guide into the woods at night. When Rosh haShanah services and dinner were over, late at night, we began to gather to prepare oursleves for our walk into nature to honor the shifting seasons.
We met at the gazebo near the center of camp, sang Shabbat tunes, and learned Jewish traditions of the equinox, including the story that Abraham first encountered the Divine on a Rosh haShanah that was also an autumn equinox, while looking at the stars. I spoke about the balance of dark hours and light hours that occurs on the equinox, and talked about what it meant to be entering the dark half of the year, the half of the year that inspires dreams and visions. We learned the blessing over the equinox, related in the Talmud: Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, oseh vereishit (Blessed are You, Divine Guide of the World, who makes creation). Finally, we sang together an equinox song adapted from a song by Holly Taya Shere:
holy is the darkness
and holy is the light
holy is each one of us
and holy is the night
Guided by Mati, a member of the camp’s staff, we went on a silent walk deep into the woods. We wordlessly helped one another over obstacles in the moonless night, and listened and looked for spirit guides in the forest. Shoshana Jedwab drummed quietly for us. When we came to our clearing, we went on a brief spirit journey, inviting a guide to float down to us from the night sky (as Abraham once did). In the thick darkness, each person shared a word that their guide had spoken to them. Words like peace, mystery, and renewal floated through the night air to us.
As midnight arrived, I spoke of how our ancestors would pray at midnight for their hopes and dreams to be answered. How rare was this moment: Rosh haShanah, Shabbat, equinox, and midnight all together! We recited the blessing over the equinox. We sent up prayers. Then, I stood with another woman and created a bridge using a tallit. This was the doorway to autumn, and I invited each person to pass under the tallit into the new season. We struck up the “holy, holy” chant again, and Shoshana drummed, as people passed in joy, awe, and reverence into the dark and dreaming half of the year.
Then, aided by the spirits of all who had come, the singing and dancing took off. It was as if we all broke through into an ancient tribal moment, a deep and wild place. The harmonies spiraled upward into the sky. The darkness was no longer frightening; it had become one with us, dancing with us. I think we all were moved.
It was sad to end the ritual (we could have gone on singing all night), but I knew some of us needed to get to bed! I ended by telling the story of how, in one legend, the Israelites wore blue in the autumn to represent the sky. Naturally, someone started singing the blues, and in that bluesy mood we walked down the hill toward our beds.
There probably won’t be another Rosh haShanah-Shabbat-equinox-midnight moment in my lifetime. But I hope that each year as I enter the autumn I’ll remember this extraordinary ritual, and be inspired by the darkening days. What I learned this year is that darkness causes us to trust, and sing for, one another.
—Rabbi Jill Hammer
Rabbi Jill Hammer is the founder of Tel Shemesh and author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.
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