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A Sermon for the last Shabbat of 2020

Earlier this week, I read a piece in the New York Times called, “How We Survive the Winter.”

The article was published the day before the winter solstice, and it investigated the ways that people throughout time and across the globe have coped during and with the annual danger that comes with the depths of winter. The article’s author explained that despite the diversity of coping mechanisms, “Stories of surviving darkness are among the most enduring humans have, connecting us across culture and time.”

The article opens with a story told by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She explains that “For Generations, as the days darkened and the blizzards came, the Anishinaabe people warned of the Windigo… [The Windigo] is a human turned cannibal. His hunger is never sated, and it endangers everyone around him. He thinks only of himself.”

Robin goes on to explain that the lesson that we are meant to learn from the Windigo is that, “In Winter, a time of scarcity… [the creature] is a cautionary tale to remember the good of the community, beyond the self.” The Anishinaabe people believed that winter was the, “hungry time, the dangerous time, ...and [so] people counted their age not by years but by how many winters they have survived — that man has 70 winters, this woman has 16.”

Despite the beauty and power of Robin’s storytelling, I have to admit that if I had read her words last year, I’m sure that I would have felt a kind of urban condescension.

As 2019 became 2020, I probably would have scoffed at the idea that winter could consume us, that its very existence was enough to pose an existential threat to everyone I know and everyone I love.

But now, as the sand runs out and 2020 begins to end, I read this article and felt like I had been living with the reality of Robin’s Windigo for months now. Instead of overconfident condescension, her description of her ancestors’ stories about the beast of winter prompted only one question… is it possible that the Windigo has been here since March?

The article continues by taking its readers to medieval China. Jonathan Pettit, an assistant professor of Chinese religions at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, teaches that in early medieval China, Daoist priests [would lead a ritual that was meant to] intercede to the gods, who gathered in the wintry part of the heavens to judge people’s deeds. “The winter solstice mark[ed] the point in time where the generative and creative powers of our universe start to return and grow again,” Pettit said. “It is the other end of a dyadic power of yin and yang that balance and rebalance each other every cycle through the seasons.”

Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal Priest, spoke to the Times of the darkness that accompanies the end of the year. She said, “I have spent some long, scary nights waiting for the sun to come up. There have also been some long, barren seasons when I feared the sap would never rise again… The hardest thing is to keep trusting the cycle, to keep trusting that the balance will shift again even when I can’t imagine how….”

One of the most striking vignettes in the article begins with the information that the longest night that many parts of the United States experienced this year was between 13 and 16 hours. However, a town in Alaska has been enveloped in darkness for more than a month because the sun set in November and will not rise again for 65 days. The article goes on to point out that even in this far off place, “one of the remotest places on earth, the coronavirus is spreading.”

The article highlights the voice of Roy Nageak Sr, a man whose family has lived in that part of Alaska for generations. Roy “remembered a story his mother would tell, about one winter a century ago, in 1918. She was a small child, maybe 3 or 5, living to the east in what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, when word came that people were dying of a strange flu.”

Roy explains that in the face of not only darkness but also fear of illness, his family moved up into the mountains where they were lucky enough to find a place near a lake that supplied them with all the fish they needed that winter. They moved back home once the sun had returned - but only after they heard that people had stopped dying. Roy concludes his remembrance by saying of the mountains to which his family escaped, “People say it is a cold snowy wasteland,” he said. “But for us it is a good place to live.”

Friends, we are still in the grips of this winter. And while the solstice has passed and the new year draws near, we are not able to celebrate because dangers continue to lurk just beyond our sight.

As I read the many, diverse stories that the New York Times captured in this piece, I was forced to confront the fact that, in the words of A Song of Ice and Fire, I had lived the great majority of my life a Child of Summer, assuming that winter would either never come or that if it did, we would be able to handle it easily.

Reading the depth and breadth of traditions that people have created to cope with the fear that comes with the winter’s darkness, I realized that, despite having spent the last 10 months listening to the roar of the Windigo, I had also been operating under the assumption that if we could just get through this spiritual winter, we would all be able to go back to the arrogance of our summertime existence.

But the truth is that if we are lucky enough to make it through this winter, lucky enough to escape the danger of the beasts that ravage our communities, the divine judgement for our own deeds, and our own fear that the sun will never rise... if we are lucky enough to make it through all of that then it would be reckless, selfish, and small minded to allow ourselves to forget.

Because by forgetting the dangers of this spiritual winter, we would be forgetting ourselves. By pretending that our existence was once again assured, we would be denying the truth of our experiences. By embracing the warmth of the summer with uncomplicated enthusiasm, we would be failing to honor the ones who did not survive the dangers of the darkness.

And so, on this last Shabbat before the new year arrives, I encourage us all to reject the temptation to be summer’s children and to instead embrace the wisdom, resilience, and growth that comes from allowing ourselves to be shaped by this cataclysmic winter.

Instead of pretending that we know what 2021 will bring and creating a list of resolutions for the future, I encourage us to sit down and create a list of things that we have experienced in the darkness and that we refuse to allow ourselves to forget about this winter.

Instead of new year’s resolutions, these will be our hard-won treasures.

Here are some of mine:

I will never allow myself to forget the pain that came from not being able to hug my friends goodbye before I moved across the country.

I will never allow myself to forget the joy and gratitude that came from joining a community who cares so much about me that I feel their love despite our distance.

I will never allow myself to forget the selfishness of some who prioritized their own ease over the lives of others.

I will never allow myself to forget the unbelievable courage of the healthcare workers who have battled against an enemy more ferocious than any Windigo could ever be.

I will never allow myself to forget the generosity of spirit and heart that I saw in those who gave of their time, energy, and resources in order to support those who are isolated.

I will never allow myself to forget the grief that came as we lost so many.

I will never allow myself to forget what a gift technology can be and how grateful I am for the bridges it has created between us all.

I will never allow myself to forget the worry for loved ones that took up residence in my heart.

I will never allow myself to forget the beauty of the small moments of light that I was able to see more clearly because of the darkness.

On this Shabbat, I pray that spiritual summer will come swiftly and will bring its health, healing, and life to us all.

I pray that the light that we see on the horizon as more and more vaccines are given proves to be a true sunrise.

And I pray that we will allow ourselves to be changed by the darkness of the winter that we’re experiencing… because the only way to survive the next winter that comes is by learning as much as we can from this one.

Shabbat Shalom.


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