When people ask me how long I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, I usually answer, “since my grandmother was born.” I live around the corner from where I grew up and from where my mother grew up. People always told me I was really lucky for that, but I never felt especially “lucky”–it was all I ever knew. But somehow I’m starting to appreciate my neighborhood more every year, maybe because I’m grateful there are so many memories layered in one place. There’s something especially powerful for me about the fall season here, and it’s not just the leaves changing colors. It’s that a walk around my neighborhood in the autumn (which other season has two names?) triggers back-to-school memories, the time when I first started to learn about myself and what mattered. One of my earliest school memories was when I learned about a holiday called Halloween. I knew it had an apostrophe (Hallowe’en) and it was also known as All Hallow’s Eve. Halloween was also where I first learned that life had a dark side. A really dark side. But on that one day a year, the dark side was what the fun was all about.
But there really is no acceptable place for the dark side in Judaism, and part of me still misses it. I understand that as Jews, we’re supposed to stay far away from the forces of evil; they’re real and we don’t want give them life, not even for a day. But I miss those days; I mean, just the word, necromancy sounds so, so necromantic. But it’s no joke, which means that I have to keep my distance from my dark and terrifying friends– witches, vampires, zombies, ghosts, skeletons, werewolves, all of them–feh! They are terrifying, I know, but that’s why I loved them. Because I also learned they weren’t real, or at least (evil laugh), they probably weren’t real. And when the scary stuff ended, my little grade school problems seemed oh so much more manageable. And that felt so good.
Unless this is the first time you’ve ever seen this blog, you probably know that I have spent the last thirty years on a journey to “feel good” in a Jewish way. The good news is that it’s especially easy this year for everyone to tap into that feeling, because the Jewish year of 5776 is a “Year of Hakhel” (gathering).
Here’s the quick Hakhel history:
Every seventh year, known as the year of Shemittah, the land of Israel must be allowed to remain fallow. The following year, on the holiday of Sukkos, every Jew—man, woman and child—was obligated to come to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for an event called Hakhel. The king would then read selected Torah portions in the presence of the entire nation. This Hakhel gathering was intended to have a spiritual effect on the nation similar to our original gathering, when the Jewish nation got the Torah at Mt. Sinai. At the Hakhel gathering, everyone “got it” all over again.
Even without the Temple, the spiritual energy of Hakhel still permeates this year. G-dliness is more accessible to us–within ourselves, our families, our community and the whole Jewish nation. This means, if I’m talking to myself and I’m talking about what more I can do for G-d, the energy of Hakhel will help me succeed. And if I’m talking to other Jews about G-d, well, there’s just less to be afraid of.
Can Hakhel do the trick on Halloween? I’m not sure, but it’s worth a try.
Because no matter how we relate to the dark forces in the world, we would all be a lot better off without them. And who knows? A little Jewish talk on Halloween could be all the world needs to bring Moshiach, when these dark forces will disappear forever.