At this time of year, when I am doing my cheshbon hanefesh (soul accounting) in preparation for the High Holy Days that herald the New Year, I become especially attuned to reminders and signs.
My everyday world is cluttered with ordinary reminders. I would not say I am particularly forgetful–in fact, I’m still pretty good with names and faces, with notable events and utterances. But a certain type of short-term memory slides off my awareness as smoothly as warm butter from a knife: why did I come downstairs? What was I supposed to remember to bring with me?
For instance, I’m one of those people who grew up believing time not spent reading was somehow wasted, so I always have a magazine sitting open on the bathroom sink; I’m used to reading articles in brief edifying sips, while brushing my teeth or flossing. When I want to remind myself to take a pill, I disrupt my automatic habit, stationing the bottle on top of the magazine as a reminder. If it have to stay on a regular dosage for a few days, I add a Post-it ruled into a grid so I can check off each pill, keeping track. When I have to remember to pick up the neighbors’ mail, I stick a Post-it on my front door, right at eye level.
So, especially as my brain cells age, I recognize the importance of mundane reminders. But right now, my attention is drawn to information of a higher order: reminders of deeper meaning. In early agrarian societies, life meant reading the signs. Spirituality was suffused with magical thinking: you had to make certain sacrifices to ensure crops; if the volcano erupted, it was punishment for some flaw in your sacrifices; if lightning struck your hut, it was a personal judgment. Somewhere in a corner of my mind sits a superstitious old woman who thinks in much the same way, issuing charms against the evil eye, reading a personal message into any remarkable event. I saw a beautiful, big egret standing in the marsh yesterday, dipping its beak into the reeds to drink. It let me come close. Its perfect whiteness, shining in the sun, seemed a sign of the immanence of purity and grace in our world, in my life.
Yet, I cannot convince myself that some sort of Grand Director is pulling strings for my personal benefit, sending me weather, putting lucky pennies in my path, tossing egrets into my line of sight at precise purposeful moments. But there is a depersonalized way of reading information from the text of the world, one that reveals a different type of magic. Here’s how it was explained in 1995 by the late Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, whose yahrzeit is on September 1 (I also wrote about him on August 24th). He was writing about the winter holiday of Hanukkah, but his point is not specific to that occasion, and I will let it stand as my wish for you in the new season, to notice the reminders, to be ready for a sign:
Lighting the Hanukkah candles reminds us to notice the light which begins to increase around this time. The little lights remind us of shiny stars, of miracles that happened, of the extraordinary…. The reminders of the holiday season cue us to be ready for a sign.
Personally, I feel open and ready for a sign. It’s not that I need new information such as what to do next; just that I feel ready for a bird to come and peck at me through the window. I am ready for God to lift a corner of the roof of our house, wink at me, as if to say, “I see you. Keep up the good work,” (and carefully replace the roof)….
All the Hanukkah hoohah — the Menorahs, Latkes, Draydles and so on (as well as all the Christmas hoohah) — are reminders that, at this time of year, our armor is naturally looser and we may, if we choose, see a sign out there.
Reminders are not as powerful as signs. The value of reminders is to cue us to drop our armor and be ready for a sign. In and of themselves, reminders are just oily pancakes, spinning tops, rows of candles, dead trees with pretty lights on them. But when you receive a sign — Oh! Then it is personal; rich; thrilling; intimate; awesome. I wish you all at least one good sign this holiday season, and I hope that all the reminders don’t get in the way.