Cycles of Honey and Dark Matter
Updated: Jun 30, 2022
A couple of weeks before the end of the year 5780, according to the Jewish calendar, I landed in the country located at the eastern curve of the Mediterranean. The tires screeched as they made contact with the asphalt coated earth and faint clapping was heard throughout the aircraft. As soon as the plane was on solid ground, my heart swelled with a peculiar feeling of security. I was home.
Over a span of millennia, this land has been called many names: The Holy land, The Promised Land, Israel, Palestine, Canaan, The Land of Milk and Honey. Despite having lived abroad during my formative childhood years and the majority of my adult life, I still refer to this land as ‘home’. But as the plane propelled its way on ground towards the terminal, the captain’s voice appeared above our heads and exposed the land’s current prevailing name (on this side of the border at least) by announcing: “Good evening ladies and gentleman, welcome to Israel. The local time is 22:00 and the outside temperature is 33 degrees celsius with 99% humidity. We wish you a pleasant stay and...” I did not hear the captain's concluding words. Before the seatbelt lights turned off, the plane jerked to life by passengers filling up the isles to collect their luggage as they loudly called their family, friends and neighbours to notify them that they made it back home safe and sound. Aside from the surgical face masks and excessive amounts of hand sanitiser, things in the Holy Land appeared to be in their normal chaotic state. The looming existential crisis and ‘the end is near’ atmosphere have always been a given in this part of the world.
Back in The Netherlands, life was dreadfully bizarre. Being confined to my current city of Amsterdam due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I had not visited Israel or seen my family for 9 long months. The upheaval the world had undergone since winter was merely one component in my life’s disintegration over the last 12 months. I found myself frozen in a new rental apartment surrounded by piles of disassembled furniture and boxes of personal belongings, overwhelmed by endings, loss and lousy Dutch customer service that seemed to center more around what is not possible rather than on what is. I was suspended between a painful cycle that had come to an end and a new beginning I was not yet ready to step into. Exhausted, I craved something familiar to pull me back to solid ground and sanity.
It was the early days of Elul, the 12th and final month in the Jewish calendar, as I contemplated on how I might reassemble the scattered pieces of my-self and my life. Where does one go when grounding is required? Adrift between too many thoughts and various types of Ikea packaging, my ears caught Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ playing on Spotify radio. The words and reference to the old film struck a chord. A vintage image of lost Dorothy repeating “there is no place like home” in the land of Oz appeared in my mind’s eye. Being a firm believer of cosmic signs, I decided to follow the song and the young girl’s wise words and return to my plough. A visit to the Holy Land was on the horizon for me anyway with the upcoming Jewish holiday season, and there is no time better than the present. Why wait?
There were other reasons to pay Israel an early visit. Soaking up an extra month of golden sunlight and cloudless blue skies would be invaluable when the short days and cold of winter were threatening to soon take over the northern European country. Thanks to Covid-19, I could seamlessly study or work from any location equipped with a decent Wifi connection. The math was simple. Unable to reach my destination by clicking together a pair of sparkly red slippers, I resorted to the less magical version of clicking the mouse pad on my laptop and purchased a roundtrip ticket to Israel, leaving the following morning. My new beginning would have to wait.
However, my romantic nostalgia towards the Land of Milk and Honey was short lived. The air vibrates at a different frequency here. The transition from the land of ‘doe normaal’ (act normally) to the land of ‘yalla balagan’ (lets go chaos) is rarely smooth. Subtlety is a foreign concept in this land and the intensity of colors, sounds, flavors and people could be compared to a slap in the face. The experience is either infuriating or exhilarating, depending on the context.
As I vacated the aircraft and entered the terminal along with a herd of passengers, an unanticipated Corona blockade of men dressed in black that were too good at their jobs met us midway, randomly selecting people to be questioned about their vitals and reasons for entering Israel. I managed to wriggle through the men in black unscathed and found a spot in a short line behind a biometric passport machine. Well trained by Covid-19 and organised Dutch queues, I instinctively maintained a respectful distance from the person standing before me. I patiently waited for my turn when a religious Orthodox man dressed in black and white nearly trampled me over in an attempt to take my place in line. Surprised by the intrusive gesture, but not really surprised, I swiftly remarked that he had gruesomely exaggerated and signalled him to the back of the line. Looking at me with disdain, my grey T-shirt and blue jeans revealing my secularity and too much female contour and skin, he unapologetically replied “That’s how it is, I exaggerate.”
How do you even respond to that? Before I could conjure up an adequate reply, he had already spotted a more attractive spot in a parallel que and walked away. His lack of remorse was almost laughable if it wasn’t so perfectly symbolic of this country. Nothing says ‘Welcome to the Holy Land’ better than a man literally wearing his devotion to God for all to see, aggressively invading your personal space and responding in contempt and protest when rightfully told that he had overstepped his boundary. There is no place like home indeed.
I took my first deep breath in a long series of deep breaths I was going to take on my way out of the terminal, collected my entry ticket from the passport machine, and began the long journey towards baggage claim. Ironically, the same impatient Orthodox man was walking right in front of me. His self righteous haste did not seem to save him much time on his way out. As I walked behind him, a familiar surge of anger boiled up inside me. A thread of optional comments began to rise in my head and I wondered if I should say something. Did he actually believe that his skin-deep display of religion granted him a more desirable spot in heaven as well? Why would he believe in a God that allowed him to be so disrespectful towards others? What happened to ‘love thy neighbor’? The possibilities were endless.
I opted to remain silent. The man seemed to be in quite a hurry and a snarky remark on my end was likely to teach him little. My recent experiences have taught me that lessons will eventually knock on all of our doors, in their own time, when something inside of us is ready and willing to learn. In fact, the past year has taught me to view most uncomfortable situations as lessons in disguise. A year ago, I would have probably said something, but perhaps this situation was trying to teach me a lesson in self restraint. So I took another deep breath in and turned to a stronger part in my-self for patience instead.
My responses are not the only thing that changed over the past year. So much has changed in this one year that the approaching Rosh HaShana dinner, the Jewish new year, was almost unrecognisable. A year ago, we were able to drive to another city and enjoy the holiday dinner surrounded by family and friends. A year ago, we all sat closely together around a long table, old and young people alike, and fearlessly shared our food. A year ago, my sweet grandmother was still with us sitting to my left and I was still married to the man sitting on my right. But this year, the holiday dinner table had diminished to a handful of people. In one year, I had learned a bucket-load of painful lessons. It was a dark year. WTF 5780?
Walking silently behind the impatient Orthodox man, I began contemplating on aspects of religion, lessons, darkness, and new beginnings. I had always considered myself to be culturally Jewish, not religiously. I find spirituality to be crucial for one’s well being but more importantly, an intimate and personal cyclical endeavor of questioning, answering, and questioning again. Dogmatic religion, on the other hand, had always appeared to me as the opposite of spiritual; an attachment to an important yet outdated book of stories and rules claiming to have all the answers and whose authority and truth can only be interpreted by a select few, yet questioned by no one. The whole concept reminded me of an old-school classroom dynamic where pre-given answers and solutions were diligently memorized from a prescribed textbook. How can there possibly be a one-size-fits-all solution to the infinite types of human spirits?
But religion also had its beautiful aspects and my current visit to Israel was motivated by one of them. Soon, we would celebrate the beginning of the Jewish year, Rosh HaShana, and the annual day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, that follows ten days later. If you are Jewish, Judgment Day comes every year, not just at the end of one’s life, the logic being ‘one must clean up one’s act if one wants a happy new year.’ Judaism is harsh that way. Perhaps large amounts of wine are a traditional and integral part of every holiday dinner exactly for that reason. I wondered if the impatient Orthodox man walking in front of me remembered that his day of atonement was also near. The Jewish God is not known for forgiveness.
Judaism is peculiar in many ways. After growing accustomed to celebrating New Year’s Eve in winter I wondered why the Jews celebrate a new beginning in the fall? Culturally, a beginning is seen as the breaking of light, a birth of a baby, or any sort of visible change or emergence to air for that matter. In the Christian oriented calendar, a new year begins at the peak of winter and a new day begins at midnight. But in Judaism, a new day begins with the first signs of night, marked by three stars in the sky and our new year is celebrated with the beginning of autumn, as leaves, fruits and seeds fall from their parent trees and find their place on the ground. Oddly, according to Judaism, a fall and plunge into darkness is a sign of a new beginning.
When I thought about it a while longer, continuously walking behind the restless Orthodox man, the idea actually didn’t seem that odd. The new life of a plant begins when a seed is submerged into the darkness of the earth and the new life of a mammal first forms in the darkness of a womb. Even a butterfly transforms and grows its wings in the confined and dark space of a cocoon. Darkness is the realm of birth, transformation, and creation. The emergence of life to light, seen in springtime or at birth, is actually the result of a long, concealed, and dark inner process. What we normally consider to be a halt or an ending is in fact a beginning of something new.
As my march towards baggage claim curved left, I suddenly remembered Elton John also singing about the circle of life ruling us all back in my Amsterdam apartment the previous day. Rosh HaShana merely marks this cyclical character of nature, its logic suddenly resembling the ancient philosophies of Taoism or Buddhism from the Far East. The name of the holiday can be translated to head or top of the year, and the fall into darkness is the best rational moment to bless the new cycle ahead. Since both symbolism and food are highly regarded essentials in Judaism, the holiday dinner table is topped with symbolic blessing foods such as pomegranates for abundance and a morbid fish head as a far too literal blessing for the grace of being ‘ahead’. However, the most identifiable edible symbol of the holiday is an apple dipped in honey. As children, we were told that this culinary choice would manifest sweetness in the following year. If that were indeed the case, clearly not enough apples in honey had been eaten in the beginning of 5780.
Apples in honey remind us that a beautiful and sweet new cycle is only possible if darkness is used for external and internal work towards self awareness. As we are thrown into darkness, we receive the opportunity to ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, weigh the good and the bad we have committed throughout the previous year and learn valuable lessons for the year to come. I don’t think it is an accident that Yom Kippur arrives together with the season of Libra, the season of balance, justice, and harmony, symbolised by a pair of scales.
Looking back over the past dark year of lessons, I wondered if honey also hinted towards darkness. Like honey, darkness is sticky. It is easy to fall into and hard to emerge from on your own, like quicksand. Darkness pulls heavily on the limbs, seducing you to surrender and stay in its bitter-sweetness forever. But when we are plunged into darkness, we are actually invited to lighten our load and let go of the past that had perished. We are initiated to transform, create, and find our own light and strength from within. As with the stars, darkness allows fainter light to shine and guide our way in a dark desert. But more importantly, like my encounter with the impatient Orthodox man, darkness teaches us patience. Spring will eventually follow winter every year and wishing it to come sooner will do nothing. Nature has its own rhythm. If we want to enjoy the sweetness of a fruit, we must practice patience and not try to pick it prematurely. Everybody knows that, eastern philosophies are centered around such knowledge, but people tend to forget.
It is no coincidence that Rosh HaShana is my favorite holiday. I was born in the season of Libra, a couple of hours after three stars were visible in the sky, when the date had changed from the last day of Elul to the first day of Tishrei, the first month of the Jewish calendar, while people were eating their holiday dinners. It is my own Jewish birthday and beginning.
This upcoming Rosh HaShana would signify my new beginning on a completely different level. The long and difficult year which was now coming to an end, coupled with a global pandemic, has gifted me with a substantial amount of darkness and time to transform and work on my own self awareness. But if I had already been plunged into darkness a long time ago and have resided within it for quite some time, perhaps my new beginning had already started without me noticing. I remembered Dorothy, who embarked on a journey to find her way home and was plunged into the land of Oz, her way illuminated by a yellow brick road curving and spiraling inwards. The circular path carrying her deeper into darkness has subsequently brought courage, wisdom, love, and friends. If that was the case, maybe my sweet cycle was just around the next curve? Maybe I was actually just afraid of stepping back out to the light?
Still walking behind the impatient Orthodox man in the airport, I no longer felt so irritated. Patience is a virtue, one that I most certainly needed to work on. Over the past year I had also learned that, sometimes, it is better to disengage. I learned how and when I should let things go and let them be. So I took another deep breath in, and, learning from Elza this time, I let it go.
Unfortunately, our passage to baggage claim was blocked once again. The entire journey within the airport was beginning to feel like I was living out some ludicrous version of Dorothy’s surreal experience in Oz. After filling in a form declaring the type of residence we were to self quarantine in for the next two weeks, we were directed to stand in line to be questioned about the countries we had recently visited. This time, there was no escaping the questioning. The universe was definitely testing my patience.
My turn to be questioned approached, and I saw the same restless Orthodox man leave his line and attempt to cut in before me once again. Not able to hold my tongue any longer, I opted to go with an old Hebrew proverb remarking that proper behavior preceded the Torah. As I mentioned earlier, subtlety is not appreciated in this country. I am only human after all, and an Israeli one at that.
The old Hebrew proverb worked its magic. The man shrugged and stepped back silently, and I walked freely towards the booth. While being questioned by a border patrol police woman, I heard arguing voices behind me. When I looked back, I saw the Orthodox man being ushered away for further questioning, his answers clearly not satisfying the gatekeepers of the Holy Land. He would have to wait a while longer before his rights of passage were granted. Was it just a coincidence, or did the universe find it fit to teach us both a lesson in patience that day?
Once I successfully passed all the tests and obstacles thrown my way, I was free to enter the Promised Land. I finally made it to baggage claim, collected my suitcase, and walked over to the main passenger entry hall. The space, usually filled to the brim with families, friends, and lovers holding colorful balloons and flowers in anticipation for reunion with their loved ones, was deserted; evidence that the world had already transformed during this dark year. Families were no longer allowed to gather within the hall and my parents were waiting for me outside. Perhaps the formation of a new world has already begun for us all and we are just experiencing the painful early stages of learning how to let go and plunge into a new unfamiliar dark cycle. At least I had another month of sweet golden sunshine to enjoy before the approaching darkness of year 5781.
I passed through the large automatic glass doors of the airport terminal and emerged out to the open space of Israeli air for the first time in 9 months, the overpowering hot humid weather of the end of summer nearly knocking me down. The first breath of oven hot air was not easy. I nearly forgot what 99% humidity and 33 degrees celsius at 11 o’clock at night felt like. The same clothes that were judged as too revealing a short while ago suddenly felt heavy and restrictive. From the corner of my eye, I saw my mother running towards me, my father following her not far behind. My mother’s fierce embrace as she caught up with me nearly knocked me over for a third time within the span of an hour. As I finally hugged both of my parents for the first time in ages, my mother whispered to me: “That’s it, you are home now.” Yes, I am indeed. There is no place like home.