What’s a practising Jew to do at a time like this? I don’t celebrate Christmas, or Xmas either, for that matter. While all around me are the unmistakeable signs of festivity that have been growing since they first started to appear in… .. October?
Over the past few weeks, I have been giving a lot of thought to the unavoidable fact that, for years, I have managed to miss all of the signs of my my helter-skelter thought disorder. How could I have done this without planting my head firmly in the sand?
It goes without saying that in the saddle a rider has to be alert at all times, not only aware of the traffic and pedestrians, but of the road surface itself, so as to avoid pot-holes, and debris that can result in a flat tyre. But this Road Awareness – an awareness of one’s surroundings – is quite different from self awareness. And it the sorry lack of this that occupies me now.
Today Jews read the opening verses of The Book of Exodus in our regular Sabbath morning services. We read of how The Almighty tries to impress Moses, the man He has chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, away from slavery, and to a new life free from the burdens of slavery under Pharaoh. He does this in a number of ways, one of which can comfortably be described as magic. He makes a stick turn into a serpent, and then back again. This helps Moses to get up the courage to confront Pharaoh, and demand the Israelites’ immediate release from slavery.
Signs and wonders. Who can fail to be impressed by the sleight of hand shown by members of The Magic Circle? It’s hardly surprising that Moses found the courage to challenge the Egyptian leader and demand his people’s freedom. And perhaps it’s this that explains my failure to read the signs – of the way my mind was really working. I was just too impressed with what I was thinking, too taken in and absorbed by what I was thinking, regardless of it’s actual content. The sheer speed of my thought process, never mind what I was actually thinking, was what swept me along. However giddy it made me feel – and I did complain about my ‘Racing Thoughts – that was never enough to make me get off the merry – go – round and ask myself what on earth was going on. I did get off the merry – go – round from time to time, but by the time I had found my feet, and everything had stopped spinning, life was back to normal once more. What’s there to be concerned about? ‘Oh look, there’s a coconut shye over there, who wants to have a go?!’ And with hollow jest I was off again, repeating the mad-cap cycle again, and again, and again….
And sometimes I clambered off the merry – go – round, and fell over, and found it hard to get to my feet again. That was the depression. Who’s going to ask about the spinning air-bourne horses on sticks when I was lying prone on the ground, so to speak?
So, today, and for the whole of what most of us call The Festive Period, I don’t care to participate, or examine it too closely. I have comforted myself in the past with the smug knowledge that these festivities, be they Christian or not, don’t really apply to me.
T.S. Eliot – no friend of Jews, it must be said – shook me out of that self-satisfied fleece this year with the following verse.
Journey of the Magi
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)