Galilee Diary: Cycles
So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night – shall not cease. -Genesis 8:22
Every year, as the school year opens and the High Holy Days and Sukkot pass, we arrive, at last, at the long awaited but somewhat dreaded “after the holidays,” when all the postponements and procrastination have to end, and we actually enter a stable routine for two months – no more holidays until Chanukah. However, if you live in the Galilee, it’s not quite so simple, as the season just after Sukkot is the olive harvest, the mesik, a festive week or two that happens all around us, though it’s not “ours.” And this year the feeling of festivity was heightened, due to a combination of the working out of the calendrical cycles and natural coincidences.
The common rule of thumb is that the olive harvest begins after the first real rains of the season, as the moisture helps swell the olives, making the oil extraction process more efficient. When it rained at the end of Sukkot (just hours after we had recited the prayer for rain in the synagogue!), I asked friends when the harvest would start, and they responded that everyone was waiting until after the upcoming holiday. In the slippage of the lunar calendar relative to the solar calendar, the most important holiday of the Muslim year, Id El Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, fell this year in late October. This is a four day feast (the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca, for those able and so inclined). While we had a few showers after Sukkot, the first serious rainfall of the year occurred at the beginning of Id El Adha, as if by some intelligent design. Thus within a couple of days of the end of the holiday, the olive groves were alive with the sound of chain saws trimming branches, and music from car radios, and parents shouting at their kids, and kids shouting at each other, as the trees were beaten to shake the olives down onto tarps, to be swept into sacks and driven to a nearby oil mill. The air was pungent with the smoke of the trimmed branches being burned. When the groves covering the bottom of the valley below Shorashim were redivided after the War of Independence, among the families who remained in the village of Shaab, each family got a small grove – there were no large commercial holdings. Thus, families do the work themselves, and while they might sell some of the oil to neighbors (like us), most is for their own use, with some of the olives kept aside for home curing. I know that there are certainly some in the community who don’t particularly enjoy this custom, and would rather be playing video games or working, but have to join the family in the harvest ritual. But for those of us who enjoy it only vicariously, there is something romantic and satisfying about the whole scene, its sights and sounds and smells, the knowledge that this is the way life has been here for thousands of years (except for the chain saws and the car radios).
As part of the calendrical slippage mentioned above, this year, Id El Adha ended during the week in which the Torah portion is Vayera, which contains the story of the binding of Isaac. This is, of course, the sacrifice being celebrated in the Muslim holiday, though it is not clear just who was almost sacrificed. The Koran does not mention the name of the intended victim, leaving ambiguity as to whether it was Isaac or Ishmael. There are different interpretive traditions. In any case, it is interesting that once every 30 years or so Jews and Muslims find ourselves telling the same story at the same time.
Sometimes it is comforting to step back from the obligations of the immediate, the pummeling we take from the daily news, and just let ourselves appreciate the rhythms of moon and sun, that remind of us of our place here.