What on Earth are you doing?

NB: This is a Sticky.  This will always appear when you load the page, and all new posts will appear beneath it.

This is a blog about the year that I am spending observing all religious holidays.  When I say “all”, I mean “most”. When I say “holidays”, I mean “major holy days”.  So I should start again.  I am spending a year observing most major religious holy days.  With terms, conditions and exceptions.  Which I will explain.  In a minute.  Let me start again.

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New Year: a partial retrospective

This post is late.  Again.  My excuse is that it has taken much longer to write than I first thought.  Below is the labour of several days, beginning on the 1st January. Please do forgive me.

If you are here looking for insight about the relevance of the 1st January to any faiths, you are going to be disappointed. There isn’t any. As far as I know, there is no religion that attaches any importance to this day. Each religion starts their year at a different time, Sikhism and Hinduism in April, Judaism in September, Christianity in December. No one cares about the most secular of all festivals, the clock ticking forward into a new administrative year. Even the UK tax year doesn’t start or end now, and I will therefore not waste anymore time with it.

The significance of today is that I from now I can go back to being a happy atheist: the project has ended. No more worrying which festivals clash, what competing meanings are and whether I have time to cook the traditional food. My time is my own again.

So this is the time to go back and see what I have learned. This post is a partial retrospective because a) I have not yet finished with all the festival write-ups and b) I want to do a further post with links to all the “highlights” for easy access.

So what can I say about festivals of religions and what they tell me about religions? I might start with the banal and work towards the profound.

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Christmas (Christian) – In the bleak midwinter there is future hope

Hi Again.  I promise I will catch up with Diwali and Hannuka, which, to be honest, make up the trio of Light Festivals of the season.  However, I did a fairly non-traditional Christmas, so I thought I would write about that.

We were invited by my father-in-law to spend Christmas with him in Tenerife on the understanding that there would be absolutely nothing Christmassy  about it whatsoever.  We were going to have fish for lunch and there would be no festivities.  By the time we arrived on 24th December, there was holly-covered tablecloth, turkey and even pigs in blankets (courtesy of Tesco and the British import industry in the Canary Islands).  So, despite the fact that it was 21 degrees and we could see the beach from the window, it turned out to be much more traditional than I thought.  Of course, I realise that when I say “traditional” I mean only one tradition among thousands of ways to celebrate this festival, as all festivals.  If you want an example of the kinds of microtraditions that can happen, try asking two people from England whether or not Yorkshire Puddings should be served with Christmas dinner.  This debate polarised my office for days.

In the spirit of the utterly British in a foreign land, we found a church service that was not only in English, but it was being run by the Church of England!  I would not have minded if it had been Catholic and in Spanish, but Naomi was quite pleased that she had found this one, so off we went.

The tiny church is used for both the Catholic and Anglican communions (and I expect more besides) and looks a bit like this:


It was utterly charming and the congregation consisted of about 8 couples in their 60s and 70s in shorts and button up shirts (just to be smart).  The preacher was from Dublin and the “organ” was an ipad that had been set up to play hymns through two speakers.  Otherwise, I am assured that it was a very traditional service.  5 hymns about stars and midnights and babies born in a manger.  And I sat down (and stood up and sat down again) and thought:  Well now. The politicians are telling us that we are facing dark days ahead, not to mention that, this year, the Doomsday Clock has moved two minutes closer to midnight. People are starving, wars seem to be breaking out faster than flu and we simply don’t seem to have a handle on who we like and don’t like anymore, or why.   Among all the death and destruction, the shade-of-grey world seems to acquire only ever darker colours.

But not today.  At Christmas, we remember that, over 2000 years ago, a Light entered the world and the world was never the same again.  Every year, at the moment of greatest darkness, at the end of another gloomy year, we are reminded that there is hope, because Jesus will be returning and bringing heaven on Earth, which is the promise that was started at his birth.  Sitting in the darkness, surrounded by friends and family we get a moment to remember two things – first that things could be much much worse (after all, Jesus was betrayed and then strung up for his efforts) and second, sometimes we need to get to the darkest point in order to know what light is.

Obviously, I am aware of the massively Northern European construction of all of this (especially given that it is neither cold nor dark in, say, Australia, right now), but I liked it, especially the idea that Christians all over the world attend churches, see their families and feel a sense of global community (cf how I feel about Passover).

This was not the line that the priest went for in his sermon. “We all know the story”, he began.  Do we?  I though, facetiously. And then I realised that, if you are attending an Anglican church service in Tenerife during your winter holiday, then yes, you probably do.  He spoke about how the love of God is such that God wanted to get down and dirty with the humans in the form of Jesus, because it wasn’t good enough to simply look from outside.  And the point is that Jesus loves everyone, regardless of their foibles and their petty problems.  I wasn’t entirely sure how this related to mangers and wise men and a prophecy fulfilled, but sure, why not?  At least he was interesting and kept my attention, which is more than I can say for many of this year’s preachers.

As we sang the hymns and I giggled uncontrollably at the man behind me who could not keep time, I thought about Jesus coming to Earth.  The Christians await the Second Coming of Jesus, which I suppose you would have to if you were a messianic cult whose messiah did not complete everything the prophecies foretold.  The Second Coming is meant to come at the moment of baddest worstness, when the world needs a Hero the most.  I wonder what was so bad about 33 BCE that Jesus decided to incarnate then?  And I wonder what he would make of today?  Pessimism is relative.  There are people who believe that governments are evil (and have agency in themselves) that everyone is selfish and that people are just sheeple, being stupefied by media and fashion.  If this is the case, so has it long been and Jesus has not seen it fit to descend upon us to make us see sense.  If something has actually radically changed with who we are and what we are doing, then Jesus needs to hurry along.

We left the church after finding out that tea and biscuits were not being offered (as the priests had their own Christmas dinner to attend to) and found the turkey coming out of the oven and the roasties being basted (or that might be the other way round).  We sat down to Christmas lunch in the sunshine and I thought of the other families all over the planet doing the same.  I thought, it can’t possibly be that bad.  After all, a malevolent universe does not provide parsnips.



All Saints’ Day (Christian) – Find all the saints!

I have been suffering with a very serious first world problem: Can’t be arsed-ness.  Since the end of September, I have been totally apathetic towards festivals to the extent that I have allowed several to pass me by with barely a nod of acknowledgement.  I intend to write about them, but, as I was saying, I can’t really be arsed.  As the evenings draw in and the days get cold and grey, I really want to retreat into comfortable atheism that does not require me to do anything at all.  Which is, why, on Sunday, I dragged myself to church to hear about saints.

Before leaving the house, I had done no research, other than to look up where the church was.  We decided to go to St Jude’s in Garden Suburb rather than our local, because I was hoping for an inspiring sermon.  As it turns out, St. Jude’s saint day (which all saints have) had been the week before, so the parish of St. Jude’s was a bit sainted out by the time we arrived.  Nevertheless, the sermon was nice, the choir were pleasant and, most importantly, All Saints Day was being commemorated, which you will only really get in “high” Anglican churches.

Anglicans have an uneasy relationship with saints, in that they believe that you should not really be praying to anyone but the Trinity but you can ask for intercessions, which seems to be asking for something, but it’s more like “Dear St. Peter, I would like a puppy.  Could you ask Jesus on my behalf? Thanks”, rather than asking them to do it direct.  Saints, in Anglicanism are cosmic messengers.  Again, this seems to be a high church thing only and low churches may well ignore saints entirely as irrelevant.

So, as we stood around with tea and biscuits after the service, it was decided that it would be a Really Good Thing to actually visit a shrine to a saint and make a bit of an afternoon of it.  In truth, I think Naomi wanted a Sunday Roast and this was a way to ensure that we were out of the house for long enough for her to get one.  So we looked online for shrines nearby.  I discounted one in Southwark on grounds of parking.  Then we saw that the national shrine of St Jude was in Faversham, in Kent, not 2 hours away.  Sitting in the car park of St Jude’s in London it felt as though we were going to do our own little pilgrimage of St Jude.  Whom I knew nothing about.

“You’re going to write about this” said Naomi firmly.  I groaned.  The only thing I knew about St Jude is that he is the saint of lost causes.  If anyone could find my motivation, he stood a pretty good chance.  So we started off, leaving North London on a cloudless afternoon.

St Judes church

St Judes church

As we got on the motorway, we met some fog.  And some more fog and some more fog after that.  Naomi was hungry, so we stopped off at some services, which looked very much as though they were the literal end of the world:

The service station at the end of the universe

The service station at the end of the universe

As we sat munching on soggy sandwiches, I tried to learn about St Jude.  He is the patron saint of lost causes because he shares a name with Judas, betrayer of Jesus.  He was an original apostle but, because people were worried that if they prayed to him their prayers would reach Judas instead, he wasn’t very popular.  So the church approached it thus:  Jude really wants your prayers and problems, because he is sad and lonely in heaven, so he is willing to take on the most difficult and insoluble of problems, the lost causes.  And the rest is history.

The shrine was very quiet and very sweet and seemed to have some connection to the holocaust, as the fresco attested:

Yellow star of David in St Jude's shrine

Yellow star of David in St Jude’s shrine

I wanted to sit and contemplate why I was so dispirited by religion for a number of minutes, but there was an Irish family there who seemed to be doing a proper pilgrimage, so it felt a bit awkward.  We lit a candle  and headed out, back into the fog.

“Hang on!” I cried. “St Jude is not a British saint!”

“I didn’t say he was”, answered Naomi.

“Well we need a British saint, not one that has just been imported for the convenience of the locals”

A couple of googles later and we had her, St. Bertha, late of Canterbury.  And what a saint she was too.

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Sukkot (Jewish) – Part 2

I started my preparations for Sukkot very early, given that I wanted to build my own Sukkah.  I had looked online and seen lots of “pop-up” versions, which, whilst strictly kosher, did not look anything like what I was imagining and looked like cheating.  The idea is that you can have a fully made Sukkah within 30 minutes, for the “modern” Jew.  A bit more like this:

I wasn’t having any of it, as I wanted the authentic experience, and, luckily, Rivka could provide assistance.  Her dad is a professional Sukkah builder, don’t you know!  So we trundled down to B&Q on a Sunday morning in early September and bought some fencing panels, some two by tow, four by four, some tarpaulin, a shower curtain and some hinge brackets.  Then we loaded everything into Rivka’s car and drove (very carefully) home with them:


The pieces of my sukkah balancing precariously on the car…

When we got home, we assessed the situation.  I have a garden with a little nook in it.  There is a fence that I share with my neighbour.  Rivka said that I could use the fence as a wall of the sukkah.


Rivka at the beginning, in the nook

As we were working, my new neighbour came out of his house and pottered around a bit.  He started fiddling with some canvas.  Within half an hour his “sukkah” was up.  7 hours later, we were still trying to put the finishing touches on mine.  After a lot of sweating and swearing (and a couple of repeat visits by Rivka), I ended up with this:


My roofless sukkah

At this point, it was missing a roof.  Now, the roof is important.  It is called schach and has to be made of organic matter that has been created by a Jew and does not have any other purpose other than to be a schach.  Most people use bamboo mats that they buy from specialty shops.  Not me.  I wanted the authentic experience.  So I took my gardening shears and went to the park by my house to do something that I am still not sure is entirely legal:  trim some trees.  Three trips and five bin liners later,  I had something that looked a bit like this:



With a bit of help from electrical tape, everything was completed and I had a fully functioning and kosher sukkah.  This is mine:


Next to it, over the fence, is my neighbour’s:

IMAG1245[1]I make no judgement, but come on!  I may be hot and sweaty and knackered while he is sipping iced tea, but mine is definitely the real deal.

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Sukkot (Jewish) – Part 1 – Reverse engineering meaning

Late again.  The only excuse I have is that my computer was in repairs for two weeks.

Anyway.  Sukkot is the big Jewish harvest festival.  If I had a pound for every person this year who has said to me “But did you know that most festivals have pagan roots and are just stolen from folk religions?”  I would have bought myself a better computer by now. For the most part, it may be true but irrelevant.  Some of the time it is complete hogwash. But with Sukkot, the similarities become palpable and you start to really think about the agricultural year and what it would have meant to the ancient Hebrews.

I started planning this one early.  The important thing about Sukkot is to have access to a Sukkah where you can take your meals.  There are various rules about what kind of food and under what circumstances you would need to eat in the Sukkah, but the upshot is that it needs to be big enough to house the number of people eating in it.  But wait!  What is a Sukkah?  Basically, it’s this:

It’s a temporary structure that has a roof made from organic material that you sit in.  There are lot of rules about what it can and cannot be (that I know Chabad are happy to tell you about), but honestly, one of the problems of Judaism is that if you start digging into the detail you are likely to drown in it before coming up with an answer that makes sense to outsiders.  Sukkahs have various explanations as to why Jews sit in them, but they are mostly to do with Jews and Egypt and wandering around the desert and the temporary structures that they would have had. Fast forward many years later and it has morphed into one of the three harvest festivals during which Jews were required to pilgrim to the Temple of Solomon (remember that one?) with their tributes and sacrifices.  Fast forward to today and some interesting elements remain.

There are the Four Kinds (of plant), which look a bit like this:

These are four types of growing things that, depending on who you talk to, symbolise different things. And no, that’s not a lemon.  It’s an Etrog, which, Wikipedia reliably informs me, is almost exclusively farmed for the Jewish community, as no one else knows it or wants it as a fruit.  Then you have a palm frond, a myrtle branch and a willow branch to complete the set.  On a surface level, they are meant to be all different.  The Etrog has both a strong taste and smell, the myrtle has smell and no taste, the palm has taste but no smell and the willow has neither.  So what marvelous metaphors can we derive from this?  There are various things, including that these represent four types of Jews (don’t ask.  It’s a bit offensive), four parts of the body, and an explanation revolving around the masculine and the feminine (in which the Etrog is “clearly” the feminine, and explains why the little nubbin on the end has to stay intact throughout the festival.  Eww).  My all time favourite, though, is that all four of these species need much water to grow, so that when a Jew waves them around and says the prayers, they are actually praying for increased rainfall.  So it’s a straight-up rain dance.  lulz.

Funnily enough, the reason for all of this hassle is much simpler, as is sometimes the case in religions:  The Bible says so.  In Leviticus the Torah says thus:

Howbeit on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruits of the land, ye shall keep the feast of the LORD seven days: on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. 40And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. 41And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year: it is a statute for ever in your generations: ye shall keep it in the seventh month. 42Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are homeborn in Israel shall dwell in booths:

Leviticus 23:39-42 (English Revised Version)

Once you are done reading it in the voice of the Pope, you see what I mean.  It is very clear on what Jews will do, right from the time of Moses.  “This is the law.  Follow the law or I will smite you because I smote the Egyptians and I can’t decide if I am quite done yet”.  All of this reverse-engineering of the meaning of various things can give you a headache if the simple reason is that G-d said so, so get on with it!

Otherwise, there are various other bits and pieces, such as that you have to have a roof that allows you to see the stars.  All rules set by G-d.  Just do it.

As I am writing this, I realise that it is getting rather long, and I haven’t even talked about what I actually did yet, so I will leave this here and write Part 2 shortly.

To be continued.  With pictures of what actually happened when I tried to build a Sukkah.

Eid Al Adha (Islamic) – A short story about sacrifice*

“I’ve got Abed on the roof.  I’m sure he would be more than happy to help you with a sacrifice”

“Mum, just because you have a Palestinian in your house does not mean that he is observing every Islamic festival and, even if he does, you think that all Muslims do their own sacrifices?”

“Well, the Jews do on Yom Kippur.  The government have been trying to outlaw it for a really long time, but it doesn’t seem to stop them”

“Yeah, well at least Muslims are eating the meat that they are sacrificing.  The rule is that you need to give at least one third to the poor.  They probably eat the rest.  It’s all about Ibrahim being willing to sacrifice Ismail on the altar”



“Isaac was sacrificed on the altar, not Ismail”

“Not according to the Muslims.  they believe that the bible writers got it wrong and that they meant Ismail, who was the son of Hajar, his servant.  He was the firstborn, despite not being the son of his wife, Sarah.  But does it really matter?  The story is the same.  There was a son that the father was willing to sacrifice to his deity just because the deity says so.  It doesn’t say much about family values, does it? In the Qu’ran we are told time and time again that obedience is the most important thing.  Family is important, but I think mostly in a cultural sense and only as a very distant second to what Allah (swt) asks of you.  Sacrifice is about standing and delivering when you are called.

“Look, Abed is going to go soon.  Do you want me to ask him or not?”

“Sure, ask him, what harm can it do?”

*footsteps* *Muffled conversation*

“Abed says that his father is going to be slaughtering the animals.  He says he can film it for you and send you a copy and that he will need to know what prayer you want said over the sacrifice”

“Wow.  I honestly didn’t think this was a thing.  OK, I don’t know what kind of prayer I want.  Are there standard prayers?”

“He says you can have anything you want”

“Well, I will have to think about it and get back to you.  I can’t just pick something out of thin air.  Prayers are serious business, especially when done with a sacrifice.  I am definitely thinking about something to do with Farah’s family, though.  They have gone to do the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj.  You are meant to do it at least once in a lifetime and Farah’s mum is worried that if she doesn’t do it now, she won’t have a chance”

“Do you want me to tell Abed that?”

“Can we find out how much it will cost first?”

“He says 30 shekels (£5) per kilo”

“And how many kilos do I need to buy?”

“He says his smallest sheep is about 40 kilos”

“Can I share a sheep with someone else?”

“He says no”

“Oh.  Islamic relief have told me that I can give them £50 and they will sacrifice a sheep in Syria for me and give it to refugees. Maybe I will just do that”

“Are you sure?  He’s leaving now”

“Yes, I don’t have £200 to randomly spend.  I have spent so much already in donations this year that I really can’t afford more than the minimum, even though having a Palestinian sheep sacrifice on video would have been very cool. I’ll just do it the boring way, on the internet”

“Suit yourself.  You can still do your prayer, though, even though Abed won’t do it on your behalf”

“I suppose so, although I feel as though it is more likely to be effective from someone who actually believes in it, not least because I don’t think that Allah listens to Kafirs (non-Muslims)”

“Do you not feel that you have sacrificed quite enough already this year, especially given that you fasted for Yom Kippur only yesterday?”

“I don’t think it counts, but I take your point.  The problem is that my sacrifice has been for my own selfish endeavours.  True sacrifice has to provide you with nothing in return”

“Can any sacrifice be said to be true, then?  At the very least we always have the satisfaction of having given something up for the sake of something else”

“Maybe.  And, it also doesn’t help that while Ibrahim was willing to sacrifice Ismail, he never actually had to do it, so, in many ways, this is a celebration of the willingness to sacrifice and not the sacrifice itself.  Ultimately, like all things in Islam, it is the intention that matters rather than the action itself.  You get gold stars just for being willing and able”

“So does it really matter if you donate the money for the sacrifice or not?  You meant to, so that should be good enough”

“If you say so, Mum.”

*70% of this conversation is true.

Yom Kippur (Jewish) – those who must forgive

The big season of festivals is upon us, and I am knackered already. Is it the fasting, the not working, the trying to work out where to go and what to do? Could be, but I think this time of year is tiring, even for people who do it every year. A plethora of Hindu, Jewish and Islamic festivals have been coming fast on the heels of each other.

I missed Ganesha Chaturthi entirely because I was still knackered from Rosh Hashanah (and because of the flying back from Israel).

So I have had to make a concession. I can only do what I can do and I can’t be expected to do more. So I am relaxing some of the restrictions on Jewish festivals, as there are so many and I think I might not make it another month otherwise. There are two reasons that I can use to justify this. One is that Rivka agrees that we can only do what we can. The second is that there are some festivals that double up because they are being celebrated in the diaspora. However, some rabbinic scholars argue that if you have been in the Holy Land in the last year, you can do the days as they do in Israel. So I might be off the hook anyway.  This means two extra days in which I can go to work and I might actually have enough days of leave to take time off in December.

Back to Yom Kippur, though. As I was not allowed to drive or anything similar for the service, I needed to go to a synagogue within walking distance. I emailed in advance to check if I had to get tickets for Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre is the service that is on the eve of Yom Kippur and it is sung, usually by a cantor (Hazan). It is a very famous bit of music in its own right and it is very popular among people who may not usually go to a synagogue, e.g. atheist Jews such as myself. Due to this, sometimes the event is ticketed.

I had two responses, including a nice treasurer who said he would reserve me a seat. So, at 7pm, after eating some ribs for my start of fast meal, I toddled down to a synagogue that I have never visited.

Before I go on, it might be worth explaining what Yom Kippur is. This is the end of a period of repentance that starts at Rosh Hashanah. The idea is that G-d waits for you to finish repenting and then decides whether to write your name in the Book of Life, or not. If you are written, you are on course to arise from the dead at the end of days and join G-d in heaven. If you are not written, your chances are less good. Given that there is no Hell in Judaism, the biggest risk is that you stay dead. Which doesn’t seem like much of a threat, but I am guessing it feels worse if you believe that heaven may be the other option.

Someone (sorry I can’t be more specific, as I honestly don’t know who) once said that there are three parts to repentance: asking forgiveness from G-d, from others and from yourself. Some years I took this very seriously, whether or not I was fasting. Maybe it was a vanity exercise, but it is very cathartic to apologise to the people you love for the wrongs you have committed against them that year. It is a chance to reflect on how you have treated people versus how you should have treated them. It is a genuine chance to make amends. As I am writing, I am thinking of a particular friend whom I have not contacted all year, possibly because she is a bit difficult. I should check in on her, take her out and reengage in her life.

I feel bad for the people in my life at this time of the year, because I tend to get a bit earnest and beg their forgiveness for non-specific things that they don’t know I have done. This year, though, I have been feeling so harried, that even that hasn’t happened. I am really sorry.

Anyway, I went to the synagogue to sit in my allocated seat. The first thing that happened was that I was stopped at the gate by a Shomer and an older man in a tallit (prayer shawl). A Shomer is a chap that is hired by the community to act as a barrier between the worshippers and the people outside that may mean them harm. In Israel there is security when you go to the supermarket and the cinema, but this isn’t Israel and I had forgotten that Shomrim have been guarding synagogues for at least 30 years. They had never seen me before. Who was I? I told them in my best Hebrew that David the Treasurer had emailed me and saved me seat 78. It seemed to work. They let me through.

The problem with using my Hebrew credentials, though, is that then everyone expects you to know what is going on and doesn’t offer to help or explain anything. A young woman helped me to find a copy of the relevant prayer book, but after that, I was on my own.

Luckily, the service was not complicated. The hazan sang and the congregation sang along. The prayer was repeated 3 times and the whole thing felt rather Buddhist, apart from the content, which is not at all Buddhist.

Here are some interesting things about Kol Nidre. It is the opposite of making New Years resolutions. The prayer basically asks to be forgiven for any promises you make in the coming year that you are unable to fulfill. But, it only works if you are sincere in your promise when you do it, so it’s no good saying “I can promise my daughter a pony, because I will be forgiven anyway when I don’t keep that promise” . In general, I don’t recommend promising anyone ponies or making promises to your children that you can’t keep.

Second interesting thing about Kol Nidre is that it is open to gentiles. They will be forgiven too, so long as they were sincere. I have now been doing this project for nearly 9 months and this is the first time that any Jewish practice has mentioned non-Jews at all. This is strangely interesting, not so much because Jews should mention gentiles more often but rather because my understanding of the end of days suggests that only Jews will rise again , so it makes no difference whether gentiles are forgiven or not. However, it is nice to know they are also forgiven, I suppose.

After Kol Nidre itself, there was a sermon from the Rabbi that was so boring that I believe I actually fell asleep. Usually I love sermons but I can’t even remember what this one was about. I think it made an attempt to be about a great many things, none of which have stayed with me.

After the service, there is little to tell. I went home. I went to sleep. I got up at 10.30am with a migraine and tidied the house a bit. I went back to bed and read a book and went back to sleep. The migraine was masking the hunger, I think. At 7.44 I made a cup-a-soup and broke my fast. This is the level of disorgnisation I had arrived at. I took some headache medication and felt better. Eventually I went to bed while considering what I needed to do for Eid the following day. But that is another post.

I worry that the festivals are having little effect on me at the moment and that I am not managing to fully engage with them, either because I am tired or bored. I need to find something to reinvigorate me. My sukkah is built, so maybe Sukkot will be it.