A rush of wings – large and noisy – flew up from the right side of the trail just in front of me. It settled on a branch straight ahead, not far away, and looked right at me. An owl. Once long ago, I had seen a small saw-whet owl. I had never seen a large one in the natural world before, and certainly not up close. Another “angel.”
I had turned off my computer, as I always do, before Shabbat the previous afternoon, and my cell phone, as I sometimes do. So I hadn’t received the email telling me that the families that had planned to join me for a Shabbat walk in the woods wouldn’t be able to make it. I had come to the meeting place with a feeling inside that they wouldn’t be there. After waiting an appropriate amount of time, I had decided to take a walk by myself instead of just going home – a meditative prayer walk. Thus I had seen the owl.
The word for “owl” in Hebrew is yanshuf. There is something about the sound of this word that I love. I found myself repeatedly rolling the word around in my mind, and then one day thinking about the three-letter root, nun-shin-fey. Suddenly the letters shifted to nun-fey-shin, and I had had nefesh – “soul,” but also “person” or “oneself”. Looking up yanshuf in the dictionary, I was reminded that nun-shin-fey is also the root of the word linshof, to exhale or blow out. Soul and breathing out – both critical for life. Yanshuf. Critical for the web of life in the woods and meadows and forests.
I stop to think about and peruse the Torah portion for the week – Miketz, which always falls on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. Joseph is in the dungeon of Pharaoh. Pharaoh dreams of seven fat cows and seven gaunt cows. He dreams of seven full, healthy ears of grain and seven thin, scorched ears of grain. Joseph, brought from the dungeon, interprets the dreams and is elevated to a high position in Pharaoh’s court. The dreams of Joseph’s adolescence come true. Pharaoh’s dreams come true.
What makes our dreams – our waking dreams, our visions of what can be – come true? I see two opposite and complementary aspects to the process, symbolized in my experience with the owl. That Shabbat morning, for me, part of it had to do with planning the family walk in the first place. The other part of it had to do with not turning on the phone and thus being there to see the owl. Part of the process has to do with our own hard work – meeting G!d half way. And part of it has to do with letting go and letting G!d meet us half way.
We cannot do the whole job all by ourselves. We are not in charge. We are not in control. We cannot change the world all by ourselves. And, we cannot do the job at all if we don’t try. If we sit back and wait, nothing will happen. We must take charge. On Shabbat evening, we light the candles and watch them burn down, reminding ourselves to let go. At the end of Shabbat, we thrust the burning havdalah candle into wine, reminding ourselves to keep on working.
Yanshuf. An owl – a beautiful, haunting, elusive creature of the woods. Linshof. Exhale – breathe out, let go. Nefesh. Soul – our sacred untouchableness. Oneself – our uniqueness, our individuality.
I saw the owl because I am working hard to make a dream come true. I saw the owl because I let go that Friday afternoon and did not look at my email, even on my phone. Finding the strength to keep working toward our dreams. Remembering and honoring the importance of our own distinct and individual dreams. Finding the strength to let go and stop and be. Allowing the “angels” to enter our lives and nourish our spirits.
As we kindle the lights of Hanukkah and each evening watch the glow of the lights grow stronger with each additional candle, may we take the lighting of the candles as a reminder of our strength. May we take their slow burning down as a reminder to let go. May we feel the sacred in our lives and may our dreams come true.
Chag U’rim Sameach – Happy Festival of Lights – and Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen