With all of the stipulations required to avoid calling down a calamity from heaven, I marvel at the beauty of this summer in Bangor. The days have been pleasantly warm with deliciously cool nights. Looking at the smokey hills that surround us, we remember how lucky we are to live in such an enchanting place. I hope that you too are enjoying summer and all that it brings.
We still, though, have the bulk of the “Dog Days of Summer” in front of us, so there may be some mild discomfort in store. The “Dog Days” have a rich pagan history, flowing from the observation of the ancients that the warmest time of the year was when Sirius (the “Dog Star”) rises with the sun. From the Iliad:
Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.
So it is clear that what is happening at this time of year is more than a little humidity. For the Egyptians, this period coincided with the annual flood of the Nile, which was a period of great danger but also of potential prosperity. The “Dog Days” were a time of the year when the stakes were higher for good as well as bad.
It’s very telling that the period assigned to the “Dog Days” by the Romans, by the Farmer’s Almanac, and even by the Christian Book of Common Prayer (!) is forty days. The number forty has resonance across all cultures and we too have a 40 day period of heightened religious sense at this time of year – the season of introspection and repentance that begins on the 1st of Elul (August 14 this year) and culminates on Yom Kippur. Like the flooding of the Nile, the season of Elul and the High Holidays remind that life is laden with both risk and opportunity, and that realizing our potential in the time we have is not something that will be accomplished haphazardly but requires great care. It is to this task that we turn in Elul.
We recognize that this cannot be a purely individual task. At this time of year we need the tools of the tradition, study and prayer, but we also need each other. It is the insight of Judaism that the greatest potential can be discovered when we act communally. As the New Year approaches and we begin our self-examination, it is my hope that we heighten as well our efforts to support one another. And may the “Dog Days of Summer” be as meaningful as we can make them (and with a minimal amount of humidity)
Rabbi Bill Siemers