Posted on September 28, 2022
If I was a bird, instead of migrating South in the winter, I’d probably migrate further North. I thrive in cold weather and I melt in the heat. I love the magic of snowy days and the sound of rain pitter-pattering against a roof or a window. My ideal state is being snuggled up in a sweatshirt, curled up with a blanket and a cup of tea.
There’s a Danish word that describes this state of being—a word, in fact, that made the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 “word of the year” shortlist. Hygge (hoo-guh)—which can be used as a noun, adjective or verb–translated as “The quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” In plain English, hygge is the state of being when you’re wearing your comfiest (often shlubbiest) sweatpants and a worn old flannel, becoming one with the couch. While you can “hygge” alone, “the true expression of hygge,” as the New Yorker puts it, “is joining with loved ones in a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.” (1)
Throughout the month of Elul, the Jewish month that serves as the onramp for the fall holidays, I’ve found myself imagining hygge with an unlikely companion–God.
I’ve been imagining sitting on the couch with God, a pile of laundry between us, trying to match socks that seem to always lose their mate to a hungry sock monster that lives in the dryer. I’ve been imagining unloading the dishwasher with God, God handing me utensils and Tupperware as I laugh resignedly at the inevitable waterfall of dirty dishwater pouring off of a container lid and onto the floor. I’ve been imagining giving up on that mountain of laundry, pushing it over, and resolving to just sit on the couch with God, schmoozing and enjoying each other’s company.
In my usual prayer life, this isn’t my default image of God. But this Elul, I’ve been holding fast to this image, fixated on a line from Psalm 27—the psalm that we recite daily during this season. (2)
אַחַ֤ת שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהֹוָה֮ אוֹתָ֢הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הֹוָה כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י ׃
Achat she’alti me’et-HaShem otah avekeish sh’viti b’veit HaShem kol-yomei chayai
One thing I ask of God,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of God
all the days of my life.
The “bayit” of Adonai.
The image of God in this psalm is an image of intimacy and closeness. It’s not of grand stately curtains or adorned altars. It’s kind of…of…well, maybe sitting on a couch together.
If you’re feeling like this imagery is a stretch, if you’re feeling like this whole God thing is a stretch, I’m with you. It is difficult to envision connecting with a divine being, let alone such a casual way of connecting with a deity. Frankly, sometimes I find it difficult to envision a casual, low-stakes way of connecting with other, regular humans.
Until recently, I thought that the only way to host Shabbat dinner was with much fanfare and a lot of fussing. If I wasn’t going to have time to clean my house or cook a multi-course meal, I just wasn’t going to have friends over for Shabbat.
My friend Talia has taught me that it doesn’t have to be that way.
When Talia has invited me over to her house, it has been with caveats but without apologies. “My apartment is a mess but I want to see you anyway,” she’ll say. Or, “I’m exhausted and going to make a very simple dinner, but you should still come over.” She’s transparent about where she’s at, what state her house is in, and best of all—she doesn’t pretend that it’s either useful or necessary to make adjustments.
Sometimes, I’ve walked into her house for Shabbat dinner and there’s a beautifully set table. And sometimes I’ve walked into her house for Shabbat dinner and there’s been a half-made salad on the counter and papers on the dining room table.
And it’s awesome.
Her willingness to invite me into her house exactly as it is had led to a fast friendship. It turns out that it’s easier to be open and honest and friendly when you feel comfortable, when there’s that sense of hygge.
Talia’s approach to hosting isn’t only a powerful way to connect with friends, but can also be a powerful way to connect with God
There are a lot of ways to imagine God within Judaism. The God of Psalm 27 is a hygge God–a God of real, lived-in apartments, of Shabbat dinners with caveats but without apologies.
The God of Rosh Hashanah, on the other hand, can sometimes feel like a God that requires fancy tablecloths and nice dishes. On Rosh Hashanah, we sing the words “Hamelech yoshev al kiseh”—God sits enthroned on high. On Rosh Hashanah, our liturgy evokes the image of God as ruler, sitting and judging us from upon a lofty throne. And it’s intimidating! For me, it feels hard to be honest and open about my faults with a King-like God. And it’s when I get stuck in that place of feeling intimidated, of feeling like I couldn’t possibly speak open-heartedly to God, that I remember that line from Psalm 27:
I remember dwelling in God’s house.
In this remembering, I can imagine that yes, God is sitting on a throne. But God is sitting on that throne wearing the very socks that we sorted together on God’s couch.
Until I really internalized the imagery of Psalm 27, I thought the only way to do Rosh Hashanah was to shove all of my stuff in a closet, and to feel ashamed about it.
Until I spent Shabbat at Talia’s house, I thought the only way to have Shabbat dinner was to make a really big deal about it.
These two realizations go hand in hand.
I want to take us back to Psalm 27:
אַחַ֤ת שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהֹוָה֮ אוֹתָ֢הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הֹוָה כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י
But the line goes on.
לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹעַם־יְ֝הֹוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵֽיכָלֽוֹ
One thing I ask of God, only that do I seek: to live in the house of God all the days of my life.
to gaze upon the beauty of God, and to frequent God’s temple
We move from God’s house into God’s Temple.
The Temple part–the fanfare part–does come in.
It isn’t all hygge all the time.
But we start from a place of intimacy, and THEN move into formality.
We start from a place of intimacy and THEN move into formality.
We can relate to God better after we’ve spent time in God’s house.
And we can relate to each other better when we simply start from exactly where we are.
How many times have you admired someone from afar but worried about having the exact right introduction and not introduced yourself? How many times have you thought to send a sympathy card, but put it off because you didn’t know the right thing to say?
Reverence for God without intimacy is idolatry. Reverence with intimacy is relationship. On Rosh Hashanah, it is only through knowing God intimately that the image of God on a throne has a chance of evoking anything other than an eye roll.
When we meet each other only in the carefully cultivated, deliberately crafted ways, we miss out. We miss out on the shared smiles that come with the unspoken understanding that we all have dishes to do and laundry to sort. We miss out on the opportunity to really know each other on an intimate level.
During Rosh Hashanah, we read the haftarah about Hannah, a woman who reaches out to God in the midst of deep despair, not even able to pretend to care about formalities. Hannah arrives at God’s temple, and, as the verse describes, “in her wretchedness, prayed to Adonai, weeping all the while.” (3) She is a hysterical, crying mess. But she shows up. And God meets her right where she is. Not even ten verses later, we learn that God וַֽיִּזְכְּרֶ֖הָ–God remembers Hannah and grants her the child she so desperately wants (4).
As we enter into the year 5783, may we too, be willing to show up as we are.
May we too, be remembered.
May we be able to picture God not just as sovereign but as friend.
May we be able to push that laundry aside.
May we be able to connect to each other while sitting on casual couches and at fancy set tables.
And may we find contentment in the simple joy and pleasure of hygge–curling up on the couch with a good friend and a cup of tea.
1: Anna Altman, “The Year of Hygge: The Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy”, New York Times, 18 Dec. 2016
2: Psalm 27:4