Posts tagged ‘Rosh Hashanah’

September 24, 2016

Day Six, Hour 11.5

Rosh Hashana is one of our most significant Jewish holidays, but the Torah doesn’t say much about it. It’s only mentioned twice, and briefly at that:

And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial of terua, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work of labor, and you shall bring near a fire offering to Hashem.” Lev. 23:23-25,

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any work of labor. A day of terua it shall be to you, and you shall offer a burnt offering, for a pleasing aroma to Hashem. . . Num 29:1-2,

I’m providing a literal translation for both these passages to highlight the fact that the Torah doesn’t call this day “The Feast of Trumpets” as it’s often termed in Bible studies. (It also doesn’t call it Rosh Hashana, but that’s another discussion.) These two passages actually don’t mention a “trumpet” or a shofar at all, but only the sound that a trumpet or shofar might make, which is called terua. And it’s not a “Feast”. But it is a Shabbaton, or day of solemn rest, and a mikra kodesh, or holy convocation, so we know the day really is significant. But the Torah doesn’t tell us why it’s significant. Or does it?

One clue to the day’s significance is that it’s the first day of the seventh month, and “The number seven, especially when applied to time, always signifies holiness. The first thing declared holy in the Torah is the seventh day, Shabbat (Gen. 2:1–3).” (R. Jonathan Sacks in his introduction to The Koren Rosh Hashana Mahzor.)  Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain that the holiness of the seventh day, the seventh year, and the Jubilee at the end of seven cycles of seven years is expressed by the cessation of work, a cessation that characterized the initial seventh day of  Creation in Genesis 2:1–3. So, we might say that seven is a holy number because it’s the number of the holy and complete Creation. On the seventh day and year, “we cease creating and remember that we are creations. We stop making and remember that we are made” (R. Sacks).

The two Torah passages I cited both open with reference to the seventh month. Now we can see that it’s not a big stretch to link this reference to Creation, and that’s exactly what our tradition does: “For this day is the opening of all Your works, a remembrance of the very first day (Koren Mahzor, 532). “This day is the birthday of the world” (ibid, 616).

So, Creation and God as Creator are the opening themes of Rosh Hashana as we celebrate it today. In Midrash Rabbah, however, Rabbi Eliezer says that the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul, the sixth month (Lev. Rabbah 29:1). In his view Rosh Hashana actually marks the sixth day of Creation, when Adam, the first human, was formed from the dust of the earth. There’s no point in arguing about the literal pros and cons of this midrash, because that’s not what midrash is about. Instead, let’s consider some deep insights that this imaginative reading unlocks.

Rabbi Eliezer not only says that Adam was created on the sixth day, but he also nails down the time: the seventh hour. And then,

In the eighth [hour] He brought him into the Garden of Eden, in the ninth he was commanded [against eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge], in the tenth he transgressed, in the eleventh he was judged, in the twelfth he was pardoned. ‘This,’ said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Adam, ‘will be a sign to your children. As you stood in judgment before Me this day and came out with a free pardon, so will your children in the future stand in judgment before Me on this day and will come out from My presence with a free pardon.’ When will that be? In the seventh month, in the first day of the month.

The midrash doesn’t say so explicitly, but it’s solving one of the knottiest interpretive issues in the Creation story. When the Lord warns Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he says, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17b). Adam follows the lead of his wife, Eve, eats of the tree and . . . doesn’t die! Some Christian interpreters develop the idea that Adam and Eve died spiritually on that day; they became alienated from God, took on a new, sinful nature, and became spiritually dead. A more Jewish reading would emphasize that Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden and into exile on that day, since exile is a type of death throughout the Tanakh. But this midrash has a whole different solution: the eleventh-hour death sentence was literal enough, but God removed it through a pardon at the twelfth hour.

Here’s the insight revealed by this imaginative reading: the God of the Bible is Creator and Ruler of all things, but also merciful and ready to forgive. In our day of increasing skepticism and unbelief (at least in the global West), it’s often hard to talk about God at all, let alone about the Bible or the redemptive message of Messiah Yeshua. It’s challenging enough to defend the idea that there’s a Creator, a force or power beyond the visible, material world. But this portrayal of the Creator as merciful and ready to pardon right from the start might help overcome some of the barriers to the God idea. We’re not talking about God as an angry old white man in the sky.

Insightful as the midrash is, however, it lacks the dramatic tension that energizes our observance of Rosh Hashana today. In the words of the iconic prayer, Untaneh Tokef, this is the day when “all who have come into the world pass before You like sheep.”

As a shepherd’s searching gaze meets his flock,

as he passes every sheep beneath his rod,

so You too pass Yours, count and number,

and regard the soul of every living thing;

and You rule off the limit of each creation’s life,

and write down the verdict for each. (Koren Mahzor, 566-568)

According to R. Eliezer, in the eleventh hour Adam was judged and in the twelfth he was pardoned, but apparently pardon is not automatic. God the great Shepherd sorts out his sheep and records a verdict for each. Jewish tradition emphasizes the need for teshuva, return and repentance, between the eleventh hour and the twelfth, between guilt and pardon. The Torah, though, has a different emphasis, which R. Eliezer seems to overlook in his time line. First comes the eleventh-hour judgment:

“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” Gen. 3:19

And then, a move that opens the way for pardon: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). After this, the pardon. God sends the first humans out of the Garden and into the difficult conditions of life as we know it today—but they live. The death sentence is lifted.

Genesis 3:21 is only a clue, but I’ve been exploring clues and their implications in this whole blog. So this clue suggests that pardon doesn’t depend on our remorse and repentance as much as on God’s gift. And the gift costs Him something. The Creator, who is merciful and ready to pardon, must pay for pardon through sacrifice. Garments of skin come from an animal slain to yield up its covering hide. Pardon is not just a feel-good impulse of a God heeding the 21st century admonition to not be judgmental. Rather, it’s the fruit of deep and costly compassion, sacrificial compassion, which will be pictured most clearly in the deeds of a Messiah to come.

September 17, 2016

Unprepared and Ready

Not long before my old friend Rube (Rabbi Richard Rubinstein, that is) passed away, I had the privilege of visiting him at his home in Sacramento. He was already in bad shape from the cancer that eventually killed him, but his spirits were remarkably fine, so when he happened to recommend a book to me, I paid attention. The title grabbed my attention too: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, by Rabbi Alan Lew. The subtitle explains that it’s about “The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation,” and “You are Completely Unprepared” is a sort of unifying theme.

In this book, the Days of Awe comprise the whole season of Teshuvah, Return or shofarRepentance, which culminates in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but this is not a manual on liturgy or customs to help us get ready for the High Holy Days. Rather, Rabbi Lew is telling us that we’ll never get ready; we’ll never be prepared for the central experience of the Days of Awe, which is an encounter with the real and living presence of God. The season of Teshuvah, in Rabbi Lew’s guidebook, begins with Tisha B’Av, the “day when we mourn the fall of the Temple, the day precisely seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah when we begin our preparations for reconciliation with God by acknowledging our estrangement from God.” It’s an estrangement that we can’t fix, says the rabbi, but only recognize, as “we begin to acknowledge the fact that we are utterly unprepared [there’s that word again] for what we have to face in life.”

Recognizing that we are truly unprepared and empty is inherent to teshuvah, as expressed in the prayer Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King): Ein banu ma’asim, We have no good deeds, or literally no deeds at all, that we can invoke in God’s presence. There is nothing we can say or do in response to his awesome holiness. Recognizing our helplessness, our utter deficit in the presence of God, is essential to genuinely returning to him.

Not long ago, I read another book, A Praying Life, by Paul E. Miller. One of the early chapters is  “Learning to be Helpless.” Under the heading, “Prayer = Helplessness,” Miller writes, “Prayer is bringing your helplessness to Jesus,” and then quotes the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton: “Prayer is an expression of who we are . . . We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” Prayer isn’t something we do to overcome our helplessness; it is a gift that arises out of the helplessness that will always be with us. But unless we can acknowledge that helplessness, we won’t even want the gift.

Which invokes a third book in my recent reading: God of our Understanding, by Shais Taub, a Chasidic rabbi who is intimately acquainted with addiction and recovery. His subtitle is “Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction,” and Rabbi Taub expounds on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous from the perspective of Torah, beginning with Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or whatever we were addicted to] and that our lives had become unmanageable.” He writes,

The idea of surrender presented in the First Step . . . seems to turn many people off from even giving recovery an honest go. Yet, that’s probably just as well, because the admission of powerlessness and unmanageability is not an aspect of recovery—it’s the very basis of it. Nothing else seems to work very well without complete and unconditional capitulation first.

 

Rabbi Taub is undeniably correct in thinking that surrender is a turn-off to many people in a day that is obsessed with success, techno-mastery, and the elimination of pain and unpleasantness. But what ties these three books together, and ties them all to the Days of Awe, is the notion that this despised reality of helplessness, incompletion, and powerlessness is not limited to addicts, but is part of our humanity. It’s not a problem to overcome, but a platform for genuine spiritual development. The books don’t call on us to recognize our helplessness so that we can fix it, but rather so that we can thereby recognize our dependency on God. We’re not going to return to God only after we solve these problems, but somehow from within them, in the negation of the self-reliance and self-assurance that our secular culture continually seeks to promote. As Rabbi Lew would argue, only when you really get that “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” can you begin to enter the Days of Awe with any kind of authenticity, authenticity that in turn authenticates our whole life with God.

This is a picture of real teshuva—turning away from self and its inevitable outcome, sin, and turning to God. But it’s up to the Christian author, Paul Miller, to put this all into the context of the message of Messiah Yeshua: “The gospel, God’s free gift of grace in Jesus, only works when we realize we don’t have it all together.”

Occasionally I’m asked by some Christian friend or another why I, as a follower of Yeshua, continue to keep Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement, when Yeshua has provided atonement once-for-all. Or why we, as Messianic Jews practice the annual confession of sin and appeal for mercy during the Days of Awe, since we’ve already been forgiven through Yeshua’s once-for-all sacrifice. To paraphrase Rabbi Taub, it’s because repentance and forgiveness are not just an aspect of new life in Messiah, but the very basis of it. I’m not accusing my friends of this, but there’s a tendency in the religious world to conform to the values of the dominant secular culture, which in our times includes the value of human competence and sufficiency. Feeling insufficient? God can fix that and send you on your way. But that’s not the gospel. Instead, it says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. We don’t do teshuva once to get into this kingdom, and then leave it at the door. Rather, the continual recognition of our spiritual helplessness and need, paradoxically enough, keeps us spiritually healthy and strong. Perhaps that’s how my friend Rube could seem to be doing fine even as his body was caving in to the ravages of cancer.

I’ve already invoked the traditional prayer, Avinu Malkenu. It’s a powerful assembly of words, set to a haunting melody, especially fitting for the Days of Awe, but bearing truth for every day:

Avinu Malkenu chanenu v’anenu ki ein banu ma’asim, aseh imanu tsedakah v’chesed v’hoshienu.

Our Father, our King!

Be gracious to us, and answer us, for we have no good works of our own;

deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.

 

 

 

 

 

September 12, 2016

The Silence of Abraham

I wrote this commentary the day before 9/11/2001 and it seemed particularly relevant in the days that followed. I reposted it on this blog site a few years ago, and it still seems current to me, as we approach Rosh Hashanah 2016. 

During the time of self-examination and spiritual preparation leading up to the Days of Awe, it is essential to examine our speech, what we say to and about others. Our Messiah taught, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Our speech reveals the condition of our heart, and taming our speech is essential to preparing for these holy days.

David writes in Psalm 34 (vss. 12-14),

Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

Who is the man who desires life, and loves days, that he may see good?

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

The nineteenth century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch notes at these verses that the fear of the Lord begins with “control over our words.” He continues,

…there is no better task that we can set for ourselves, leading to the fear of God and to be done in the fear of God, than to resolve tacitly and before Him alone never to speak ill of one’s fellow-men. The fulfillment of this one task requires a constant self-observation and affords a unique opportunity for attaining that control over oneself which is the essential basis of all God-fearing moral behavior…. In instances where we really know of nothing good to say, we must practice the difficult art of keeping silent.

Rabbi Hirsch’s comments are especially apt during the Days of Awe, as we practice t’shuvah, a return to God and His ways. If we will focus on controlling our speech, we will go a long way toward restoring the rest of our behavior. Ya’akov writes, “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2b). If we resolve not to speak evil of our fellow human beings, we will gain mastery over other evil behavior as well. And sometimes, as Hirsch points out, this task will require that we practice silence.akedah

This observation brings us to another element of the Days of Awe, the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), which we read during Rosh Hashanah. One of the mysteries of this story is the silence of Abraham. Translator Everett Fox comments:

Most noticeable in the narrative is Avraham’s silence, his mute acceptance of, and acting on, God’s command. We are told of no sleepless night, nor does he ever say a word to God. Instead he is described with a series of verbs: hurrying, saddling, taking, splitting, arising, going (v.3; similarly in vv.6 and 9-10). Avraham the bargainer, so willing to enter into negotiations with relations (Chap. 13), allies (Chap. 14), local princes (Chap. 20), and even with God himself (Chap. 18), here falls completely silent.

Abraham pleads on behalf of others, but is silent when God tells him to offer up his own son. After his initial response to God’s call – “Hineni!” – Abraham does not speak to God at all. Perhaps, after receiving this command to offer up his beloved son, he struggles so greatly with the question of God’s goodness that he must keep silent to avoid transgression. This is the great trial that Abraham must endure; not only to obey such a terrible commandment, but also to refrain from questioning the God who issued it.

The silent Abraham, however, does make one statement about God. As he is walking to the place of offering with his son Isaac, the lad says, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:7-8). “God will provide” – this is Abraham’s sole comment in the midst of his great trial. And this statement becomes the theme of the whole story. God does indeed provide a ram as an offering in the place of Isaac. Abraham therefore names the place Adonai Yireh, The-Lord-Will-Provide; “as it is said to this day, ‘In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (22:14).

Rosh Hashanah is the commemoration of the Lord as King. He was King from the moment of creation; He is King over Israel; and He shall be King over all nations through the Messiah Yeshua. On Rosh Hashanah, we must examine whether He is truly King over our lives as well. If God is our King, we trust Him even when we can barely endure our trial. Even when we do not understand, we know that God will provide.

Abraham allows himself no word that would call into question the Lord’s Kingship. Instead, he limits himself to the most basic statement of divine sovereignty – the Lord will provide. He is our ultimate source and overseer, the King over every aspect of our lives. At other times, Abraham dares to negotiate and even argue with God, thus inaugurating a great Jewish tradition of argument with the divine. There is a time to discuss the difficult questions of spiritual life, but there is also a time when the only issue is God’s sovereignty. It is when we are in the midst of the greatest trials that we must affirm this truth most clearly.

Who is the man who desires life, and loves days, that he may see good?

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

During these days of spiritual preparation, we must examine how we speak of our fellow human beings, and even how we speak of God Himself. Do we really affirm Him as King, the One who always provides, or do we give into words of fear and insecurity? Abraham chose silence over doubting God’s perfect Kingship. Perhaps we need to return to a quiet trust in God as Sovereign over all things, even things we do not understand.

Out of speech that is right about God will come speech that is right about our fellow man and out of right speaking will issue right behavior. Then the Lord will be King indeed over our lives.

 

 

 

September 9, 2015

“Return to me and I will return to you”

What is complete teshuva [return or repentance]? When a person has the opportunity to commit the original sin again, and is physically able to sin again, but refrains from sinning—not out of fear, or because of physical weakness, but because of his repentance . . . he is a baal teshuva (‘master of repentance’). Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 2:1

The stream of world news can become a deadening drone that we want to block out, especially as we prepare for the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (September 13-23 this year). But now and then an image emerges from the news stream that raises our awareness of eternal matters.

Last week the media ran pictures of Alan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach. He and two other members of his family drowned in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach a Greek island—the shore of Europe—in an inflatable raft. Many voices in Europe and around the world rose up to call for more compassion and help for refugees from Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern hot spots. What struck me as much as the image itself was one particular European voice, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed.”

September 8, 2015

The sound of a New Year

Every year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, I get ready for someone to object to the greeting “L’shana tovah” (“to a good year”), or even to the name of the holiday itself, Rosh Hashanah, which means literally “Head of the Year,” or New Year’s. Why would anyone object to such positive terms? Because, they’ll tell me, Rosh Hashanah isn’t really the New Year, it’s actually the first day of the seventh month (as if I didn’t know that). Then they might quote Exodus 12:1-2. “Adonai spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt; he said, ‘You are to begin your calendar with this month; it will be the first month of the year for you.’” The year begins with the first month, not the seventh. Case closed.

But, of course, there’s more to it than that, and there’s a good lesson here, which might even help us enter the Jewish year of 5776 with some needed optimism and hope.

September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah with Ishmael

Abraham endured ten trials of his faith, according to Jewish tradition, and the last two involve Abraham’s two sons: he must cast Ishmael out of the camp, and offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. We read about both these trials on Rosh Hashanah; Ishmael on the first day and Isaac on the second. The Akedah or Binding of Isaac is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture, but we tend to overlook the sending away of Ishmael, even though it reflects one of the great themes of the High Holy Days.

The story opens with the birth and naming of Isaac, Yitzchak, whose name reflects the Hebrew root word for “laugh.” Sarah, who had laughed at the very idea of bearing a child as an old lady, now says “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with [or at] me” (Gen. 21:7). Later she sees Ishmael laughing with, or at, Isaac, and demands that he be sent away with his mother, Hagar. Abraham is distressed, but Hashem tells him to do what Sarah says and reassures him that Ishmael, like Isaac, will become a great nation. Then, in words that will be repeated verbatim in the Akedah, the text says, “Abraham rose early in the morning” (Gen. 21:14) to do God’s will. As in the Akedah he gathers up provisions, and then he lays them on Hagar’s shoulder, just as he will lay the firewood on Isaac’s shoulder, and sends them both off.

September 19, 2011

Non-theoretical truth

We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [and] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

From the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

 

When truth encounters the data of our lives, it gives rise to confession.

Truth itself can be pretty abstract, an ideal that dwells apart from our daily lives. But when we let the truth we find in Scripture shine on the details of our thoughts and behaviors, and speak the truth about what we see, truth is anything but abstract. It becomes something solid that works real changes into our lives. Speaking the truth about what we see is called confession, which isn’t a real popular term nowadays, but is one of the main practices of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days, Sept. 28–Oct. 8 this year) and an essential part of the preparation for Yom Kippur. And confession of sin is a keynote of all the services of Yom Kippur itself.

September 4, 2011

Silence, Shofars, and Elul

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour (Rev. 8:1, CJB).

This week, our Mussar group is working on the virtue of silence (see www.rivertonmussar.org), but silence is the last thing you’d expect in heaven. Heaven’s the scene of unending, and loud, worship and praise. Just a few verses before the one above, John, the seer of Revelation, saw “a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . and they shouted [or cried out with a loud voice] . . .” (Rev. 7:9–10, CJB). Before that, he had seen an even bigger and noisier crowd:

Then I looked, and I heard the sound of a vast number of angels—thousands and thousands, millions and millions! . . . And they shouted out, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!” And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea—yes, everything in them—saying, “To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb belong praise, honor, glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11–13, CJB).

Worship bursts forth in words and music and loud voices, and heaven is a noisy place—so what is this sudden silence about?

August 31, 2011

the Hineni hint

We’re in the middle of seven haftarot of consolation, seven readings from Isaiah that take us from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. The haftarah for this week is Isaiah 51:12–52:12 and the haftarah for next week is Isaiah 54:1–10, so it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to skip right over Isaiah 53 (which begins at 52:13). Those of us who see Isaiah 53 as the greatest portrayal of Messiah Yeshua in the Hebrew Scriptures might be tempted to claim that it was left out of the reading cycle on purpose. But to be fair, there’s another explanation for its absence, since it doesn’t explicitly include the theme of comfort or consolation, or mention the return from exile that’s so prominent in other passages.

In fact, rather than being left out of the haftarah readings, it almost looks like chapter 53 got inserted as a parenthetical statement into the book of Isaiah between this week’s haftarah and next week’s. But, of course, that interpretation misses the point too, a major point that Isaiah is making in the way he composed his prophecy.

The key to this major point is one word, Hineni, which appears at the end of Isaiah 52:6.

August 28, 2011

Focus on one thing

During the month of Elul, Jewish tradition recommends that your take some time each day for cheshbon ha-nefesh, or taking an account of the soul.

All the month of Elul before eating and sleeping let every man sit and look into his soul, and search his deeds, that he may make confession. (S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, citing Maharil)

Alan Lew notes the same idea in his book, This is Real and You are Totally Unprepared. (My good friend Rube–Richard Rubinstein–recommended this book on the High Holidays to me last year, not long before he died of cancer, so it’s especially meaningful to me.)

All the rabbis who comment on this period make it clear that we … must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation and self-judgment, to engage in cheshbon-ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting. But we get very little in the way of practical advice as to how we might do this.

Rabbi Lew goes on to give some practical advice.