from Rav Kook
On the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh, the new Hebrew month, we announce the new month with a special prayer, called Birkat HaChodesh. We pray that the coming month will be a time of good health, peace, and blessing.
The introduction to Birkat HaChodesh is copied from an ancient prayer composed by third-century scholar Abba Arikha (‘Rav’), founder of the legendary yeshiva of Sura. Here is the text of Rav’s prayer, as recorded in the Talmud:
“May it be Your will, the Eternal our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of vigor of the bones, a life in which there is fear of sin, a life free from shame and embarrassment, a life of riches and honor, a life in which we may be filled with love of Torah and awe of Heaven, a life in which You will fulfill all of our hearts’ desires for good.” (Berakhot 16b)
While the prayer does mention love of Torah and awe of Heaven, most of the requests appear to refer to the material aspects of life — sustenance and physical vigor, riches and honor. Were these wishes foremost in the thoughts and prayers of this great scholar?
The True Meaning of Rav’s Prayer
Rav Kook taught that Rav’s prayer should not be understood superficially. Its focus is not on material blessings, but spiritual goals. Each request relates to some quality of spiritual growth and fulfilling our mission in life.
“May it be Your will… to grant us long life” — a long life does not mean long in years, but long in content and accomplishments. This is a preamble for the requests that follow.
“A life of peace” — this refers, not to peaceful relations with others, but to our own inner peace and harmony. We should not be stymied by internal qualities — flawed character traits, confusion, intellectual blunders — which undermine our efforts towards spiritual growth.
“A life of good” – no, this is not a request for good times and affluence. This is a spiritual request, a prayer that all external factors which affect us, should influence us in good directions and positive ways.
“A life of blessing” — not blessings that we receive, but blessings that we give. May we bring blessings to the world through our actions — helping the needy, consoling the broken-hearted, and providing moral leadership and direction.
“A life of sustenance” — a prayer that all our needs be met — whether physical, psychological, or spiritual.
“A life of vigor of the bones” (chilutz atzamot). In a Talmudic discussion in Yevamot 102b, Rabbi Elazar made a surprising remark: “This is the best blessing of all.” Physical vigor and energy are important in life; but is this the most important blessing that one can ask for?
Rav Kook explained that chilutz atzamot refers to our mindset and outlook. We pray that we should be willing and eager to undertake our spiritual mission, our special service of God. We should not feel that avodat Hashem is a burden. This is the ultimate blessing, for the goal of all blessings is the path itself — service of God. As the Sages wrote, we should seek “God’s mitzvot, and not the reward of His mitzvot.”
“A life free from shame and embarrassment” — no one is perfect; we all have shortcomings and weaknesses, an obvious source of embarrassment. But our lives — the choices we make and the actions we take — they should be free from shame, a reflection of our better qualities. We should be able to look at our lives with pride and satisfaction.
“A life of riches and honor” — sometimes wealth can change a person, undermining his integrity, befuddling his values, blinding him to his true goals. Therefore we ask that our wealth be bound with true honor, namely, our spiritual values and goals.
And finally, Rav asked for “a life in which You will fulfill all of our hearts’ desires for good.” Why tack on at the end, “for good”? Sometimes people wish for things — private benefits, material gains — which they imagine will be good. We pray that our hearts’ desires will be for that which is truly good, complementing the ultimate goal and the greatest good.
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, pp. 121-123)
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Entering the empty month
Today and tomorrow are Rosh Chodesh, new moon, the “head of the month” — the beginning of a new lunar month. On the Jewish calendar, we’re entering into the month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is remarkable because it is empty: aside from Shabbat, which comes every seventh day all year long, Cheshvan contains no holidays. No feast days, no fast days, no special practices, no special liturgy. Nothing at all out of the ordinary. Jewish time is separated into kodesh (holy / set-apart) and chol (ordinary time), and the month of Cheshvan is — aside from its Shabbatot — completely chol.
I love the Days of Awe. I love the whole rollercoaster: from the low point of Tisha b’Av, through the month of Elul (introspection, inner work, psalm 27), through Rosh Hashanah (day of judgement, birthday of creation), through the Ten Days of Teshuvah, through Yom Kippur (day of atonement, intimacy with God), through the seven days of Sukkot (little harvest house, lulav and etrog, facing impermanence) and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. And by the time we get to the end of all of those special days, with their customs and practices and words, I am wiped out.
Enter Cheshvan, the empty month. On the solar calendar we are moving toward winter in this hemisphere. The days are getting colder, the leaves have largely blown off the trees, the hills are taking on their more sere and muted late-autumn hues of soft purples and browns beneath frequently clouded skies. The outside world feels like a reflection of my internal spiritual landscape. The time for the finery of the Days of Awe is over. Now I cup my hands around a mug of tea, now I sit and breathe deeply, now I let everything that was activated and stirred-up in me by the holidays begin to settle like fallen leaves.
Cheshvan is the beginning of a spiritual fallow season. Just as the earth needs time to rest between harvest and new planting, so too do our hearts and souls. Now we let the ordinary passage of ordinary time work its magic. We trust that the coming season will somehow — alchemically, mysteriously — transform the discoveries and emotions of the holiday season into the inner qualities we will most need as we approach the festivals of (northern hemisphere) spring in a few months. We are like fallen leaves not yet ready to serve as mulch for spring’s new growth. We are like seeds curled tight, waiting.
We can’t know yet what will arise in us after the quiet winter. If we had a telescope to let us look far out to the horizon we could maybe barely glimpse the beacons of Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Pesach in the distance. But there are months between now and then. In the northern hemisphere the days are growing shorter. It’s Cheshvan, the empty month. Time to let our hands be empty, let our hearts be open, let the hard work of the holiday season begin to percolate in our hearts and souls. It’s Cheshvan, the empty month. Time to hunker down, tend our internal fires, and let ordinary time balm our tender places.
From Reb Mimi Feigelson
On Rosh Chodes Kislev
What Are You Dreaming About These Nights and Kissing With Your Heart?
Torah Reading: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
Haftarah Reading: 1 Kings 1:1 – 31
I love special Shabbats. By ‘special’ I mean the ones where there is an extra dimension added to the Shabbat. It could be a Shabbat that does ‘time sharing’ with a holiday, with Rosh Chodesh, the new moon / month, or, as the case of our Shabbat, declaring the new moon and preparing us not only for a new week, but also a new month.
The Gerrer Rebbe, the Chassidic Master, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter of Gur (1799-1866) teaches that each Shabbat contains within it the vitality and essence of the week to come. Thus, if we are blessing the new moon/month this Shabbat it holds Rosh Chodesh within it. And similarly I think of Rosh Chodesh in respect to the coming month. The first day of the month conceals within the potential of whole month.
It is even taught that the day before Rosh Chodesh is known as “Yom Kippur Katan” – a minor Yom Kippur – and is perceived as a day designated to Tshuva (re-turning toward God).
It is with these thoughts that I turn to our incoming month, the month of Kiss-Lev. I intentionally spell it this way and not the conventional way, ‘Kislev,’ for it is in this form that I get to remind myself again to ask, what am I willing to kiss not with my eyes and lips, but rather with my heart / my Lev…?
This month is a serious month in ways that it has never been before. The High Holydays are behind us, the elections are behind us, and the rest of life is in front of us! We each have an opportunity to ask ourselves, how are we going to live this month knowing that our future depends on it? I would like to offer two ways to ask this question. One path is from our sister-indigenous traditions and the second path from our mystical traditions.
I learned from the ‘Counsel of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers’ that in the Native-American traditions the council would make decisions based on the outcome in seven generations. They would so to speak ‘look into the future’ and ask what the impact of their decision would be on their offspring’s that they themselves would never see. In our tradition we have a notion of counting seven clusters of seven years from one Yovel / Jubilee to the next. Here we are asked to question even further into our future.
The second venue is based on the teaching of an early Chassidic Master, the Ohr Hame’ir, Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomer (d. 1798). On the pasuk (verse): “al mishkavi ba’leylot bekashti et sh’ahavah nafshi” / “on my bed at night I sought my soul’s beloved” (Shir HaShirim / Song of Songs 3:1) he poses: it is from our dreams that we can see the level of our soul. Long before Freud, Reb Ze’ev Wolf claimed that the content of our dreams can reveal to us the deeper essence of our being. He would say: “Tell me your dreams and I will tell you who you are!”
Why bring this up now in relation to the Jewish calendar?
Sefer Yetzirah / the Book of Creation, is perceived to be our earliest mystical book. It is attributed to Avraham Avinu /Abraham , though scholars are still not in consensus as to its dating, and can be dated as early as 200B.C.E. The book maps out the mystical formation of the Hebrew letters and calendar, and their affiliation to the blueprint of the world we live in. The letters of the alphabet are aligned with the planets and the seven spatial directions, for example.
The months are depicted as being bound to a letter, an organ of the body, a trait of the soul. It is here that we learn the following (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983), offers an extensive translation of the whole book):
“He made the letter Samekh king over sleep
And He bound a crown to it
And He combined one with another
And with them He formed
Sagittarius in the Universe
Kislev in the Year [Sefer Yetzirah 5:9]
Here we learn that this month is designated to the ‘fixing’ / tikkun of the realm of sleep. Clearly we can see here that sleep is not a lapse of awareness, or what happens between the days of our life. Along with other conditions such as anger and smell (the months of Tevet and Ram-Cheshvan, respectively) sleep is a realm into itself that demands cultivating. Yes, for our physical well being as well!
For the Ohr Ha’Meir, based on Sefer Yetzirah too, this month is the time to work with our dreams. To designate intentional sleep-time, so that our dreams will have the possibility of manifesting our inner truths. The flip side would also be “What is prohibiting my sleep? What is keeping me up night after night?”
On a personal note, I have found the concept of ‘kidnap’ repeating itself in my recent dreams. In one situation it was a homeless person that kidnapped others out of desperation for a home. While the psychologists among you are off seeking meaning of my dream life, I will save you the work and offer some of the questions I am asking myself: “Why kidnap?” “Who is being kidnapped?” “Has America been kidnapped?” “What does kidnapping achieve?” and “Who is the kid that needs a nap?”
As we bless the incoming month of Kiss-Lev this Shabbat, I invite us to designate some of our time to ask ourselves, how are we going to move forward in this coming month and months? When our eyes are closed, when we sleep, what are we kissing with our heart? What are we dreaming about? What dreams do we carry not only for our immediate present, but for the grandchildren of our grandchildren. With whom can we partner?
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
By: Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Torah Reading: Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
Haftarah Reading: Jeremiah 1:2 – 2:3
The calendar of the Jewish holidays is an introductory course in Jewish theology and history, complete in itself. Through the cycles of holy days, festivals, memorials and fast days – all rich with traditions, readings, meditations and rituals – a Jew can become familiar with the basic values, beliefs and history which have sustained us as a people.
One celebration which used to be quite prominent in Biblical times has been relegated to a place of lesser prominence in post-Biblical practice, and it deserves another look: Rosh Hodesh, the New Moon.
In Parashat Pi’nehas, the festivals of the calendar are detailed at length. Particular attention is given to the sacrifices offered on each day. What is noteworthy in that regard is that Rosh Hodesh gets the same number of offerings as the other major sacred occasions – a sure sign that it was of equal importance to those other holy times.
To understand the context in which Rosh Hodesh was so important, it is worth recalling the place of the moon in ancient pagan religions. For many of them, the moon represented a powerful goddess, whose worship often effected fertility and sustenance. In a world in which people worshiped nature as though it were divine (pantheism), the moon was an attractive and frightening divinity.
The genius of traditional Judaism was to refashion (rather than flatly reject) those powerful symbols, making clear that divinity did not inhere in nature or in simple being, but was a constant gift of the God who was and is the source of nature and of life.
How the Torah and rabbinic Judaism made a place for the moon speaks a great deal for their gifted understanding of the human heart and their masterful ability as teachers and counselors.
Rather than reject all religion in connection to the moon, the Torah does mark the New Moon as a significant occasion, one in which the people of Israel gathered and praised the God who fashioned the sun, the moon, the stars and other astral bodies. In short, rather than seeing the moon as a marvel in its own right, it – like all inanimate objects – is significant as a sign of God’s steadfast love and creative bounty.
In that regard, the Torah offers a fascinating hint, calling for the offering of “one goat as a sin offering to the Lord.” That expression occurs for no other festival, anywhere else in the entire Torah. Why does it have to be here?
The answer is found in the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, where he writes that “as it was apprehended that the he-goat offered on the New Moon could be imagined to be a sacrifice to the moon … it was explicitly stated that this goat was consecrated to God and not to the moon.”
In other words, what had been pagan ritual was now transformed to meet the purposes of ethical monotheism. The light of the moon now illuminated the riches of Torah and the sovereignty of the Ribbono shel Olam, the Commander of Space/Time. The new phase of the moon became a time to praise God for the reliable cycles of nature.
Thus, on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hodesh, the synagogue resounds with a prayer that the new month should be marked by love of Torah and the fear of sin. On Rosh Hodesh itself, the congregation chants the Hallel, the ancient collection of praises to God offered by the Levites in King Solomon’s Temple. A few nights later, Jews gather for the ritual of Kiddush Levanah, sanctification in response to the new moon. That ritual consists of reciting a psalm that firmly establishes God as the author of the natural order, noting that the sun, moon and stars do God’s will reliably (and implying that we should too).
In reference to this lovely custom, one Talmudic rabbi claimed that “one who blesses the New Moon is regarded as one who greets the Shekhinah (the face of God).”
Blessings the New Moon is like seeing God’s face, because when Jews gather to bless the moon we do so as an act of fidelity to the God who made the moon, who continues to pour supernal light on the world through the agency of the renewing moon, the rising sun and the glistening stars of the night sky.
Surely that is a celebration worth renewing in our own, troubled and doubting age.
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