Rosh HaShanah

A section for posting commentaries from any source, as well as personal comments, about Rosh HaShanah.

44 thoughts on “Rosh HaShanah

  1. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, Rosh Hashanah is not the start of the year, but rather a birthday, a date, a commemoration.
    In the liturgy it is called the “remembrance of the first day” or, in other words, the birthday of the creation of the world.
    Rosh Hashanah is the day on which the world is created anew.
    Since Rosh Hashanah is above all a holiday, a feast day when we are not allowed to be sad, we do not mention our sins.
    In fact we are not being “judged for our sins.”
    I would go so far as to say we are being “judged for our merits.”
    This judgment takes stock of who we are and what we have become.
    The purpose is not so much to make a list of all our daily shortcomings–this type of soul-searching should be done every day-but to make an overall assessment.
    On the Day of Judgment we attempt to balance the assets and liabilities of the world.
    The year comes to a close.
    God makes an inventory and wonders whether He should close up shop or whether it is worthwhile to start the creative process over again and “invent” a new year.
    Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

  2. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi James Stone Goodman

    Shaar HaRachamim/Gate of Compassion
    It’s two gates
    The gate of compassion next to the gate of teshuvah*
    Teshuvah a turning-return-response
    Both gates are bricked up
    If we open onto teshuvah*
    We might push through the gate of compassion
    We might have to open it up that way.
    The gate of teshuvah* is on the north side
    Where the wind blew through David’s singing harp
    In the palace of the King.
    Make the Changes delight in the north wind
    When the north wind is slight.
    Standing with my beloveds
    At the Gate of Compassion
    Shaar HaRachamim
    Bricked up since the 15th century
    We’re fixing to storm that gate –
    Make the changes
    Sing it open
    Swing it open
    Weep it open.
    From 30 second sermon series
    *Rav said, “all the ends have passed, and the matter depends only on transformation [teshuvah] and good deeds.”
    But Shmuel says, “it is enough for the mourner to stand in mourning.”
    BT, Sanhedrin 97b

  3. Wendy Berk

    From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

    Today the World was Birthed
    By: Rabbi Dr. Gail Labovitz
    On what day was the world created? The answer is not as obvious as we might like to think. We are told in Exodus 12:2 that Nissan is the first month. And yet we also refer to the first of Tishrei as Rosh haShanah, the beginning of the year. Moreover, when we blow shofar at the Musaf service of Rosh haShanah, we say “HaYom harat olam” – which may be translated as “This day the world was called into being” or perhaps even (taking “harat” to be related to the word “herayon,” pregnancy) “Today the world was birthed.” So that might place the Creation in this season, but we still have at least one other issue to consider: after all, we are told at the very opening of Genesis that Creation was a six-day process. Which day of that process was the first of Tishrei?
    According to a midrash in Leviticus Rabbah (29:1), it is not the beginning of Creation that we mark on the first of Tishrei, but rather its culmination; the world is not truly birthed until it is complete:
    It was taught in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: on the twenty fifth of Elul the world was created…Thus you find that on the first of Tishrei, the first human being was created.
    But the human being is not all that comes into the world that day, for human beings bring with them all of their frail and fallible humanity. The midrash continues:
    At the ninth (hour of the day), God commanded Adam (about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge); at the tenth, Adam violated God’s commandment; at the eleventh, God judged him; and at the twelfth, God gave him pardon. The Holy Blessed One said to Adam: You will be a sign for your children – just as you underwent judgment before Me and I granted you pardon, so too your children will enter judgment before Me and I will grant them pardon. When? On Rosh haShanah, in the seventh month (i.e., Tishrei; remember that Nissan is still the first month!) on the first day.
    Thus, both sin and atonement enter the world on the final day of creation, making it an appropriate day to initiate the Jewish season most dedicated to repentance and renewal.
    Well, then – why don’t we read about Creation and the Garden of Eden on Rosh haShanah for our Torah reading? And why do we read what we do read, two stories of Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac? Frankly, both are instances in which Abraham’s actions as a father are deeply morally troubling, for reasons likely to be obvious to readers. In Gen. 21, which we read on the first day, he banishes his elder son Ishmael with his mother (Hagar), and they nearly perish of thirst in the desert. And then, in Gen. 22, read on day two, he attempts to sacrifice Isaac on a mountaintop. Moreover, both times Abraham seems to put his son in mortal peril at the behest, or at least with the permission of, God (Gen 21:12 and 22:2).
    And yet – in both instances it is also the case that the son is saved from death by the intervention of a Divine messenger:
    God heard the cry of the boy and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven… (Gen. 21:17)
    Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven…And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him…” (Gen. 22:11-12)
    So what is it that God wants? Is it Abraham who has misunderstood something? And once again, what might any of this have to do with the first of Tishrei being the day on which humanity – but also human sin and forgiveness for that sin – came into, and completed, the Creation?
    First, let me note that at the time the midrash of Leviticus Rabbah was composed, the time of daylight was divided into twelve equal “hours.” Thus, forgiveness “in the twelfth hour” means that it occurs at the very last moments of the day, just before the onset of the first Shabbat. But there is also another set of rabbinic traditions about things that came into the world at theses last moments of Creation, on the eve of the Sabbath. An early version can be found in Pirkei Avot 5:6:
    Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are: the mouth of the earth (that swallowed Korah and his band, Numbers 16:32), the mouth of the well (see below…), the mouth of the ass (Balaam’s speaking donkey, Numbers 22:28), the rainbow, the manna, the staff (which Moses used to bring on plagues and split the Red Sea), the shamir (a miraculous worm that was used to cut stones for the altar), writing, writing implements, and the stone tablets (on which the original Ten Commandments were engraved). There are those who say: Also the demons, and Moses’ burial spot, and the ram of our father Abraham.
    The last of these is, of course, a reference to the latter of our two Rosh haShanah readings, the moment just after Abraham has been stopped from slaughtering Isaac (Gen. 22:13):
    Abraham looked up (yisah…et einav, literally “lifted his eyes”), and saw there was a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in the place of his son.
    And now, as I hinted above, what of the well? Many commentators take it to be Miriam’s well that followed the Israelites in their years of wandering in the Wilderness. But at least one other possibility exists, and appears in a later midrashic work, Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer (Chap. 30) – this was the well that saved Hagar and Ishmael, as found in our reading on day one (Gen. 21:19):
    The Lord opened her eyes (v’yivkah…et einehah) and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the skin with water and give the child to drink.
    To which the midrash briefly, but meaningfully, elaborates, “There the well was opened for them, which had been created at the twilight (of the first Sabbath).” What I want to therefore suggest is that for the rabbis, each of these stories hearkens back to the culminating moments of the creation of the world. Each of these stories is “resolved,” – each son must be saved/redeemed – by something that hearkens back to that original first of Tishrei and the very nature of Creation.
    This is the day that humanity in all its complexity – humans who sin, who violate God’s commands when they shouldn’t and perhaps also follow what they think God wants of them to horrific ends, who sometimes attempt (and too often succeed) to harm even those closest to them – come to be. Yet it is also the day in which forgiveness comes into the world. And at least one reason why we read these stories for Rosh haShanah is to teach us that the agents of our redemption – a well for the thirsty, a ram in place of a human sacrifice – have also been there all along, since the beginning, perhaps precisely because we difficult, fallible humans so need them. The challenge is, will we let ourselves see them? The best we can do is to try to lift our eyes, or to seek God’s aid in opening our eyes.
    Shanah tovah – may you have a year of striving to see what ultimately matters in this messy, marvelous Creation we have been given.

  4. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi James Stone Goodman

    Shofar on the New Moon

    Tiku va-chodesh shofar—

    bakesseh –
    le-yom chageinu

    Make a tekiah on the month with the shofar

    when it’s hidden/bakesseh

    on the day of our chag [Sukkot] — Psalm 81:4

    The moon is the image of the growth arc this time of year. It begins with Rosh Hashanah, the new moon, the first of Tishri. The new moon is barely discerned; that’s the nature of what we draw into the world — every Rosh Hashanah — something entirely new, dimly discerned, but something Godly.

    It’s ba-kesseh, hidden, on Rosh Hashanah and is somewhat hidden until Sukkot, when it becomes fully plumped, like the moon.

    Something new, there is so much hope in that. Every Rosh Hashanah we draw something new into the world. Like the moon, on Rosh Hashanah, the new moon of Tishri, we do not discern it. The newness, the wisdom that we draw into the world, begins to plump just as the moon. Through Rosh Hashanah, during the deep inner work of ten days of teshuvah-transformation, through the atonement of Yom Kippur, still not fully realized, plumping with the moon but still not entirely revealed until Sukkot.

    On Sukkot, the newness that we draw into the world is fully expressed. Like the full moon of Sukkot, the fifteenth of the month Tishri, that which was partial, unexpressed, hidden, not quite actualized, becomes visible and realized with the full moon of Sukkot. Sukkot is the culmination of the growth arc that we celebrate during these Days of Awe.

    From the kitchen
    wisdom will rise
    from the dinner table
    the true peace
    integrative peace
    from the hidden sources of wisdom
    knowledge will plump like the moon.

    This could be the year.


    R. Eleazar said, “this day is called
    ‘the concealing [keseh] for the day of our feast:
    tiku va-chodesh shofar, bakesseh, l’yom chageinu [Psalm 81:4]

    Because the moon is still covered and does not shine. Through what then will it shine? Through teshuvah and the sound of the shofar, as it is written, “Blessed is the people that know the trumpet sound, because, O God, they shall walk in the light of your countenance” (Psalm 89:15). On this day the moon is covered, and it does not shine until the tenth day, when Israel turns with a perfect teshuvah, so that the supernal Mother gives light to her. Hence this day is called the day of atonements (kippurim), because two lights are shedding illumination, since the higher lamp is illuminating the lower. For on this day the moon receives illumination from the supernal light and not from the light of the sun.

    Zohar, 13th c.
    100b – 101a

    Every Rosh Hashanah new light issues from Ein Sof into the attribute of Malkhut for the entire year, to give life to the worlds Beriah, Yetzirah, and Assiyah (the three lower worlds), to nourish them, to sustain them. This light and life force contains the life force of the world, the year, the soul of the entire year, however, on Rosh Hashanah, it is still in a state of “bakesseh.” [Psalm 81:4, Tik’u va-chodesh shofar bakesseh l’yom chageinu”, Blow the shofar in the new moon, in the time “appointed” on the day of our festival, the world bakesseh means also “hidden” as well as the time “appointed”] On the new moon, what we seek is still hidden and obscured.

    On Yom Kippur, it comes forth as revelation in the higher realms, and on Sukkot it is “of our festival” there is more revelation at the level of makif, and on Shemini Atzeret it comes to the level of penimi, inwardliness, and that is the meaning of the gathering on Shemini Atzeret. And after that it flows through malkhut day by day in a revelation below in the worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Assiyah. And this is how the most high chesed from the level of keter is drawn into the kindnesses of atik and malchut on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and from malkhut into all the worlds.

    From Kuntres Uma’ayan
    Ma’amar 18
    R. Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe

    A Blessing On the New Moon

    Master of Mirrors,
    let me see with the unclear mirror, the dark images,
    the images that are only discerned at night,
    by moonlight.

    God of the light and the dark,
    release me from distractions,
    bind me with invisible fibers to the deep story –
    the right words, not the simple words
    not the easy ones not even the sweet words
    I want the true ones.

    God of the right and wrong
    don’t sweet talk me, draw me into the deep.
    Carry me not in your pocket but sling me like a satchel
    over your shoulder.
    Let the truth plump like the moon,
    the dark moon, the dark candle,
    the candle at the hearth with all its shadows,

    it’s the moon, it’s the moon, the dark candle,
    the reflected dark dark dark —

    jsg, usa

    The Sounds of the Shofar

    from “It’s a Sad and Beautiful World”

    Tekiah — sustained note of the shofar
    Original unity, before all exiles

    Tekiah — the universal, metaphysical and musical
    Against the tekiah sounds the teruah
    The relative

    Tekiah — the universal in the ensemble
    The drone the tonic
    Against which the relative shudders with melody

    Shofar begins and ends in Tekiah
    Original unity
    Where we come from, where we return

    Teruah –the sound is separated
    Exiled into teruah
    Crying, longing to return

    Three yevavot three wavering crying blasts*
    Trembling quivering yearning to return
    When we lose our way, the roads go into mourning

    Teruah — crying weeping longing yearning for return
    Tekiah the universal
    Teruah the relative

    It is a sad and beautiful world
    Sad so far away
    Beautiful so hungry are we to return

    End always with Tekiah G’dolah
    The Great Tekiah
    The sustained universal tekiah

    We yearn for it
    Hunger for it
    Believe it

    *(Mishnah RH 4:9)

  5. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi Jill Hammer
    The Jewish Book of Days

    Conceiving Seed

    In autumn, as the leaves are withering, it is hard to believe life will ever grow again. Yet beneath the earth, the cycle of life is beginning. The wrinkled seed, buried after harvest, waits to sprout. On Rosh Hashanah we discover that we too, can blossom even after we have withered.

    A legend tells that on Rosh Hashanah the Divine made the barren matriarch Sarah fertile, and she conceived from her husband Abraham ( Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 10b). We read the story of Isaac’s birth on the new year to celebrate this seeding of life. Sarah, 90 years old, is like the soil of autumn: outwardly dry and barren, yet inwardly fecund.

    Rashi adds to this story of growth, telling us that many women around the world conceived when Sarah conceived, and many sick people were healed. The 1st of Tishrei is a day of healing and creating, a day we conceive ourselves anew through self-reflection. The word teshuvah (repentance) signals not only regret but turning. As the rains of autumn ready the earth for spring, we too return to the cycle of life and growth. If we do not turn back to the cycle of life, do not grow, we become stagnant and hold life back. If we do turn, we become part of the earth’s renewal.

    Cited: Genesis 18:12-14
    Rashi on Genesis 21:2

    The First Return
    Rosh Hashanah

    The path of return is not only joyous but also frightening. In a midrash from the Talmud, the first night Adam and Eve spend outside Eden fills them with fear that the world will return to darkness and void. They reflect on their actions, regretting they ate the fruit of knowlege of good and evil. When dawn arrives, they come to understand night is not a punishment: It is the way of the night to fall and the way of the day to come again. Adam offers a sacrifice in thanksgiving for the dawn. His sacrifice perhaps also indicates that his soul-searching has drawn him closer to God.

    Rosh Hashanah falls as the days grow perceptibly shorter. It is a re-creation of the first human’s long night. In this mythic darkness, we move through anxiety about our future toward a sense of gratitude and understanding. Adam and Eve discover darkness is not permanent but part of a larger cycle of life. On Rosh Hashanah, we too pass through a dark night of the soul so we may renew ourselves.

    Cited: Numbers 29:1-2
    Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a

  6. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi David Seidenberg

    Hayom Harat Olam: Rosh Hashanah and Our Planet
    Unlike most Torah teachings on neohasid, this one is more of a sermon than a d’var Torah. (Read more on sermons vs. divrei Torah here.)
    1) We hear the shofar and call out, “Hayom Harat Olam”!
    “Today is the birthday of the world; Today the world is born”

    So says the liturgy according to most readings. And this birthday is not just one of celebration: “Today the world stands in judgment.” These two motifs alone should give us pause today to consider what we are doing to the planet, to how we can restore the balance of the atmosphere, the balance of the waters and the air, of the forests and plains, the ocean and the continents.

    But let’s look more closely at these words, to see what they can teach us.

    ‘Harah’ means pregnancy, conception or gestation. Not birth, but the process which leads up to birth. If we wanted to say “the birth of the world” we would say “leidat ha’olam”. ‘Olam’ can mean world, but if we wanted to say “the conception of the world,” we would say “harat ha-olam.” ‘Olam’ really means eternity, from the root that means “hidden,” or more precisely, the infinite that is hidden, that is beyond our limited perception.

    So ‘Harat Olam’ means very literally, “pregnant with eternity”, or “eternally pregnant.” The day of Rosh Hashanah is pregnant with eternity.

    2) “This day is pregnant with eternity…” What deeper evocation could one find of this wondrous and miraculous creation than “eternally pregnant,” always bringing forth new lives, new creatures, even new species? Always dynamic, growing; balanced not like a pillar on its foundation, but like a gyroscope, turning and turning. What higher praise of the Creator than, “How wondrously diverse, how limitless, how changing are your works! Mah rabu ma’asekhah Adonai”? You show us the infinite in the finite, the world in a grain of sand, a child’s grasp, a caterpillar’s transformation, a leaf unfolding or decomposing. What greater potential in this moment, than for it to be “pregnant with insights, with hopes, as great as eternity”? It is as unbounded as the hidden potential of every gestation and every birth—or, in the archaic sense of ‘great’ as pregnant, it is “great with eternity!”

    3) This day of Rosh Hashanah is when we honor the still small voice that comes after the sound of the shofar, the moment when we can hear the echo and potential of this eternity, of this infinite creativity. Every time we hear the shofar blasting, again and again and again, we respond: Hayom Harat Olam!

    This moment, this day, this year, this world, gives us a new chance to pause and reflect on what Kabbalah calls the or ein sof, the infinite light which filled the beginning of creation with lovingkindness. This light shines in the radiance of this earth, the womb of all life, which is eternally pregnant, and which constantly brings forth life. (Tanya, Igeret Hakodesh 20) Every time we hear the shofar, it gives us a moment when we can, if we choose, reflect on what we are doing to this earth, our home and our womb. When you hear the shofar, what is conceived inside you?

    4) Jeremiah says, “Vat’hi li imi kivri v’rachmah harat olam. Let my mother be my grave and her womb be pregnant eternally.” (20:17) This is the source of the expression “harat olam.” On a very personal level, this verse is an expression of Jeremiah’s profound grief and desperation; for us, this verse is heavy and problematic. In Job, however, the womb is our planet, as in, “yam b’gicho meirechem yeitzei; when the sea gushed forth from the womb.” (38:8) Jeremiah’s lament, applied to the earth, becomes one of the truest and most loving sentences in the Tanakh. This earth is a mother to us and it is our grave; it is eternally pregnant, and from our deaths will come new life and new lives. When we hear the shofar and call out, “Hayom harat olam!” may we find hope, may we find courage, may we find blessing, in this moment filled with birth and death, pregnant with eternity.

    5) This day, today, we are changing the quality of that radiant light as we change the atmosphere, as we change the conditions of life on this planet. We are putting back into the atmosphere the carbon that millions and millions of years and billions of billions of creatures removed and stored in the earth, and we are doing it faster than we can realize. We are changing the air we breathe, the winds that drive the rains, the atmospheric blanket that holds the warmth of the sun long enough for us to survive from one day to the next. This blanket allows us to live, to thrive, to be nurtured and nourished. By holding in more and more energy, the blanket causes the earth’s climate not only to become hotter (as most everyone knows), but also to become more and more chaotic, more unstable. The global climate crisis is not a problem of poisons and pollutions. It’s not a problem of a degree or two. It’s a problem of balance.

    6) Listen further to our words after the shofar: “Hayom ya’amid bamishpat.” Usually this is translated, “Today the world will stand in judgment.” The phrase ya’amid bamishpat comes from Proverbs: “Melekh b’mishpat ya’amid aretz. A king through justice makes the earth stand.” (29:4) Another translation could therefore be: “This day will be sustained by Justice.” May this day bring justice, may this day teach us justice. Without justice, the creatures of all the worlds, y’tzurei olamim, even the earth itself, cannot stand and endure.

    Ecologically, justice, mishpat, means many things, including balance, as it does in Tanakh: “Samti mishpat l’kav utz’dakah l’mishkelet. I set justice with a plumb line and righteousness with a balance.” (Isa. 28:17) God is the king who sets justice in the earth. If we want to be agents of change, agents of God, we need to help the world stand upright through acts of justice, fairness and balance. There are so many levels to this mishpat, between us and God, between fellow human beings, within ourselves. And one of those levels is justice and balance between us and the earth, and between us and our fellow species.

    Balance means every person, every species, and every place has enough of what it needs for life to thrive. Balance means that our relationship with the earth is dynamic and sustainable, that we are not consuming future generations to take for ourselves. Each of us helps to establish balance, not just when you see someone in need, but in this moment, hayom, today and every day, in every act and gesture, every choice, in what you eat and wear, how you dwell in your house, in how you travel to work and how you return home.

    7) The requirement of the shofar is that it must be curved, spiral, like a ram’s horn, and not straight like an antelope’s horn. It teaches us to turn back towards what is right, to return from the precipice. And it reminds us of the spiral of life, the spiral dance that leads to this earth, these species, this humanity, and on to whatever comes after us. Listen: we are not the end of this dance, nor the beginning, but an essential link in a chain that goes from creation to redemption. Listen and hear the still small voice after the storm wind, the silence of the heart after our ears are filled with the trumpeting of the ram’s horn. What do you hear about where you are on that spiral, in this world; what do you hear about what role you want to play and who you want to become?

    8) “Hayom harat olam.” Today, this day, this Rosh Hashanah, is pregnant with eternity. Today births new intentions, conceives new possibilities. Today is our day, today we are alive on this planet, “Chayim kulchem hayom.” Today our choices will gestate the future, for our children, and for the children of every species upon the earth.

    “Hayom t’amtzeinu.” Today you will find courage. “Hayom t’varcheinu.” Today you will be blessed. “Hayom ticht’veinu l’chayim tovim.” Today you will be inscribed to live.

    “Hayom im b’kolo tishma’u.” Today, if you will listen to the Voice.

  7. Wendy Berk

    From Reb Zalman

    In the mapping of the Holidays and the Sefirot, Rosh Hashanah’s two days correspond to Chochmah and Binah. The following is a translation of Reb Zalman’s text for Rosh Hashanah from Yishmiru Daat.

    And on Day One of Rosh Hashanah, God makes possible for us an opportunity to tap into energies of “Beginning” and Chochmah / Flash of insight so one can start afresh. And on Day Two, the opportunity to tap into energies of fifty gates of Binah / practical plans for the above flash and Teshuvah / realignment with God, with the Supernal Mother Who is the source of loving-kindness, and the lady of Forgiveness.

    And so I can say, “I believe with perfect faith, that Hashem Yitbarach, by Chochmah / flash of insight, (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 51), makes possible for us to access a loophole under the throne of glory – which is Binah – when the Shofar sound is heard, (cf Zohar II 46), the Supernal Jubilee,

    [The Supernal Jubilee is the traditional shorthand for “Beginning a Messianic Age. ” But if this image doesn’t work for you, or if you hold that this image doesn’t work for us generally, please realign the language with your way of expressing the vision of what you feel might work better for world redemption. Gabbai Seth.]

    and through the personal Rosh Hashanah work, we can begin anew to crown God as King, to be one with Hir, to see Hir as One, and to tell others of our encounter with Hir majesty until such time in which it will happen that all those with breath in nostrils will say ‘YHVH Elokai Yisrael Melech‘ (Psalm 103:19) and ‘Malchuso Bakol Mashalah.‘ And this is faith in Hashem as Father and Mother, bringing together the vision and the plan.”

  8. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Simon Jacobson

    Equestrian Illusions
    While passing through a marketplace, Rabbi Kehot of Veritch, a disciple of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, overheard a conversation between two horse dealers.
    “I was thinking,” said one to the other. “What does the psalmist mean when he says, ‘Do not be as a horse, or a mule, without understanding, their mouths stopped with bit and bridle’[1]? Well, when you put a bit in a horse’s mouth, he thinks that you are giving him something to practice his chewing on. Don’t be like a horse, King David is saying. When your Heavenly Master sends something your way, understand that it is more than something to chew on…”

    Rabbi Kehot related this exchange to his teacher. The Baal Shem Tov was greatly excited by the horsedealer’s insight, and was inspired to a state of d’veikut (meditative attachment to G-d). In his ecstasy, the Baal Shem Tov began to sing a melody. This is the melody to which the rebbes of Chabad would pray on the first night of Rosh Hashanah.

  9. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Jill Hammer

    The Offering: A Tashlich Prayer
    I cast this gift to the water.
    It is my past: blessing and regret.
    It is my present: reflection and listening.
    It is my future: intention and mystery.
    It is what I did
    and did not;
    it is yes and no and silence.
    It is what was done
    and what arose from what was done
    and what arises in this body remembering.
    I let it all go. I own
    neither the sting nor the sweetness.
    I hold on to nothing.
    The river has no past.
    Each moment of rushing water
    Is a new beginning.
    Harm that has been:
    heal in the rush of love and truth and time.
    We who are lost:
    let the current take us homeward.
    May these waters churn what is broken
    into what is whole.
    May each separate droplet
    reach the ocean that is becoming.
    The journey awaits.
    I have no power to refrain from it;
    only to steer it when I can.
    May the One who is
    the great Crossroad
    guide my turning.
    Three times I declare:
    It is finished.
    It is born.
    It is unending.
    Three times I listen:
    It is love.
    It is the river.
    It is before me.
    May my offering go where it is meant to go
    and may the one who offers it
    find the way.

  10. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Miriam Maron

    Our brazen ancestors taught us long ago that the turning of the year does not occur when the calendar says so, but when we say so – when we are ready to begin
    (Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 1:3)
    After all, the word “New” does not appear at all in the Hebrew expression of Rosh Hashanah – as Rosh means “beginning,” not “new.” And during this sacred season we will be concluding the past year’s series of weekly Torah readings not by bartering the old for the new, but by beginning the old anew. The moment we reach the end of Deuteronomy, we will continue with the beginning of Genesis. For life is a weave of circular, global, spherical existence cycling from start to finish to start. In the words of the ancient Book of Formation: “[Creator] wove their beginnings to their endings, and their endings to their beginnings.”

    The High Holydays are then days of awe in the sense that they dare us to begin, and there is nothing more awesome. Each of us has very distinct tasks that lay before us, waiting for us to activate their genesis, waiting for us to take the first step forward in welcoming yet one more dimension to the quality of our lives, spiritually, emotionally and physically. The word vba shanah, for example, does not only translate as “year.” At its root, it also implies “transformation.” Rosh Hashanah would then read as “Beginning of Transformation.” What is puzzling, however, is that it can also translate as “repeat.” And one would then wonder how change can happen in the context of repetition, or vice-versa.
    This brings us back to the beginning of our teaching, that all beginnings are interwoven within their endings, and it is in that sense that change is related to repetition in that it is born out of that which preceded it. In transforming, we repeat in the sense of weaving anew that which was. All change is in essence a repetition of that which was before, albeit renewed, revitalized, rephrased, reframed, refreshed. “There is nothing new under the sun,” is how most of us have grown to read the translation of what Solomon wrote 3,000 years ago. But the Hebrew original of this phrase actual reads: “There is nothing totally new — asj kf iht” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The idea of “change,” in other words, implies a tad of repetition, a dash of what already was, else what are you changing, if not what had been prior; and if you’re changing anything, that which you are changing is obviously still there – to be changed – thus, repetition inevitably lives within change. Thus, the wisdom of the ancient Hebraic language and the deep insight it gifts us in regard to the human journey.

    May this cycle of transformation bring you to a fresh harvesting of the fruits of your past to empower your walk into your future.
    Miriam Ashina

  11. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan


    This should shock us.

    Hannah does not take mothering for granted. Instead, she prays passionately for a child. So passionately that our tradition’s founding sages tell all of us: pray like Hannah. Like Hannah, we should focus our hearts, move our lips, and make no sound as we pray.

    Imagine the spiritual depth such a mother would teach her child!

    But Hannah doesn’t. Instead, she sends her son Samuel away, to be raised by the priest Eli.

    This much we know from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. On this first day of the year, Hannah’s story is our prophetic reading.

    But Hannah’s story leaves us with questions. For example: What makes Hannah trust Eli to raise Samuel? What does Eli understand about spirituality?

    Let’s read on, past the end of Hannah’s story. On into the story of Eli and Samuel.

    Teenage Samuel serves God at the shrine in Shiloh. Samuel is guided by his mentor and foster father, the priest Eli. Culturally, this is a secular time. Prophetic vision is rare and unknown. Sure, people come to the shrine for holidays and family life cycle occasions. They have great fun, but, for them, religion is just what you do. Even Eli’s children aren’t religious. A few chapters back, Eli himself was surprised to see Hannah genuinely praying.

    Eli is aging. His eyesight is failing. He cannot see well anymore. But this is a Hebrew Bible story, where familiar themes repeat, so we know what is coming next. Eli may not have sight – but he does have insight! His ordinary senses might not work well – but his spiritual senses do. He sees what others cannot. And, given what we’ve just learned about the secular culture around him, he’s going to have insight into prophecy.

    So there’s Eli, asleep in his usual bed at the shrine. And we, the readers, think we know what’s coming next. Eli, we think, is going have a spiritual dream or a night vision. But that’s not what happens.

    Instead, the scene shifts as we see teenage intern Samuel dozing in the sanctuary. Samuel is not a priest but he is really dedicated to his work. It’s late at night, but the daily altar fire has not quite gone out. So, for obvious safety reasons, Samuel is sleeping on a cot by the fire. It seems mundane and practical, but something else is at work. Samuel is also surrounded by symbols of God’s presence and power. Old symbols, symbols that used to inspire people. Like the ark of the covenant and the glow of the eternal altar fire.

    Suddenly, Samuel hears someone call his name. He thinks it’s Eli. So, he shouts back, “I’m here!” and rushes to Eli’s bed. But Eli is fine. He doesn’t need anything, so he tells Samuel, “Go back to sleep. I didn’t call you.”

    Samuel goes back to bed, hears Eli call, says, “I’m here!” He runs to see what Eli needs. But Eli says, “I’m fine, I didn’t call; so go back to sleep.”

    It happens a third time. Samuel goes back to bed, hears Eli call, says, “I’m here!” He runs to see what Eli needs. But Eli says, “I’m fine, I didn’t call; so go back to sleep.”

    Finally, Eli’s insight kicks in. He sees something that most other people in his time and place can’t. Samuel is having a spiritual experience. Eli knows that his response matters. With a word, he could encourage Samuel’s spirituality. Or he could brush it aside. And he has only a split second to decide.

    So, Eli decides not to say, “It’s just a dream.” Or, “Stop staring at the flame; go meditate on the meaning of the ark.” Or, “It’s probably not significant; only ancient people had visions.”

    Instead, Eli tells Samuel to dive into the experience. To see if it is a genuine spiritual experience. Eli says, “Go back to bed. If you hear the voice again, say, “Speak, God! Your servant is listening!”

    Eli understands children’s spirituality. He knows that children may be open to dimensions of experience that adults have learned to tune out. Children may wake up in a room filled with coloured lights. Or insist they saw the tooth fairy flying around their pillow. Or be positive that a butterfly angel called to them from a bush.

    Of course, most parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles understand that these are imaginative experiences. But often we don’t realize these are also spiritual experiences. That children are gathering the emotional memories of the extraordinary. Memories that make them hope for miracles. See into metaphors. Appreciate sacred stories. Feel spiritual presence. These are the memories that make adult spirituality possible. Eli knows this. So he doesn’t squash Samuel’s imagination. Instead, he encourages it.

    Samuel takes Eli’s advice. He goes back to bed. And this time, he is actively listening for the voice. And what do you know: It calls! Not just once, but twice this time. “Samuel, Samuel!” Thus we, the readers, know instantly that Eli is right. Samuel has seen past the familiar symbols and heard something new. He will grow up into a spiritual leader, a seer of new things.

    Do we hope to raise spiritual children? If so, like Hannah, we should trust Eli’s method.


    Sources: Hannah’s story: I Samuel 1:1-2:10; Our sages on Hannah: Talmud, Berachot 31a; Eli & Samuel: I Samuel 3:1-10; Insight into children’s spirituality: Dr. Lionel Corbett; Ideas originally developed for: Mt. Seymour United Church; Image:

  12. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Gershon Winkler

    The Ram After

    A long time ago, a very old man named Avraham was walking up a very steep mountain with his very puzzled son. To make a very long story very short, he thought that the Creator of Everything had asked him to give his son back. And so he was going to return the lad in a pillar of smoke from atop a mountain called Mo’ree’Yah, which translates as: “God will Guide.”
    Now listen carefully. This is the part we don’t get no matter how many times we read or listen to this disturbing story.
    When Avraham is made to realize that Creator had no intention of having him give back his son, Avraham was already in a “giving back” mode and felt so overwhelmingly grateful that he got to keep his son that he wanted even the more to give something to Creator in return. Creator, in response, manifested “a ‘Ram of After,’ seized in entanglement by its horn” so that Avraham would have something to gift back to Creator (Genesis 22:13).
    You know, and this is important. English translations of our precious Hebrew Torah render this part of the narrative as “he saw a ram ‘behind him,’ caught in ‘the thicket’ by its horns.” Truth be told, there is no mention in the Hebrew text of a “thicket” of any sort. Literally, it reads: “seized in entanglement by its horn.” Translators are well-meaning in their attempts to fill-in what they presume are gaps. In other words, if the ram’s horn was caught, it must have been in some kind of “thicket.” But in reality, there was no thicket. The ram is described in the Hebrew literally as “seized in entanglement.” And this is why the word which is translated as “behind him” I translate in its alternative meaning of “After.” Same word in Hebrew. Same spelling, same vowels. It makes little sense that “he lifted his eyes and saw a ram behind him.” No, my friends, it was smack in front of him, and it appeared from out of nowhere, from the Realm of After, implying that it wasn’t there prior, it wasn’t anywhere near there before. It appeared “after” as in from out of the dimension of Time in which all of this occurred. Like the ancient rabbis told us long ago, this ram had been created thousands of years prior at the twilight of Genesis (Mishnah, Avot 5:6) waiting to be conjured at the precise intersection of the Time and Event for which it was intended. As such, it was indeed “seized in entanglement” and by way of its horns, that part of the ram that it uses for crashing through the barriers of impossibility.
    So, yes, like the Rosh Hashanah liturgy tells us, the sounding of the ram’s horn is related to the ram which Avraham offered in the stead of his son Isaac. But it is far more than a ritual in which we remind God of our willingness to sacrifice. It is a ritual in which we remind ourselves of the horn by which the “Ram of After” was seized in entanglement! Else, it would have been more appropriate to call forth the reminder of that event by wearing ropes during the service. After all, is not the event known to us as “the binding of Isaac”? That we rather mark the event with a ram’s horn implies that the central theme of this fundamental Rosh Hashanah ritual is the drama of the “horn seized in entanglement.”
    But entangled in what? If there was no thicket, in what then was the ram’s horn seized in entanglement?
    Exactly. That is precisely the lesson here, the wisdom, the mystery. In what are our horns seized in entanglement? Anything specific? Not really, if you think about it. Because each and every time we manage to disentangle, we awaken as if from out of a dream only to find ourselves still stuck. That in which we presume to be caught is but an image of a particular projection born out of our momentary encounter with a momentary situation. But once we disentangle ourselves from that momentary encounter with that momentary situation, the sense of liberation lingers only long enough for the next episode to come along and remind us that we are still ensnared. This, the translators could not wrap themselves around because they, like the rest of us, are too entangled in that which is in essence inexplicable.
    The sacred Sound of Shofar is then the unintelligible cry of the soul as echoed through the hollow of the horn, of that which in the story of our ancestor’s inner-struggle was “seized in entanglement.” Unintelligible indeed, because we cannot speak of that which we cannot fathom. The entire story, highlighted in the rites of the turning of the yearly cycle for our people, is a story of the human struggle to reach what cannot be touched and touch what cannot be felt, and grasp what cannot be seen. And the stage upon which this drama takes place is replete with props that have to do with this very struggle, that of yearning to see and to be seen by that which chooses to not reveal itself. He “saw the mountain from afar,” and he “lifted his eyes and saw a ram,” and “he named the site ‘YHWH sees,’ and so it is referred to today, as ‘through Mountain where YHWH will allow Himself to be seen'” (Genesis 22:14). Yes, through the mountain, the seeming obstacle, the thickness of the veil, the very entanglement in which we find ourselves seized, for “the Holy Blessed One conceals himself within the very obstacle that prevents you from discovering him” (18th-century Rebbe Nachmon of Breslav in Likutei MoHaRaN).
    Avraham is not plunging his knife toward his son; he is rather plunging his knife toward the veil that conceals the God he seeks. While in the eleventh hour his knife did not touch his son, it did nonetheless in that moment rip through the curtain – the par’gud — shredding all that pretends to separate God from Man. In that moment, he saw that he was seen. It is in this ancient narrative, writes Martin Buber, that “the reciprocity of seeing between God and man is directly revealed to us” (On the Bible, p. 42).

    The sound we blow through the ram’s horn is a prayer, a plea: “Please get me outta here! Release me from my entanglement in all that severs our connection, in all that imprisons me in the illusion that this is all there is and ever will be! Free me of my entanglement in the realm of attachment! Grant me the strength of my ancestor who dared to take you up on your dare until you showed yourself and enabled him to see you seeing him!”
    The Ram of After does not show up to become disentangled until after, as in after we’ve walked that extra mile and stretched beyond our presumed limitations. The “Ram of After” represents that gift of “alternative” that is revealed to us only “after” we’ve revealed ourselves. YHWH shadows you, declared the psalmist (Psalms 121:5). He shows up when we show up. He reveals when we reveal. But only “after.” That was the test of Avraham: “You first.” A test of faith, of trust, of conviction. Go, he was told. Where? “I’ll tell you after” – after you take the first step and Go.” And Avraham went (Genesis 12:1 and 4; 22:2 and 3). And so may it be, that in this New Year Cycle we too find the chutzpah, the dare, to take each our individual steps into the uncertainty of tomorrow, without the entanglement of the fears and assumptions of yesterday. That is the Way of the Seer.

  13. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi James Stone Goodman

    Hayom Harat Olam: Today is the Conception of the World
    Today is the conception of the world we are conceived again in that perfect love that we were once conceived in, today we return to it the perfect conception of the world.
    Perfect conception that brought forth each of us in love you may be driving the highway with your moon roof open you see the promise of new in the moon and you return to the perfect love of conception.
    And everything every single thing that has interfered with your sense of that perfect love returns to you. You return.
    You make this perfect return and you come to understand:
    If you can visit there you can live there.
    From the New Piyyut

  14. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Gershon Winkler

    Barren Grin
    A Rosh Hashanah Message from Gershon…
    Rosh Hashanah commemorates the birth of humanity (Talmud Bav’li, Sanhedrin 38b), yet the theme is about two women who were unable to conceive. In the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah we repeatedly chant ha’yom ha’ras o’lam – “Today is the pregnancy of the universe,” yet the theme – again – is the story of two women who could not get pregnant.
    Both women, Sarah and Chanah, wanted to have children of their own. Sarah eventually gave up on her dream (Genesis 16:2) and laughed at the idea when at age 90 she was told it was about to happen (Genesis 18:12). Accordingly, she named her miracle boy Yitz’chak (Isaac), Hebrew for “Will Laugh,” and then restored her long-gone excitement about having a kid by fully embracing Yitz’chak as her own, further making sure he was Number One, and even going so far as to oust what she felt was the “competition,” his half-brother Yish’ma’el (Genesis 21:10).
    Chanah, on the other hand, never ceased dreaming, hoping, wishing, pleading until she got her miracle boy, whom she named Sh’mu’el, Hebrew for “God Listened,” or: “His Place is With God.” It is an obscure word hard to define, but in naming him, she said: “Because I requested him of Infinite-All” (First Samuel 1:20). Chanah’s sense of the gift of her child was more one of “borrowing,” acknowledging that a child is not owned but loaned, for us to wean, guide and then release (First Samuel 1:28). She did not allow her years of longing and passion for a child to climax in possessiveness. And whereas Sarah responded to the miraculous gift of her son by claiming him for the pedigree of her immediate family, Chanah responded to the miraculous gift of her son by priming him for the sacred service of the nation (First Samuel 1:26-28). Sarah saw in Yitz’chak his contribution to the lineage of Abraham; Chanah saw in Sh’mu’el his contribution to the service of God. Ironically, Yitz’chak ended up being nearly sacrificed to God by his father. He survives not as the carrier of the lineage as Sarah had envisioned, but the intermediate, the father of the ultimate carrier, Ya’akov (Jacob), thus one generation removed. Sh’mu’el, on the other hand, becomes a major prophet and tribal leader of all of Israel, and is considered one of the greatest of all of our prophets, in par with great leaders like Moses and Aaron (Psalms 91:6).
    Two women; their deep-felt yearnings for progeny frustrated by physical limitations. One gives up and is nonetheless gifted a child by the supernatural intervention of the Creator of Wombs, and one remains adamant and, too, is gifted a child by the supernatural intervention of the Creator of Wombs. One laughs, one cries, the very notes on the ritual Ram’s Horn, or Sho’far, where the notes of brokenness, of she’va’reem, represent the weeping of Chanah and the notes of teru’ah sound like Sarah laughing at the prospect of possibility in the face of the impossible. The Shofar blasts awaken both reactions in us, faith and doubt, as both are sacred, both have their place in the process of our personal struggles of waxing and waning as we make our way through the thick and thin of our life walk.
    Rosh Hashanah is not only about bringing in a new yearly cycle. It is as much a bringing in of fresh hope in all that we deemed impossible, and in all that frustrates us to tears. It reminds us that being barren is a limitation of the standard operational procedure of the Known Realm, but not of the Unknown Realm. Science has the first and middle word, but not the last, and neither does Google. Miracle is not just a hand-out, it is a reminder to us of where our very breath comes from, our capacity to move our fingers, lift an eyebrow, appreciate a sunset, delight in a knish, and to use our God-Gifted faculties and resources not only for our own needs but also for the needs of others. May we not need to be dragged up a mountain and bound to an altar to prove the point that Chanah taught us: We are all on loan.
    I mentioned this years ago, but it is important to know that in the Hebrew vernacular Rosh Hashanah written backwards spells ha’nashah sh’er, which translates literally as “the forgetting yet remains.” What we have forgotten, what we have let go of to make space for the new, yet remains with us as we venture into the unchartered waters of the next cycle. They become seeds of potential that will sprout fresh remembering. What we have forgotten, in other words, are basically memories that have over time become uprooted, symbolized in the uprooted foliage we apply as shelters during the ensuing festival of Sukkot. “The forgetting that yet remains” becomes the subtle behind-the-scenes catalyst for moving us forward toward a fresh remembrance of our most core self, and of our capacity to conceive and birth in spite of all that stands in the way of our doing so.
    On Rosh Hashanah, then, may what we’ve forgotten help us to remember, and what we’ve let go of become that which holds us, and the regrets which constrict us become that which liberates us. And whatever we could not conceive yesterday, may we become pregnant with it today. Because today is the pregnancy of the universe, meaning today the universe, in itself unable to conceive, is miraculously pregnant with whole new possibilities waiting in the shadows of our doubts and skepticism, our resignations and our hopelessness, daring us to reach for them like Chanah, and embrace them like Sarah; to revel in for ourselves, and to share them with others.

  15. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Ivan Ickovits

    The way I understand about the energetics between The way that the energy of each year manifests is by means of a new name of God. The old name of the previous year has depleted itself and now in the current year the old name is replaced with the new name which is full of energy and robust with new surprises.

    I also like the time out of time teaching of the ten days of Awe. The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the time out separation of the last years karma and energy from the New Years time, with a new direction and fresh beginners mind allowing the new perspectives to take hold.

    For me, the shofar blasts start a deep attunement to awaken the primordial energy of the root regenerative structure to paint in the details of the new year.

  16. Wendy Post author

    From Rav Kook

    The Teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah

    The major theme of the month of Elul and the High Holiday season isteshuvah – repentance and return to God. Yet if we examine the Rosh Hashanah prayers, there is no mention of sin or penitence. We do not recite any confessional prayers, nor do we make any promises to improve. Instead, the Rosh Hashanah prayers deal with a completely different theme: the entire world accepting God’s sovereignty.

    How does this aspiration fit in with the overall seasonal theme ofteshuvah?

    From My Straits

    Before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we recite the verse from Psalms:

    “From my straits I called out to God. He answered me, and set me in a wide expanse .” (Psalms 118:5)
    The verse begins with narrow straits, and concludes with wideexpanses. What are these straits? These are our troubled, even suffocating, feelings of failure and disappointment with ourselves. However, with God’s help we are able to escape to “wide expanses.” Our sense of confinement is eased and our emotional distress is alleviated.

    This progression from the narrow to the wide is also a good physical description of the principal mitzvah-object of Rosh Hashanah – the shofar, which gradually expands from a narrow mouthpiece to a wide opening.

    From the Individual to the Community

    Rav Kook, however, did not explain this progression from narrow to wide in a psychological vein. Rather, he likened it to the contrast between the prat and the klal, the individual and the collective. There are the narrow, private issues of the individual. And there are the broad, general concerns of the community and the nation.

    Teshuvah takes place on many levels. We all try to correct our own personal faults and failings. The nation also does teshuvah as it restores itself to its native land, renewing its language, culture, and beliefs. And the entire world advances as it learns to recognize God’s moral rule and sovereignty.

    The shofar, with its gradually widening shape, is a metaphor for these ever- expanding circles of repentance and spiritual progress. The order, however, is significant. Our individual teshuvah must precede the universal teshuvah of the klal. During the month of Elul, we are occupied with rectifying our own personal faults and errors. But on Rosh Hashanah our outlook broadens. We yearn for the teshuvah of the Jewish people and the ultimate repair of the entire universe. We aspire “to perfect the world under the reign of the Almighty, when all humanity will call out Your Name” (from the Aleinu prayer in Musaf of Rosh Hashanah). From the narrow straits of personal limitations, we progress to the wide expanses of universal perfection.

    (Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Mo’adei HaRe’iyah, p. 60.)

    This is a link to 12 of Rav Kook’s teachings on
    Elul and Rosh Hashanah

  17. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Fern Feldman

    Embodying Compassion at Rosh Hashanah and Beyond

    I want to talk to you today about rachamim—compassion. The tradition says there are 13 qualities of rachamim. We call on them repeatedly in the high holiday services. We sang them three times in front of the open ark about half an hour ago—they are on page 194 in the mahzor if you want to look at them.

    The Torah tells us that when Moses was hidden in the cleft in the rock, and the divine presence passed by him, he heard these 13 qualities of compassion. And the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) teaches us that when we call out these words in prayer, we are promised that we won’t be turned away empty-handed. Rav Ezra Bick, proposes that the 13 qualities are not only a way of calling on divine attributes, but that these qualities as we chant them are actually a manifestation of holiness in the world. This means that our practice over these high holidays is part of actually bringing more compassion into the world.

    And that is really why I want to talk to you today about compassion.

    I feel a great, urgent need for compassion in the world right now. I am very worried about the state of the planet, and all its creatures—plant and animal. It terrifies me that we may be making this world literally unlivable for our own children, as well as for so many other life forms.

    And for the humans of this planet in particular, I feel a very urgent need for rachamim, for compassion, as well right now. From the massive numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and the violence against people of color in this country, to the smaller scale—the great number of loved ones, and loved ones of loved ones, who are facing life-threatening illnesses and other serious challenges. And, also, truly, for my own self, I feel a deep need for compassion. Life is challenging, and I am pretty sure that, no matter how lucky, happy, good, successful, smart and beautiful you are, you can also think of ways in which you might want to ask to have more compassion coming to you, as well as through you. You, too, might feel a sense of urgency about drawing more compassion into the world in some way. So, I want to explore some of how we might imagine, and embody, a process of more compassion coming into the world?

    Strangely, in the Jewish conception of things, the process of increasing the flow of compassion starts with contraction, and something I talked about last night–nesira, or splitting, which we can currently notice as the gap between one year and the next—when, according to some ways of thinking, the Holy One, and each of us, withdraws our energy a bit, as we let go of one year and make room for the next.

    The nesira, or splitting, is a type of contraction, also called tzimtzum.[i] And, as we might suspect from the English word contraction, the contraction we call tzimtzum is part of a birthing process. As my teacher, R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l described it, “Every process which has gotten overinflated, lost, overly abundant, requires tzimtzum for its rebirth.” And, he explains, everything that happens is part of this pattern—the pattern of contraction, breaking, and repair. He says that these dynamics “are thought of as a) something that happened long ago; b) something that is happening now, part of the fabric of the energetic flow of the universe, as if, for example, the Big Bang was not an event but an ongoing process and c) A dynamic which is within every situation, interaction and process. If the pulsing of the universe is to breathe by shrinking and expanding, then the ongoing birthing of all things and events is in a constant state of labor, breaking (of the water and of the previous pregnant state) and of fixing the birthed one.”

    So, we can understand, that any constriction, contraction, separation, or shattering that we experience is part of a bigger pattern of pulsing energy, part of a birthing process. And most especially now, at Rosh Hashanah, we can be aware of this process.

    And now we can see a bit of how this fits together—the original nesira, the cutting of the dual primordial human, that was created back to back—being separated into two beings allowed them to face one another, encounter one another. This cut is also part of what allowed them to unify in a different way, and become co-creators in the process of bringing forth life. And similarly with a mother who is birthing a baby—the contractions, the breaking of the waters, the cutting of the cord—are all followed by the creation of a new being, who then turns and receives sustenance from the mother. The same process takes place within our understanding of the divine presence. [ii][iii]

    So, we are engaged in a birthing process right now. And the root of the word rachamim, compassion, is resh khet mem, the same root as for the word rechem, womb. (Not all of us have one of these, and obviously, not all people with wombs bear children, but nonetheless, there is something to be learned from the experience of those who do have these experiences. My hope is that each of our embodied experiences can be something we could all learn from.) Part of what the connection between rachamim and rechem, compassion and womb, is about is that it tells us that compassion is not just something of the mind and heart– it is of the body. Compassion is, or can and should, be, materialized in the most tangible of ways.

    When the mystical tradition maps qualities onto the body, it places compassion all along the central column—from the crown of our heads to the bottoms of our feet.

    The tradition places compassion in the crown, the top of the head, which is seen as the seat of Will. Rosh Hashanah is said to be the crowning of the divine king—not an image most of us find it easy to relate to—but perhaps we can picture the royal crown as something we give, as we acknowledge that we are not the ones in charge here. As we recognize with humility that there is something bigger than we are individually. This awareness brings us to experience compassion. We are not the center of the universe. [iv]

    And, the tradition places compassion in the center of the body–the heart, and the solar plexus. Sometimes we experience compassion here—when our hearts ache for the suffering of an Other, when we feel compassion flowing out of our hearts, and when we commit with the core of our strength to do something to help.

    And, the tradition places rachamim in the generative centers of the body, the place of the rechem, the womb. This evokes the compassion we have for our children, and our intimates, those with whom we have intertwined our physical existence.

    And finally, we find compassion in the base of the spine, and the bottoms of the feet, as we stand up to act in the world; as we, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, feel we are praying with our feet, and bringing compassion into physical manifestation.

    Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and words that share a value share elements of meaning. The root of the word rachamim, resh chet mem, equals 248. 248 is also the number our tradition says is how many body parts we have—limbs, sinews and bones.[v] So even the root of the word rachamim tells us that compassion is something we are to do with all our limbs, sinews and bones.

    This embodied experience of rachamim is a universal human experience—perhaps an experience of all sentient beings. It is what the primordial human was feeling in first seeing another human, when Adam, the earthling, said—“this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” When we feel compassion for another being, we can feel it in our bones– we can say “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” “Zot hapa’am etzem mei’atzamai uvasar mib’sari”

    How would the world be if we felt that for everyone? What if every time we looked at anyone, especially anyone we tended to consider “other”, we said “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”? [vi]

    Our liturgy is full of references to compassion, some easy to spot and others not.[vii] Anything mentioned 13 times is a calling forth of the flow of compassion.[viii] You can start to notice in the liturgy where all the 13s are. When we call on the name YHVH, when we make blessings, we are making a channel for compassion to come through, all along the central column of our bodies.

    David Wolfe-Blank z”l wrote that the 13 qualities of compassion “radiate throughout our universe from Rosh Khodesh Elul [that is, a month ago] until Simkhat Torah [that is, the end of Sukkot, a few weeks from now]…Because this happens every year around the High Holidays, every year is thought to be a further lurch of evolution based on the previous year’s energies, facilitated by the presence of these 13 fields of origination. These 13 qualities are therefore the mechanical or energic side of the Teshuvah process. We soften and stretch our hearts by doing Teshuvah, and God softens and stretches the fabric of the world by shining towards us the 13 qualities…” (Metasiddur p. 48.2)
    Each one of the 13 qualities of compassion that we chant throughout this time period has their own nature. Compassion isn’t just one thing—it has subtle distinctions.[ix] When we chant them, we can consider how we can embody the different qualities, or aspects, of compassion. But before these 13 qualities, or part of them, depending on how you parse the sentence, we say “Adonai, Adonai”; we repeat the name twice. R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that on the High Holidays we need a healing in which we go to a second level of the divine name. This second calling upon YHVH is called the “Shem ha-Etzem”, literally the Essence of the Name. We might imagine this as a transcendence, beyond the manifestation of the name that has been damaged over the preceding year by our wrongdoings. But I want to suggest an additional interpretation. Etzem, in addition to meaning essence, also means bone, as in the phrase “bone of my bone”—“etzem mei’atzamai”. When we look deeply enough, when we let ourselves become aware, we find that in essence, we are all of one substance—bone of my bone. Rabbi Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that “during the ten days of awe, each of us is in possession of a second, more creative part of our souls. Just as Abraham was called Abraham, Abraham, and Moses was called Moses, Moses, as seen by the higher level of Yod Hay Vav Hay, so is each of us reconnected with our twofold name, a creative, powerful energy which enables us to restructure our awareness of God and of ourselves.”

    So, I would like to suggest, that at this time we are also more able to sense that level which we might call “bone of my bone”. Perhaps at this time we can see more clearly that we are all connected, all one flesh. When we call on the qualities of compassion, when we suffuse in the flow of rachamim, we are both feeling the compassion that surrounds and holds us, and we are also letting it pour through us into the world. So may we be strengthened at this time in receiving compassion, and in being channels for compassion coming into the world.

    And right now is the time for that strengthening to begin. The splitting, the nesira, that is the space between one year and the next, which perhaps up to this point we have experienced as a separation of some kind, now shifts. R. Wolfe-Blank z”l wrote that “The Nesira begins to be reversed at the time of the blowing of the Shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah[x]” (R DWB p. 22.2)

    So, as we prepare to hear the shofar, we can become aware of a shift. We can look around us and see that all beings are “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”. The shofar builds a bridge of sound and energy [xi] to connect all beings. Any sense of separation we have been feeling is about to be washed away in a flood of presence. May we, in that moment, as we hear the shofar, become more fully channels for compassion to come through us, renewing us, and bringing blessing to the world.

    [i] And this is also how the mystical tradition describes the process of creation—the mystical creation story goes that undifferentiated divinity, which was all there was, had a desire to give, but in order to give, there had to be something to give to. And so began the paradox of creation— although everything is part of G-d, nonetheless, there has to be an appearance of it not being so, in order for there to be giving and receiving.

    [ii] Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l explains that “On Rosh Hashanah, the inner energy of Malkhut [that is, the base of the tree of life], the earth and our home, leaves and moves into Keter [or crown], our Source and Essence. This departure, called Nesira, is somewhat frightening and ungrounding, hence, the “awesomeness” of the period of the Days of Awe, beginning erev Rosh Hashanah. Reversal of this process begins with the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur. During these ten days, Malkhut [the manifestation of the holy in the world] is rebuilt, rewired, and refurbished.” (Meta-Siddur, p. 148.8)

    [iii] I find it interesting that even the traditional terms for what is happening now have birthing overtones—the divine presence goes back to Keter, the Crown, and this is related to how the tradition says that Rosh Hashanah is the crowning of the divine King. And, of course, there is a moment in the birthing process when the baby crowns—and is crowned.

    [iv] The 13 qualities of compassion are called a 13 spired crown, and the mystical tradition says this crown is made of lavender light, and it shines more and more brightly throughout the 10 days of awe, until it is so bright at the end of Yom Kippur, at Neilah, that we can barely see anything else.

    [v] Also related is the fact that there are 248 positive mitzvot—the mitzvot are for the purpose of rachamim

    [vi] So, too, when we pray for divine rachamim, we are praying for Hashem to sense that we, or those we are praying for, are of the same substance as G-d is. As my teacher R. Marcia Prager says, “the world is congealed G-d”.

    [vii] In the prayer right before the sh’ma we repeat the root three times in a row. for example, Baruch She’Amar, which uses the word Baruch, blessed, 13 times, and Psalm 27, the psalm we say daily at this season, mentions the name YHVH 13 times. The expression of the divine name, and the quality of blessing, are both pathways for compassion to manifest in the world. Our most central prayer, the Amidah, on weekdays has 13 middle blessings, one for each quality of compassion.

    [viii] for example, Baruch She’Amar, which uses the word Baruch, blessed, 13 times, and Psalm 27, the psalm we say daily at this season, mentions the name YHVH 13 times. The expression of the divine name, and the quality of blessing, are both pathways for compassion to manifest in the world. Our most central prayer, the Amidah, on weekdays has 13 middle blessings, one for each quality of compassion.

    [ix] R. Wolfe-Blank interprets them thus: Ayl—expanding force of kindness; Rakhum—Merciful Womb; Khanun—Graceful Giver; Erekh—Long-Stretched Web; Apayim—Many Faceted Jewel; Rav Khesed—Maestro of Generosity; Ve’Emet—Dispatcher of Truth; Notzer Khesed—Funnel of Kindness; La’Alafim—Helper of Thousands; Nosay Avon—Tolerator of Distortion; Vafesha—Who Puts up with Intentional Error; V’Khata’ah—Shoulders Omission; V’Nakay—and Cleanses.

    [x] “which, as promised, reverses the departure of the Holy One and draws back G-d’s interest and participation to be completed with the Shofar sounding at the end of Yom Kippur.”

    [xi] A term from the writing of Yoel Glick

  18. Wendy Post author

    Reb Zalman z”l: Repairing the God-field on Rosh HaShanah (September 11th, 2007)
    by kolaleph

    We learn from the writings of the great mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, that the work of the High Holy Days is “Binyan HaMalchut.” Here are some of our beloved Reb Zalman’s z”l teachings about what this means and the ways in which we might experience it.

    The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that every year, the energy “budget” to sustain the cosmos for the full cycle of the year is “allocated” – Life-giving energy flows out from the Infinite Sourcing Power to revitalize and recharge the depleted “God-field” that by the end of the past year’s cycle is exhausted and worn.

    The mystical tradition teaches further that the fraying of the God-field is a natural consequence of the huge draw that sustaining existence demands.

    Yet at the same time, we as humans have tremendous influence on it. We can hasten the energetic depletion and even damage the fabric of the energetic web though our ‘negative karma’ and mis-behavior. Our violence, rage, cruelty and injustice send destructive power-surges through the God-field, wreaking terrible damage and shorting-out connections. Holes manifest as a result of life’s mistakes and misdeeds.

    On Rosh HaShanah, each year, a cycle of renewal and repair begins. Fresh new energy descends into the God-field, healing and repairing the tattered weave, opening blocked channels and refreshing the flow. When the God-field is reconstituted a new “NAME” meaning a newly re-energized יהוה Yod, Heh, Waw, and Heh re-constellates and glows with fresh new light to sustain the coming year.

    Reb Zalman says: At the conclusion of Yom Kippur this fresh new Name begins to manifest. The first day post Yom Kippur – Yud. Next Heh, then Waw, followed by the final Heh. Four letters for four days. This brings us to Sukkot, the full moon Harvest Festival, with a brand new, clean, fresh, and pure Name.

    How do we help recharge the God-field?

    It means that I must allow some of my life-space to be taken away from my ego and put at the disposal of God.

    Binyan HaMalchut also contains the idea of healing the Shekhinah. The God-field of

    the last year – this is how we understand Shekhinah – was the appropriation of energy to the cosmos and was fully expended. It gets renewed each year on Rosh HaShanah. The appropriation for this planet, its creatures and peoples is what we pray for on Rosh HaShanah.

    Through Yom Kippur into Sukkot through our prayers, rededication and t’shuvah, WE continue the process of building the God-field for the coming year. The understanding is that this God-field – the permeable membrane between the infinite and finite – is also what we call the “Name” of God. The “Name” is that which issues from the Infinite, is not identical with the Godhead, but is the presentation and the form in which the Infinite comes to us.

    Through the “Name” we are in constant relationship with the Infinite. Let’s look at some of the High Holiday root metaphors and the notion of covenant. These root metaphors are always dealing with the mutuality that the two parties of the covenant pledge to each other, what they “covenant” about. When people say, “Where is God?” my response is the question, “Who are you in relation to God?” Relationship is about mutuality.

    The liturgy is going to make it very clear: “God, You are our ‘King’ and ‘parent’ and we are your children.” In each of these metaphoric ways of speaking about God there is a root metaphor that implies mutuality and also mutual obligations. Each is an ancient metaphor from another age. But we can translate it into contemporary terms.

    On Rosh HaShanah we want to create clarity for ourselves concerning the root metaphor with which we will serve God for the coming year. And this would be the ‘Name,’ or the ‘God-field,’ that is being established by us through Yom Kippur, through Sukkot and Simchat Torah to be the overarching matrix of our life for the coming year.

    It is important that in this God-field for the coming year we should be harmonious and inclusive to all branches of Judaism and beyond. All our prayers are being said in the name of all humanity. We as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, should pray for that integration that will make room for everyone and at the same time obligate them to be stewards of God’s kingdom on earth.

    While in the ancient root metaphors, the mutuality of our covenantal relationship with God used primarily hierarchical language, and in our times we prefer more organismic language, the inter-being of human consciousness and the Infinite is captured in both. We can sing the High Holiday prayers with their ancient metaphors and understand them as images of reciprocity and mutuality, in which human consciousness attracts the flow of divinity and returns the flow with love and dedication to its Source.

    As we learn to become more open channels, more loving, compassionate co-creators of the God-field, we will be creating loving harmony with one another, becoming better stewards of the earth and healers of the environment and society. Then we will see our prayers work and produce the good results we pray for.

    Shanah Tovah

  19. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Fern Feldman

    Revolutionary Time, Teshuvah, Shmitta and Yovel

    By Rabbi Fern

    R. Sholom Dovbear of Lubavitch wrote that “whenever someone wants to ascend from a lower level to a higher level there must be something delineating between the two levels.” He talks about a “river of fire” in which a soul can immerse to transition from level to level. I think this is one of the reasons we mark time—one of the reasons we have Rosh Hashanah. Today is not the same year as yesterday. Yesterday it was 5774; today it is 5775. We have made something to delineate between the two levels. We have an opportunity to live at a new level. As we cross the river of fire that marks the change from year to year, the future is open. How we live this embodiment of time is full of possibilities.

    To explore this further, I want to share with you from an article I recently read by Swedish Jewish feminist philosopher, Fanny Söderbäck called “Revolutionary Time: Revolt as Temporal Return”. Her ideas provide a beautiful way of looking at what is going on in Jewish time, especially at this time of year.

    Söderbäck discusses the importance of deconstructing the binary distinction between the two ways people tend to look at time—cyclical time and linear time. She points out that “women, so often relegated to the natural realm and to embodiment, have become the bearers of cyclical time, while men, who have taken upon themselves the task of subordinating nature and the body in the name of culture and reason, have come to lay claim to linear time and the progress associated with it. The two models thus correspond, respectively, to the conception of woman as an embodied creature and to that of man as a rational subject not bound to his body.” She adds that “black subjects, queer subjects, disabled subjects, laboring subjects, …[and] female subjects—have been reduced to immanence and presence in the service of building the future of those (white, heterosexual able-bodied men) who have laid claim to transcendence and freedom.” Söderbäck explains that “political projects that follow the linear model of time end up replicating the past through a repression of sorts. Those that, instead, follow the cyclical model repeat the very same past by idealizing it.” I would add, that this binary of linear and cyclical time tends to be mapped onto all the other troubling binaries we can think of—light and dark, mind and body, good and bad. So, there is a lot at stake in troubling this way of understanding time, both in terms of how we think about the world, and in how we live in the world.

    Now I am going to shift back and forth between my understanding of how this is relevant to us as Jews, and more about Söderbäck’s article.

    We might notice that the binary distinction that Söderbäck delineates has often included Judaism on the side of cyclical time and Christianity on the side of linear time. Some segments of Christian thought see Judaism as existing in a non-progressing time, while Christianity involves linear, progressive messianic time—in which sin has been redeemed. Judaism and Christianity also are often mapped onto the body/spirit binary, where ritual practice that addresses our bodily acts, food and work, is devalued in comparison to religion that primarily mandates thoughts and prayers. Put simply, some see Judaism as being about law, and Christianity about love. We might respond by considering the ways in which Jewish law gives us guidelines for manifesting love in the physical world.

    Conversely, patriarchal branches of Judaism have often made the claim that the Jews invented progress, that is, linear time—that the idea of a G-d that acts in history, who redeems us from slavery, points to a progressive march through time, where “real” transformation can occur, as opposed to early matriarchal cultures that lived cyclical time, where deities represented aspects of the agricultural cycle, which were the same from year to year.

    I would claim, rather, that Judaism is a merging of these two ways of looking at time, and in itself is a deconstruction of the linear/ cyclical binary. One way of seeing this in Judaism is the way in which we integrate the solar and lunar calendars. Solar calendars, in which months are based on fractions of the year, without regard to phases of the moon, have tended to be associated with linear time. And lunar calendars, where each month starts on the new moon, and the year begins again after twelve moon cycles, regardless of the solar season that falls in, have been associated with cyclical time. The Jewish calendar integrates the two, so each month begins on the new moon, and the new year, as well as all the other holidays, maintain their solar seasonal associations, so Passover is always in the spring, and Sukkot is always in the fall.

    But the connections between what Söderbäck talks about as revolutionary time and Jewish time run much deeper. So let’s go back to Söderbäck. She explains her ideas in terms of feminism, but she writes “I ask the reader to understand my discussion being relevant beyond questions of gender and sexual difference”. Drawing on the work of philosopher Julia Kristeva, Söderbäck develops an alternative temporal model—rather than the linear/cyclical division of time, she talks about “revolutionary time”. She writes “Revolutionary time is modeled on a perpetual movement of return that is meant to retrieve the very body that was repressed in order to construct the linear-cyclical dichotomy and paradigm”; it is a model of time that “recognizes embodiment as the condition of possibility for …projection into futures as yet unknown to us.” Söderbäck writes “the movement of return…is indispensable for the possibility of a different future.”

    I do not think it is a coincidence that this theory is coming from a Jewish thinker. Perhaps if she were writing in a Jewish context, she would call this model what we call it–Teshuvah. Teshuvah also tells us that return is what makes change possible, that return is what opens up the future. Söderbäck points out that a linear-progressive temporal paradigm runs the risk of making us forget the past—that is, if we can’t return to the past, we are likely to forget it—and for that reason, it also leads to a repetition of the past. Rather, she advocates “a view of time and our being-in-time as a perpetual displacement and renewal through the movement of return.” She means to “set in motion a temporal movement that neither forgets nor repeats the past, a model of time that allows us to redeem the past and the present without instrumentalizing them in the name of a future always already defined in advance.” That is, a model of time in which we return, and redeem the past and the present, allows for a future that does not repeat the past, a future that is not a pre-determined goal where we use the present as a means to justify the future, but rather, when we truly return, fully integrate the past, and embody the present, we make way for a future that is open. This open, redeemed future in Jewish thought is called “olam haba”—the world that is coming. “Olam haba”, usually translated as “the world to come”, literally has a present tense meaning, that is, “the world that is coming”, coming now, in each moment, as we engage in what Söderbäck calls “a perpetual displacement and renewal through the movement of return”.

    She talks about a “successful revolution”—and by revolution she isn’t only talking about politics, but rather about the root meaning of the world to revolt, the Latin volvere, which has spatial meanings as well, like the revolution of the stars—she says “ a successful revolution—one that opens new doors into a future not already governed by the past—depends on a nonidealizing and continuously interrogative movement of return to the past as well as a chance to experience the dynamic and active processes of the present as they unfold. Both of these depend on a thoroughgoing return to the repressed of our current linear temporal model: the body.”

    So if we are to live time in a way that can open up possibilities for the future as a process of perpetual return, the question is, return to what? Söderbäck tells us we need to return in two ways. First, we need to be perpetually interrogating, continually returning to questioning. This is what the process of Teshuvah is all about. In the cycles of day, week, month, and year, the Jewish calendar sets aside time to question ourselves, to take a “heshbon hanefesh”, a soul accounting. We take this time, right now, during the Days of Teshuvah to ask ourselves what we are doing. Some of us have been engaging in this process since the beginning of the month just ended, the month of Elul. Some of us are starting to question ourselves right now: What am I doing here? How am I living my life? Am I doing what I want to be doing? What acts have I have committed that need amends? Where am I going? This perpetual return to questioning our actions and our lives redeems the past, and opens the future.

    Seccondly, when Söderbäck talks about return, she means return to the body, and return to materiality. She tells us that “time must be understood as inherently linked to embodiment.” And, “whenever time is conceptualized in terms of cyclicality or revolution (rather than linearity), there is an implicit connection between temporal movement and corporeality or materiality.”

    We can read this return to materiality in relation to the sabbatical, in hebrew called shmita, and the Jubilee, in hebrew called Yovel—these returns to the body of the earth are revolutionary moves, bringing egalitarian social change. Today, this Rosh Hashanah 5775, is the first day of a shmita year, the sabbatical that takes place every seven years. The Torah tells us that every seventh year, the land in Israel is to be left to lie fallow. Any produce which grows of its own accord is deemed ownerless, and may be picked by anyone—human or animal. All debts, to people participating in the shmita system, are to be cancelled. The shmita year is a reminder to us that we don’t actually own anything. Our material possessions are not with us due to what good people we are, or even how hard we worked, but rather, we have what we think of as our possessions because we are borrowing them. It is all a gift. And as such, it is not ours to hoard, waste or destroy.

    The practice of shmita has had a number of positive influences in the land of Israel. Since Talmudic times, there has been a structure that allowed for communal harvesting and storage of crops, to be distributed to the community during shmita years, so the shmita has taught us how to feed ourselves collectively. In addition, since observant Jews can’t eat produce purposely grown by Jewish Israeli farmers during the shmita year, in practice, during shmita years, orthodox Israelis shop at Palestinian produce stores, building economic and social bridges between communities. In addition, even during the shmita years hydroponics are allowed, so the shmita has led to an increase in the exploration of alternative agricultural methods.

    And even though the requirement for the land to lie fallow during the shmita only applies in the land of Israel, there is now a movement to consider what we can learn from it in the rest of the world as well. Yigal Deutscher of the Shmita Project of Hazon, a national Jewish organization working for sustainability, writes “The values inherent in
the Shmita tradition challenge a contemporary world striving for continual economic growth, development, and individual gains, which more often than not come with a loss to long-term ecological and social integrity. Shmita offers an old/new context in which to turn to the Torah for guidance, to learn timeless values for the real issues we face today. Perhaps there is a message embedded within Shmita that we can use right now to strengthen the movement for creating a healthier, more holistic and sustainable culture.”

    So right now, today, we are beginning a shmita year. We are invited, all of us, to ask ourselves what this could mean for our own return to the earth: what can we contribute to its sustainability?

    After every 7 shmita cycles, there is a Jubilee, or Yovel. The Torah teaches that on the Day of Atonement, at the opening of the Yovel, the shofar is to be sounded, all slaves freed, and every family is to return to its original landholding. Thus, every 50th year, all economic inequalities are to be resolved. The Jubilee Year is not observed in modern times because it only applies when representatives of all twelve tribes, and a majority of the world’s Jews, live in the Land of Israel. At this point, since 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel have been lost, it would be impossible ever to carry out the actual commandments of the Yovel. And there are differences of opinion about when the Yovel is to occur. But some who still keep count of it say that the next Yovel is a year from now, 5776. So we are now entering a shmita that may be leading into a Yovel. Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “Here the Torah whirls time into its loftiest spiral: the fifty-year rhythm of the Jubilee. The Jubilee…teaches about time and timelessness, about the rhythms of doing and being, wealth and sharing, work upon the earth and healing with the earth, inward ritual and outward action. In it is the verse (Lev. 25: 10) that found an echo in the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”” The idea of Jubilee has recently inspired a movement: the Jubilee USA network, an alliance of hundreds of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith communities working for debt relief for the world’s poorest people. For anyone who is interested, the Jewish branch of Jubilee USA has declared this October 11, two and half weeks from now, as Jubilee Shabbat, and is providing resources for communities who want to learn more.

    On a more individual level, Söderbäck tells us, we open the future by return to the body, to awareness of our embodiment. And, when she says body, she also means soul. Citing Kristeva, she talks about the “various elements that transcend the dichotomy of body and soul.” The soul “allows you access to your body and to other people…While being an internal space, the soul is a space that, insofar as it is alive, connects us with others and with our own living bodies. To have a vital psychic space means to be capable of intersubjective relations, to desire, and to feel…” When we engage in the process of return, we heal the body soul split, we continually return our awareness to the whole of our being. We need to return to our own past, to what Söderbäck calls “the depth continent of her individual prehistory.” We would not return, she says, “in order to linger in the past or repeat it but to make possible new beginnings…allowing for continuity and rupture.” She tells us “bodies as well as the natural realm—both commonly associated with repetition and immanence—are in fact marked by variation, differentiation, and change….the body is born of difference and generates difference. Far from being a stable ground, the body is that through which displacement and interruption becomes possible…Why not return to the body and reclaim it for what it is: a locus of change displacement, and alteration?”

    R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that sometimes, like Balaam’s donkey, our bodies see more than our minds. I invite us today, and throughout these days of Teshuvah, this time of return, to keep returning our awareness to our bodies, to the awarenesses of the body, the visions of the body, the messages our bodies are waiting to tell us about how, in living fully into our embodiment, we can become more whole, and we can move into a future that is open.

  20. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Mishael Zion

    Isaac and Ishmael: A Call to Study this Jewish New Year

    The drums of religious war sounded again this year in the lands of Abraham. In Syria and Iraq, Israel and the Gaza strip, the battle over who carries the Abrahamic promise has reignited. Can Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, bring a relevant message of hope to a world yearning to stop the violence?

    The Power of Text Study
    Throughout the year we give primacy to action – political, civil and, when needed, military. On the High Holidays we turn to the power of prayer. But much overlooked is the power of study. Studying ancient texts can help reframe our existence, heal our hearts and energize our limbs. Text study can change the world.

    War mongers proudly use religious verse to incite heinous deeds. The liberal response is often to vacate the playing field of religious conversation altogether. This abandonment, however, is the quintessential desecration of God’s name in the Talmudic sense – associating God with death and dishonesty. This year, more than ever before, we must populate the world with a vision of God and Humanity so life-affirming, complexity-loving, and peace-seeking, so as to turn the tides of this desecration. Our resistance practice should be, in part, the study of our religious texts. We must weave them into a discourse of nuance, tolerance and peace, both within and between our respective religions.

    The Jewish New Year grants us just such an opportunity. The Torah portions for this holiday tell the distinct tales of Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. The texts themselves are simultaneously tragic and heroic. They raise hard-hitting ethical questions and uncomfortable dilemmas. In other words, they are real. As we re-live the sibling rivalry of Abraham’s children, we must return to the tales of those two sons.

    Two Bindings

    Abel Pann, Banishment of Hagar and Ishmael
    On the second day of Rosh haShana Jews the world over read the story known as the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Abraham is commanded to offer up his son, bind him (in Hebrew “akeidah”), only to be told to drop his knife at the last moment. This act is considered the founding expression of religious devotion in all three Abrahamic religions. It is Abraham’s “submission”, or “islam”, which give that religion its name. In Christianity the Akeidah is seen as foreshadowing God’s sacrifice of his own Son. Jews beseech God for forgiveness on Rosh haShana based on the merit of the Akeidah, sounding the Shofar, the ram’s horn, a reminder of the ram that was offered up instead of Isaac on that fateful day.

    But on the first day of Rosh HaShana, before the Isaac story is read, we read the preceding chapter, which tells of the banishment of Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son (Genesis 21). Born to Hagar the Egyptian, Ishmael is banished by Sarah, who demands of Abraham: “Drive out this slave-woman and her son, for the son of this slave-woman shall not share inheritance with my son, with Isaac” (Gen 21:10). God concurs and Abraham obeys. Of all the texts to read on the New Year, why this one?

    One Story
    The answer to this question perhaps lies in the fact that these two chapters are in fact the same story, twice told. There is not one Akeidah, but two: the Akeidah of Isaac and the Akeidah of Ishmael. The parallels are stunning, and appear not only in the plot, but in the very words used in both tales: From the time of day – “Avraham started-early in the morning, he took some bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar” (Gen 21:14) and “Avraham started-early in the morning, he saddled his donkey, he took…Yitzhak his son…” (Gen 22:3)

    Through to the last minute call of salvation: “God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her… Arise, lift up the lad and grasp him with your hand” (Gen 21:17) and in the case of Isaac – “The Lord’s messenger called to him from heaven and said to him: Avraham! Avraham!… Do not stretch your hand against the lad” (Gen 22:11). Both tales end with a divine blessing: Ishmael – “a great nation will I make of him!” (21:18). Isaac will carry God’s covenant.

    What is the meaning of this parallelism? Studying these texts offers us an opportunity to ask how our stories – the children of Isaac and of Ishmael – are intertwined. Are we total strangers to eachother – or are we brothers, cousins? Can we not inherit together? Are we playing out the consequences of narrow-minded jealousy or of righteous protectiveness? What role – as perpetrators and heroes – do God and Humans play in this drama? How does one heal from centuries of sibling rivalry? When we see the conflict through this biblical lens, one thing becomes clear: we are stuck in the same eternal story, whether we like it or not. Can we turn this cruel fate into a shared destiny?

    Lift Your Eyes
    As I returned to these stories this year I noticed something that hadn’t occurred to me before. Both texts end with the protagonist lifting their eyes.

    “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw: there, a ram caught behind in the thicket by its horns!” (Gen.22:13)
    “God opened [Hagar’s] eyes, and she saw a well of water; she went, filled the skin with water, and gave the lad to drink”(Gen.21:19).

    Stuck so deeply in their own interpretation of reality, Abraham and Hagar believe their only option, indeed, God’s will, is to see their children perish. With the call of the angel, an expansion of the horizons takes place. The notice something they couldn’t see before: a well in the distance; a ram entangled by its horns. Mired as we are in the vicious dynamics of this past year, our texts can help us imagine a new reality. Let’s lift our eyes and see it.

  21. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Gershon Winkler

    Shape Shifting:

    A Rosh Hashanah Teaching from Gershon

    Listen carefully. This is an actual teaching by the ancient Hebrew sages, as recorded in the Talmud:

    “After seven years, the hyena turns into a large bat. After seven years as a large bat it turns into a small bat. After seven years as a small bat it turns into a thorny weed. After seven years as a thorny weed it turns into a thorn. After seven years as a thorn it turns into a demon” (Talmud Bav’li, Baba Kama 16a).

    Wow. Like how does one begin to comprehend the meaning of this seemingly nonsensical teaching? What were they smoking back then? What were they on?

    In order to explore this obscure lesson, we need to first understand that the mystical wisdom of Judaism does not consider the beginning chapters of Genesis as the “story of Creation,” but rather as the “creation of Story.” This is more the root meaning of the popular Kabbalistic term “Sefirah,” as in “the Ten Sefirot.”

    Most students of the Kabbalah have been schooled to understand the term Sefirot as representative of the emanating radiance of Divine Luminations that carry the Intent of Creator for Creation to become and unfold. Absent the variety of vowels that adorn it with meanings ranging from “sapphire” to “sphere” to “sefer” [book],” at its bare root the term implies the more down-to-earth concept of “story.” In the words of the 18th-century Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen: “The universe is God’s book; the Torah is its commentary” (Tzidkat HaTzadik, No. 219).

    This “Book,” or Story, is in turn, divided into three segments, each of which, in Hebrew, is spelled exactly the same: סְפָר סָפֵר סִפֵר — Boundary [space], Counting [time], and Telling [matter] (Sefer Yetzirah, 1:1) — the laws of the Universe, the dynamics of Time, and the drama of Everything. The first, סְפָר, is the story itself. This is it, and it is what it is, and this is how it works. It is unchangeable, so much so that God would have to re-create the entire universe from scratch if salt, for example, were to be rendered sweet or your nose was to be situated in the back of your head. The second, סָפֵר, is about the context in which the story unfolds, the scenario through which the story weaves, all of which is determined by the fluid nature of Time, which flings open the gates of absolutes to the endless horizons of possibility and change. And the third, סִפֵר, is the actual telling, the actual playing-out of the story. It is Matter’s translation of Space as filtered through Time. It is Creation creatively weaving Creator’s intent, partially sticking to the script, partially improvising, which is what translation is all about.

    The hyena is a creature symbolic of scavenging, known for its tendency to move in on what others have achieved through their own hard and patient efforts, only to snatch it away from them. This is Hyena’s story, its nature, how its script was written at the time before time when God thought “Hyena.” As Hyena journeys impulsively through its pre-scripted life cycle, the dynamics of Time gradually morphs it into a blind creature that flies about erratically and is also known for its blood-sucking tendencies, namely a large bat. Hyena has not made much use of its eyes and had surrendered its life path to the radar of its ears and nose which in turn drove it to wherever there was a recent kill, to wherever there was an opportunity to take advantage of someone else’s endeavors. As its gluttony intensifies, the hyena, now in the form of a large bat, further translates itself into a smaller bat, enabling it to feed on yet more possibilities, smaller, more accessible meals, and with greater expediency. Lazily resigned to the automated flow of Space and Time, absent personal participation in the direction of its story, the hyena’s life journey continues exclusively focused on scavenging and usurping, so much so that in time and with time it morphs into a weed, where it no longer has to move all over the place in search of sustenance, it simply can just stay put where it is and usurp the nutrients intended for others.

    The weed remains the hyena. The story remains the same, only the translation has over time mildewed in Darwinian reversal. The translation continues yet further when the hyena-turned-weed is so entrenched in its newfound way of scavenging without the hunt that it becomes fearful of losing its precious ground and focuses on becoming self-protective, so much so that in time and with time it morphs into a thorn. Along each phase of its shape-shifting, the hyena grows farther and farther distant from its core essence, from its original story, its aboriginal roots, to the point where its life focus eventually turns into an obsessive but futile attempt to fill the vacuum created by lifetimes of desperately trying to satiate the longing within through the accomplishments of others. In other words, in time and with time, it ultimately morphs into a demon. Because, basically, that is what a demon is all about. It is a shapeless creature that manifests and thrives within the vacuum; it is an entity that flourishes in the twilight of oblivion, in the undefined chasm between story and translation (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 7:7; Maharal, Derech Chayyim, folio 236).

    This Talmudic narrative is then about the default fate of the hyena’s shape-shifting process. What I mean by that is this: Life goes on and the world continues to spin with or without our participation. The story unfolds in spite of us. However, absent our involvement, the story eventually dissipates into the ether, and life empties into the Abyss of the Great Void. Sort of like what Solomon may have implied when he wrote: “All of the rivers empty into the sea, yet the sea is never full” (Proverbs 1:7). This is the difference between Chapter One and Chapter Two of the Book of Genesis. They are not two different accounts of Creation, as posited by too many well-meaning modern-day scholars. Rather, Chapter One is about the Creation and Chapter Two is about how the activation of Creation awaits the participation of Creation: “And all of the trees were not yet upon the earth and all of the grasses of the field had not yet sprouted because God had not caused it to rain upon the earth and there was not yet a Human to tend to the earth” (Genesis 2:5).

    If a hyena chooses not to participate in the translation of its story and redirect its shape-shifting from one that is subject to the whim of chance to one that is consciously directed to unfold in cadence and in congruency with its story, its ultimate shape-shifting undergoes the aforementioned phases of metamorphosis and climaxes in shapelessness. And in the process of disconnecting from its story, the hyena loses its self-essence and is no longer Hyena.

    And what applies to the hyena applies to us humans as well, “for the circumstance of the human and the circumstance of the animal is one and the same circumstance; as with one, so with the other” (Ecclesiastes 3:19). After all, it was we who defined the animals (Genesis 2:18). It was we who in that moment integrated their story within ours and our story within theirs. “The souls of animals and of humans,” the Zohar teaches, “are imprinted one within the other” (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 20b). Or, in the words of the 13th-century Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, “the souls of animals are sparks of the human souls” (Manuscript Parma-de Rossi 1221, folio 288b). No doubt that the Talmud’s depiction of the shape-shifting of the hyena is cloaked in allegory to gently remind us of our own like process and its challenges. And just in case you truly think they were just talking about the animal world, and that you and I as humans are scot-free, the teaching continues with one more passage: “And as for you, O human, after seven years, you will turn into a snake! – by way of your spine.”

    So, the default metamorphosis for a hyena is bat, then weed, then thorn, then demon, and the default metamorphosis for you and me is snake. Why snake? What in the nature of our relationship with Snake would make it so that Snake becomes our default metamorphosis? Because in the beginning Snake was the very first creature to activate, to “break the ice,” to take the initiative and move beyond itself and engage Other. It even spoke our language. And it awakened us out of our primeval stupor with the cunning use of one of its most creative inventions: Question. Question, in turn elicited Response. And the elicitation of Response, in turn, created the very first dialogue. Snake, in other words, initiated us into the world of Response. The shadow cost of all this was the introduction of ey’vah, of enmity (Genesis 3:15) — Adam blames Eve, Eve blames Snake; everyone’s pissed-off at each other for what happened. Where Snake went wrong was in its failure to allow Adam and Eve the space to long for, to want, to desire the fruit, and so they ended up eating of it not out of their own volition, their own personal translation of the story, but out of submission to a voice, an interpretation, not their own. Therefore, Snake is our default metamorphosis. If we resign to just roll along in life and not participate in the translation, we’re as good as Snake. Our spine, our backbone, the very pillar that holds us upright in our life walk, shape-shifts into Snake, and, like in the Garden, we lose our connection with our essential selves and the story out of which we emerged.

    To avoid such a fate, the rabbis suggested, we ought to get into the practice of being thankful for what he have, for what Creator gifts to us morning, afternoon, and evening daily, especially those things we tend to take for granted. In this way we remain connected to our story, and we actively participate in and contribute to its translation.

    Adam and Eve did not get involved in the translation; they left it completely up to the snake. And so they ended up making love to demons for 130 years (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 24:6). If you ever studied that particular midrash, you may still be traumatized by such a horrific statement. What?! — Adam and Eve spent 130 years screwing demons? Maybe not literally, but that is precisely akin to what happens when we cast our lives into the vacuum of resignation as opposed to the fecundity of participation. We go the way of Hyena.

    Creation is a story. Your life, your choices, your actions, they are all your unique take on the Story as it unfolds in the distinct scenario of your personal life walk. My spine is my snake self, and how it will manifest, whether as a rerun of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden story or of something totally different and perhaps even healing for me — by shedding layers of what went wrong in my own personal Forbidden Fruit escapades – depends on me, on my translation. It depends on whether I deceive myself into thinking that “my power and the might of my own hands alone has accomplished all this” (Deuteronomy 8:18), or whether I open my eyes and heart to the gift of simply being, and express my gratitude for that and for all the trimmings that go with it that are so easily and so commonly taken for granted.

    And so I will pray my gratitude in the declaration of ba’ruch atah, “Blessing Source are You!” And while doing so, I will shape-shift into a bamboo shaft or a snake, or, in the tradition of the second-century Rabbi Shey’shet – both! For it is said that “when he would recite ba’ruch [“Blessing Source”], he would bow like a bamboo shaft bending in the wind. When he would next recite atah [“are you”], he would slither upward like a snake” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 25b). In other words, how we use the snake we already are, largely determines the snake we will ultimately become – self-deceiver, or self-healer. After all, who did Moses wrap around the Tree of Life in order to heal us? None other than the very same snake who talked us into eating of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moses daringly re-interpreted the snake story from one of nemesis to one of genesis (Numbers 21:9). He restored Snake to its original story, so that Snake might have the chance to do a better job at translation, since the first time around a lot got lost in translation, to the detriment of both Snake and Human.

    The question Creator posed to humanity in the Garden was: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Or, paraphrased: Will you resign yourself to Snake’s choice of translation for your life? Will you glide absently with the flow of Space and allow the dynamics of Time to morph you by default into the whimsical vacuum of demonic oblivion? Or will you actively participate in the drama of the translation, and become involved in your own shape-shifting, so that you never in the process lose your connection with the Story? Will you resign to the seeming hopelessness of world events as they spin out of control toward the black hole of chaos, or will you hold steadfast to your continued participation in and contribution to the translation of your story?

    How we shift within our own personal stories has a rippling effect on the macrocosmic Story. In the words of the Zohar: “With the arrival of the New Year [Rosh Hashanah], we blow our breath through the ram’s horn [shofar] to unify the elements of Air [space], Fire [time] and Water [matter], and to merge them into a single voice that is the Song of Earth [our story]. Through this sound we awaken the Voice of the Above [God’s story] so that the Song of Heaven joins in unison with the Song of Earth until they become one unified resonance that shatters and confuses all of the forces of divisiveness” (Zohar, Vol. 4, folio 99b).

    So may it be, beginning with 5775.

  22. Aryae

    From Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

    From Ben Gazi to Yom Kippur

    Rosh Hashanah traditionally begins with a profoundly disturbing story: Abraham and Sarah insist that Hagar (a name that means “the stranger” in Hebrew), who has been Abraham’s second wife and the mother of his first son, Ishmael, leave the family. Sarah says that Ishmael has been “making laughter” (in Hebrew, mitzachek) at her son Isaac (in Hebrew, Yitzchak), whose name means “Laughing One.” (en 21: 1-19)

    One way to understand the story is that the two boys are so much like each other, though not identical – Making laughter/ Laughter – that they are clouding each other’s identities, and must separate for the health of them both, even though the separation is painful.

    But the story gets more painful. Abraham, who has been reluctant to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the family, sends them into the wilderness with a jug of water. But it runs out, and Hagar, fearing her son will die, begins to cry.

    The Holy One Who is the Interbreathing of all life becomes visible to her. As her eyes open, she sees that her tears have themselves watered a wellspring -– the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me –- and not only are their lives saved, but they become the forebears of a great nation: the Arabs and Islam.

    Abraham’s other son, Isaac, in Jewish understanding becomes the forebear of the Jewish people.

    Here pauses the story as we read it on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. On the second day, we read how Abraham takes his other son, Isaac, up a mountain-top, preparing to make him a burnt-offering to God, who he thinks has asked this of him. At the last moment, the compassionate aspect of God intervenes to spare Isaac.

    In the Bible, the story of these two endangered brothers continues into a passage that has traditionally been read on a regular Shabbat but not on the sacred special days when synagogues are filled with spiritually thirsty and responsive Jews.

    I believe the completion of the story should be read aloud in every synagogue on Yom Kippur. It is a story of reconciliation, which is what Yom Kippur is all about. And just as the story of estrangement presages the vituperative video and the violent response of the last several days, this tale of reconciliation should be our teaching for next week, next year, next generation.

    It appears in Gen. 25: 8-11. Abraham has died and his two sons come together to bury him, the most dangerous person in both their lives. It seems they have forgiven him, and now they reconcile with each other. For Isaac goes to live at the very Well of the Living One Who Sees Me that has been life-giving water for Hagar and Ishmael.

    At last, the two brothers can fully see each other.

  23. Wendy Post author

    From Reb Zalman
    For Rosh Hashanah (Zeh Hayom)

    This piece was originally published on the website of the Reb Zalman Legacy Project, Seth Fishman, editor

    This is a translation of Reb Zalman’s Rosh Hashanah piece, published before in its original Hebrew here.

    “This day is [the anniversary of] the start of Your handiwork, a remembrance of the first day.”

    Much is written on these verses and to this, behold, I add, from what Hashem has graced me about this current age, as it is written, “You are all standing this day,” in our era at which time even we, who are on the level of “your water drawers” or “your woodcutters”, the entire leadership of Israel during the days of ikvata d’mashicha relies on us holding it up.

    And as is put forward in sefarim, the point of Rosh Hashanah is binyan hamalchut as we pray, “reign over the whole world in Your dignity.” And besides what one needs to be in shofar blowing, (simple strain of “Father, merciful father”), there is much else that is cast our way from the level of itaruta d’l’tata / arousal from below, that is begun for us in the month of Elul which begins with [Aleph Lamed] Ani L-dodi V‘dodi Li / I am my beloved’s – in arousal from below, – and so too the month of Tishrei, i.e. they begin from the end of the alphabet – going upwards — Tav-Shin-Reish-Kuf and after, V’dodi Li / my beloved is mine.

    And what is our role? To raise Binyan hamalchut! “Pronounce before me verses of malchuyot, etc” (in order to make me your Sovereign) and through this we arouse the Divine will to be our king for another year. And some particular efforts on our part are needed to make us worthy of this service.

    Malchuyot: To add power into the supernal governance – a time to “please let the power of Hashem increase” for there are some whose core intention is to strengthen Judaism or establish the nation but they don’t put their hearts behind it, for the treasure of Hashem’s power as it is made to appear in the life of the universe is a vacuum for we do not concern ourselves with the needs of on High. But in what will the treasure of God’s power become fulfilled? Israel is a provider for their Father in heaven – through the Torah, and mitzvot that soar upward. But lacking the devotion of awe and love – which serve them as wings, the prayers don’t fly. And therefore, “It is our duty to praise, etc.” with generosity of spirit to invest our energy to add power to the Malchut of Heaven that will bring a good k’tivah v’chatimah on our behalf.

    And regarding the subject of Malchuyot, what is it in our lives? For we have valuations on the level of one higher than the next – our priorities and it is for us to do a fair assessment. In any priority, we should invest kavvanah and energy to the spiritual life, the upright life. For it’s not enough that we pray in our prayers, “Write us into this or that book,” if we are not writing our own qvittel / note for ourselves. For from the heavens they answer, “Why do you cry out to Me? You should write the plans for the coming year.” And to do this, it is our task to evaluate the priorities in such a way as this, that the governing priority, the malchut, in our lives will be in the service of holiness and uprightness.

    And what, regarding the subject of Zichronot? For Hashem remembers all forgotten things. Oy! How many times in the year did we hear the broadcast of the bat kol, “Repent, etc.” How many times when it instilled upon us the inspiration of holiness we decided to raise the state of our consciousness. But alas, that all these inspirations – “theophanies,” as a dream evaporated and even though for a time we felt God’s nearness, we put a stop to living by their counsel, these holy moments disappeared from our memory. And on Rosh Hashanah, we need to delve into our memory and to bring forth the holy moments which we felt, into consciousness and with them, to write our qvittel for the coming year.

    And what, regarding the subject of Shofarot? “Sound the great shofar for our freedom,” for still we are prisoners of habit that has become second natured and how many of the things to which we are accustomed don’t help for chayyim tovim / a good life. And we already taught that if we want to get a footing for ourselves on holy ground the bat kol confirmed that we need to unlock the shackles of our habits and go out from the brutal slavery of exile of “addiction.” For if we are still slaves of habit which offers no help for living in a way in which we can in joy face Hashem, we will not be able to hope for a signing and sealing for a good life for the coming year.

    Therefore, it is upon us to pray on behalf of the raising of strength and power of Hashem that will magnify and sanctify the name of the Holy one blessed be He in our world. “Today, may You strengthen us, today, may You bless us, today, may You exalt us.”

  24. Wendy Post author

    From the Mussar Institute

    10 Mussar teachings for Rosh Hashanah
    1. Judgment and kingship
    Rosh Hashana is the day of judgment, and the 16th century kabbalistic Mussar text, Reishit Chochmah, by Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-1592), tells us that on the Day of Judgment we will be asked two questions: “Did you make your Creator king over you every morning and evening? Did you make your neighbor king over you with mildness of spirit?”

    2. Crowning
    Every year in the month of Elul, a yellow poster hung in the Talmud Torah of Kelm. On it was inscribed the message that the Alter of Kelm (Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv; 1824-1898), R’ Yisrael Salanter’s premier disciple, wanted to instill in his students as Rosh Hashana approached:

    All the Rosh Hashana prayers are designed to glorify the Kingdom of Heaven, and we, for our part, are called upon to crown the Lord as King of Kings. With what shall we crown Him? With love for others and charitable acts, as Moshe said in his parting blessing: ‘There will be a King in Yeshurun when the leaders of the people gather together, with the tribes of Israel as one’ [Deuteronomy / Devarim 33:5)

    3. What a person wants
    Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1898-1953) was a student in that Kelm yeshiva for 18 years, and became an influential Mussar teacher of the last century. He wrote specifically about the inner consequences of our choices that come into high relief through the lens that Rosh Hashana offers us. He wrote:

    What a person wants — that’s what he is. “The books of the living and the dead” [in which people are inscribed according to their deeds] which God scrutinizes on Rosh Hashanah refer to the spiritually living and the spiritually dead. A person who wants worthless things, “dead” things, is, in a deeper sense, dead himself. Only one who desires the things of the spirit is truly alive. That which belongs to the spirit is real.
    (Strive for Truth!, vol. 4, p.87)

    4. Individuals in community
    Rabbi Chaim Friedlander was the successor to Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler as mashgiach [Mussar supervisor] of the Ponevesz yeshiva in Israel. He wrote:

    “On Rosh Hashanah, we are judged as single individuals and as members of the community. As individuals, each of us is responsible for the unique purpose for which he was created. Our actions performed in fulfillment of that specific purpose influence the entire world”
    (Rinas Chaim pp. 164-65).

    5. We can hear the shofar
    Rabbi A. Henach Leibowitz (1918-2008) was the rosh yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva in Queens, NY. He was the son of the yeshiva’s founder, R’ Dovid Leibowitz, who himself was a product of the famous Mussar yeshiva of Slabodka:

    We should have been well prepared for this day. But even if such is not the case, all is not lost. Every Jew, no matter how apathetic or spiritually asleep h may be, has the gift, the ability to hear the call of the shofar and to respond—not with paralyzing fear, but with a superhuman effort to sincerely change his habits and attitudes.
    (Pinnacle of Creation, pp.24-25)

    6. As a father forgives his child
    Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz (1902-1979), who was born on Rosh Hashana, was the son-in-law of the Alter of Novardok and rosh yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland, Shanghai and Jerusalem. He wrote in one of his published Mussar talks:

    If we show mercy and compassion towards others, then Heaven will show compassion towards us. We will then be able to pray, “HaShem, be as compassionate towards us as a father is towards his children,” for a father’s feelings for his children are boundless. This is the essence of our prayers on Rosh Hashanah. Though we have rebelled against You, HaShem, we beg You, please be merciful towards us for we are Your children and a father forgives his children no matter how badly they may have sinned, no matter how much they may have rebelled.
    (Sichos Mussar, p.38)

    7. Don’t wait!
    Rabbi Itzchak Blazer (known as “Itzele Peterburger”; 1837-1907) was a primary disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. Once, in his later years, Reb Itzele gave a talk in the Slabodka Yeshiva before Rosh Hashana. He cried out to the students, “Do not make the same mistake I did, telling yourself there is still time, I’ll repent and correct my character when I’m older. That’s what I did! And now look at me! I’m old and I don’t have the strength anymore to change my ways! Don’t wait! Do it now!”

    8. No luxury at Rosh Hashana
    Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005) was the most recent of the giants of the Mussar world to pass from among us. He comments on Rosh Hashana in his book, Alei Shur:

    As Rosh Hashana approaches, we have these two significant reasons to make an extra effort to overcome our negative middos [soul-traits], and accentuate our positive middos. Though at other times of the year we might feel the need to work on each middah individually and at a slower pace, we do not have that luxury during Elul and Rosh Hashana. We must distance ourselves from anger, hatred, envy and bearing a grudge as far as possible.

    9. Are you needed?
    Another thought of Rabbi Wolbe on Rosh Hashana:

    Rav Yisroel Salanter said that the way to ensure that one is signed and sealed for life on Rosh Hashana is to be a person who is needed by many people. Since this person plays such a pivotal role in this world, HaShem will make certain that he continues to dwell amongst those people who need him.

    10. Wake up!
    A classic explanation of why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is so that it will awaken us from our spiritual sleep:

    Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is a Biblical decree there is a hint in it as if to say, “Wake up, wake up, you sleepers from your sleep, and awake, you slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator.” These are they who forget the truth on account of the vanities of time, and who waste their entire year with vainness and emptiness which neither help nor save. “Look to your souls and mend your ways and your deeds, and let every one of you forsake his evil way and his improper thoughts.”
    (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)

    For further information on The Mussar Institute, visit

  25. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Gershon Winkler


    The Secret Signal

    A Rosh Hashanah Teaching from Gershon…

    Listen. There is a secret signal. It’s sort of like a password, a code. And only we know it. We who sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Or at least some of us who sound the shofar know it. Others may know how to sound the shofar, how to blow their breath through the horn and make shofar sounds, but they don’t know the secret signal, the password. Just blowing air through a ram’s horn does not produce the secret signal. Anyone can do that. You don’t have to be of the Jewish nation to be able to do that. Ram’s horns and the like, the ancient rabbis remind us, abound everywhere and with most any people. And guess what? They all know how to blow it, how to sound it. And if that is the case, as it is obviously is, What is the meaning of the psalmic verse we recite before sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: “Happy is the people who knows how to sound [the shofar]”? (Psalms 89:16). Excuse me? Did the writer of this psalm actually believe that we were the only people on Earth who knew how to sound a ram’s horn? And that is the question the second-century Rabbi O’shia asks: “Do you really suppose that the nations of the world do not know how to sound the horn? They have countless horns, myriad trumpets and innumerable experts at sounding them, and you declare ‘Happy is the people who knows how to sound the shofar?'”

    And so Rabbi O’shia explains to us the meaning of that puzzling statement, that it implies a knowing that is given to us as a people from the ancients, a knowing not of how to sound the shofar but a knowing of the secrets behind the sounds and their intent (Midrash Vayik’ra Rabbah 29:4). Sounding the shofar without this knowledge and its intentions creates sound, but no different than anyone blowing a horn or trumpet. Sounding the shofar while imbuing your breath with this knowledge and intention, however, creates far more than sound. It communicates. It sends a secret signal understood only in the spirit realm, only in the Realm of the Divine Forces, and becomes part of a vocabulary known only in the God Dictionary. It is the language of spirit. It is a personal mystery communication between the soul and its Maker, between Creation and Creator, in a language that is absent any symbols or thoughts, any imagery or gesture. It is the language of דִבּוּרdibbur, of Resonance. It is the communication of breath with Breath, of רוּחַ ru’ach with רוּחַ אֶלֹהִיםru’ach elo’heem, of mortal breath with Divine Breath.

    In one of the most ancient of our Kabbalistic source texts, we are taught that Sound, Breath/Wind, and Resonanc eare the qualities of the Life Force that weaves the Divine Intent through all of Existence (Sefer Yetzirah 1:9 [oldest version]). The drama of these three qualities is played out in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where it is written: “And they heard the Voice [sound] of God journeying toward the Wind [breath] of the day…. And God then called [resonance] to The Adam” (Genesis 3:8-9). Thus you have קול ורוח ודבור — Sound, Breath, and Resonance. Sound is carried by Breath toward Resonance. By Sound, writes the 12th-century Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, is meant primal expression, not sound as we know it in the mortal sense. קול[ko’l-sound] is inaudible to the human ear until it is enwrapped in Breath or Spirit or Wind – all the same meaning of רוח [ru’ach]. And then it becomes graspable, translatable, when it is further manifested in דבור [dibbur-resonance]. And that quality of the Life Force that is Resonance, this is the Holy Spirit — the flux of the Divine Spirit that is weaving through all.

    That aspect of God that is involved within the fabric of existence in a transcending way, is referred to as the ineffable י-ה-ו-ה. This is the weaving Name of God, and it is un-pronounceable because it is always in flux, constantly weaving. It is what some of us are hopefully referring to when we glibly declare that “God is a verb.” God itself is not a verb. That particular aspect of the unknowable, un-nameable, un-peggable, un-fathomable mystery behind it all that we refer to as God that God chose to reveal of Itself and that is continuously weaving the Divine Intent for Creation to become – is verbish. But God Itself is nothing we can grasp, let alone define or label. So deal with it. You don’t even know how many teeth are in your mouth! (Talmud Bav’li, Sanhedrin 39a).

    The particular aspect of God that is immanently involved in the life of all beings is that very aspect of God that was active at the time of Creation, the only name of God mentioned in the genesis of Genesis: אלהים Elo’heem, which, according to the mystics is a plural word that implies “בַּעַל הַיְכוֹלֶת וּבַּעַל הכֹּחוֹת כֻּלָםBa’al ha’ye’cho’let u’ba’al ha’ko’cho’t ku’lam — The One Who Masters All Possibilities and Who Masters All the Forces” (16th-century Rabbi Yosef Karo in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 5:1).

    We are also taught that the difference between these two primary qualities of the revealed aspects of God, י-ה-ו-ה and אלהים — besides one being God Transcendent and one being God Imminent – is that the quality of אלהים is about judgment and the quality of י-ה-ו-ה is about mercy. Just like in the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the voice of אלהים resonates in Abraham as a request that he sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:1), and the voice of י-ה-ו-ה resonates in Abraham as a demand that he desist from so much as nicking him (Genesis 22:11).

    Now to the point.

    Another psalmic verse we recite before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah goes like this: “אלהיםhas ascended in the blowing; י-ה-ו-ה [is] in the sound of the shofar” (Psalms 47:6).

    The intent of the one who sounds the shofar is to bring the sound of silence, the primal sound the mystics spoke of that precedes audible, vocal sound, the sound that precedes the breath that then translates the primal intent into resonance. The intent? A plea, a signal, for the overriding of the Divine quality of Judgment – אלהים — with the Divine quality of mercy — י-ה-ו-ה — the sacred blend of both qualities in a unified balance, thus re-creating the First Sound ever mentioned in the Torah, which is described as the Sound of י-ה-ו-ה אלהים (Genesis 2:8).

    You see, Rosh Hashanah is a ritual of re-doing the Adam and Eve scenario a little differently. They heard the sound of both י-ה-ו-ה and אלהים , but – when asked “Where are you?” they chose to surrender to their sense of shame and respond only to the quality of אלהים. The question was a challenge to them: “Where are you?” as in which voice are you responding to? That of judgment or that of mercy? They chose the voice of judgment, and thus did the voice of judgment respond in kind and kick them out.

    On Rosh Hashanah, through the secret rite of the shofar, we endeavor to turn that around, to begin our new year with transforming that Karmic consciousness of judgment to one of compassion

    Thus, the secret of the Secret Signal. And so may it be!

  26. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man

    Law of Eternal Return
    Posted on September 7, 2012
    השִׁיבֵנוּ יְהֹוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה
    “Bring us back to you, H’, and we will return”*

    Yes, we shall return, yes, we will come back,
    though a checkpoint stands before us,
    an interrogation booth, the place of close examination.

    Who would confess sins without the certainty of forgiveness?
    Who would reveal shaming secrets without the expectation of forgiveness?
    Who would discard masks of false virtue without the assurance of forgiveness?

    Cover our iniquities
    wash away the stains
    offer us the life realigned.

    Show us a sign, H’, and we shall return.
    Strengthen our faith, H’, and with no sign at all
    we will come back.

    *Lamentation 5:21, with special significance on the High Holidays.

  27. Wendy Post author

    From Reb Zalman

    The Time Is Now For Rosh Hashanah Preparation
    Think of Rosh Hashanah like the stem cells of the year. They can become anything organic as they develop and grow.

    [NOTE: Stem cell: “A biological cell that can divide and differentiate into diverse specialized cell types.”]

    The possibility that we have been given by God in the establishment of Rosh Hashanah to impress upon the substance of time the shape and color that we wish it to have is both an opportunity and a challenge to consciousness.

    [NOTE: Opportunity: We influence the possibilities.
    Challenge: Self-control, integrity, self-knowledge, beyond blame.]

    The High Holiday Prayer Book has us pray for being inscribed in the book of life.

    [NOTE: .אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ, כָּתְבֵנוּ בְּסֵפֶר חַיִּים טוֹבִים]

    We have an entire shopping list when we say : ” our Father our King – – Avinu Malkenu, we need this, Avinu Malkenu, … that”.

    [NOTE: Take a moment now and jot down yours.]

    Looking at that list, we find that many things that we pray for are so basic [that they apply also] to life in general. However, there are some things we need for the coming year meant for only each of us that could not have been in the minds of the people who composed the prayer. So an important part is to prepare one’s own list of requests.

    It is not enough to request something from God without making a container for God to fulfill that request. The container is made by our creating behavior vessels for those requests to be fulfilled. There are times when we pray for something like “grant us peace You the source of peace” without realizing that that was granted to us a long time ago and we have not yet taken advantage of it by creating the conditions and instruments to be able to receive the peace granted to us. We also have an opportunity to pray for ourselves and for the issues in our life.

    One of the ways in which we create the container is to share our concerns and worries about the coming year with friends and family. This way we can clarify our values and our needs and create a vessel for mutual cooperation and support. When we say Avinu Malkenu we always use the plural.

    [NOTE: “Our Father, our King” instead of “my Father, my King”]

    Creating such a plurality of caring loving for one another is a sure means to have God’s benevolent Providence bless us and support us for the coming year.

    The blowing of the shofar has always been seen as a wake-up call. In this current era of our life we need to hear the outcry of our planet, our mother the Earth who aches for her children.

    [NOTE: Melech haolam, our living home, the planet.]

    According to Hasidic teaching something happens in cosmic dimensions: Each year on Rosh Hashanah the divine decision to reign over the cosmos has to be re-instigated by people who reach out to the attribute of the divine kingship and Majesty.

    [NOTE: בנין המלכות]

    Consider this: it is our prayer that stimulates the divine will to continue to energize the entire cosmos. It touches not only the life on this planet. Imagine then: our reaching out to be connected with and governed by the will of the Creator is what makes for a strong reality in which divine Providence can manifest from divine generosity.

    So blowing the shofar and our listening with an open heart establishes that connection in which our will to be governed [is received] by the divine intent for life.

    But unless we begin our work earlier, before the high holy days, during the month of Ellul, it is unlikely that we will be well enough prepared for that moment so we can be open enough to send our intent along when we hear the shofar blast. The preparation begins with the examination of our conscience in relation to our activities in the last year. I find it useful to have conversations with some soul friends now, before the high holy days. Sharing in the preparation with them gives much greater reality and brings about the good results that we wish to have for the coming year.

    Tshuvah: Lessons from the Computer
    What we can learn about Tshuvah from the computer

    You work on your computer and you are happy with the computer’s performance but over time, you begin to notice that the response time is getting worse. So you wonder what you can do to return the computer to its performance.

    This happened with usage, you were using constantly all year and, over that time, there was junk accumulating somewhere beyond the desktop. You were acquiring several temporary files and cookies. When you made one-time stops at sites they left these files and when you did lookups in Google you got your answers but you didn’t count on what else you were getting. And whenever you looked at a particular advertisement or bought something on the web, the company you were dealing with left something too. You don’t need these. And there were some spy infestations. Some of what you did was observed; you can see some of it just looking at the sidebars your web browser presents, and perhaps even content of your e-mail was viewed by someone else. So it is time to remove infestations.

    Not to mention that your hard drive has become fragmented. A single file that stored something you have in your word processor is splintered. So it is important to defragment the drive so that the computer will not have to keep looking all over to put your files together. So another thing you will take care of is to optimize your disk performance.

    And there’s another reason why your computer no longer works so fast: You’ve started using more programs and you are needing more memory to run them so the program has started swapping out memory by using more hard drive. In addition, there are errors in the registry, things that have crept in over time. So you want to correct these problems and defrag the registry. During the year filenames became corrupted and invalid and unused shortcuts need to be removed.

    I’ve been thinking about ways these computer optimizations might help us think about our Tshuvah process during the time of the high holy days.

    Because the doors of perception need “cleaning” too, so that they will be able to view reality for what it is without distortion.

    Our culture and the media have so blindsided us that we are not even aware how distorted our moral system has become.

    All interactions we had during the year installed year “cookies” into our awareness which make for attractors to mindless consumption. They deflect our moral compass and create distortion to our clear seeing.

    We use our apperception as an authority for how to respond to our environments. So when we do this “cleaning” in the Tshuvah work we will also become aware of how we registered our sensations. We must update the leading of our judgment by past impressions no longer current. Some things we had to do during the last year we may not have to repeat again and it is always better to look afresh on the task before us. So those ideas that we had that no longer are in the present are the “temporary files” that we have to delete.

    If we should keep them in the present mind space, they will drag us to places that are not in the here-and-now.

    The “router” connects us to the “inner-net,” to the web-of-global-life and to God. This router needs to be reset during this time.

    Another one of the things that need clearing are the introjected expectations of “people of power” in our lives.

    How wonderful it is that in our tradition we are provided with a reset and restart each year to clean up our mind space so that in the coming year our moral compass can be recalibrated and so that our perceptions and judgments will be cleared to discern what really is in front of us.

  28. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Simon Jacobson

    This teaching was sent out as an individual teaching this year.

    Rosh Hashana: Sweet Year

    “L’shana tova u’metukah” is the prayer we say when we eat the apple dipped in honey on the first night of Rosh Hashana. In Yiddish we bless each other with “a guten un a zisen yor.” Both these expressions mean: a good and sweet year.

    Do you know why we bless each other with a “good and sweet year?” Is it a cliché, or does this sweetness carry a deeper message?

    * * *

    The mystics write that as the sun sets before Rosh Hashana, the universe goes into a comatose state. A slumber descends on all existence, everything comes to a stand-still in cosmic silence, in apprehension of its contract being renewed.

    As the sun sets before Rosh Hashana and existence hangs in the balance – it’s a good time to review the very nature of this existence that we are part of and whose parameters define our lives.

    Is existence a form of revelation or a form of concealment?

    This is not a mere abstract or esoteric question; it touches on the fundamental nature of our beings. Is the true essence of a human being – and of all existence – defined by what is visible to the eye and tangible to the five senses, or is the essence quite invisible, something that cannot be experienced in a revealed state?

    In other words: Is what we see really a state of revelation, or is it the other way around: What we see is the glove, while the true hand remains hidden within?

    The first verse of Genesis – arguably the most famous ever documented – answers the riddle: “In the beginning when G-d created heaven and earth.” The name for G-d used in this verse is “Elokim.” The classic commentator Rashi explains why the name “Havaya” is not used (as in a later verse, Genesis 2:4): “Initially the Divine intention was to create existence with the element of justice, but He perceived that the world would not endure; so He preceded it with the element of compassion, blending it with the element of justice.”

    What is the meaning of this explanation? Since the world could not endure on justice alone, why did G-d initially consider creating it that way; and only later did He decide to integrate the element of compassion? And what exactly is the meaning of justice and compassion?

    Justice (Elokim) refers to the concealment of the Divine omnipresence which was a prerequisite for existence to come into being. As long as the Divine reality is all consuming, there is no room for any other consciousness to emerge. Explains the great mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), in his revolutionary Tzimtzum doctrine, that the Divine presence (light) was concealed in a type of cosmic “black hole,” which allowed for the emergence of the conscious, independent personality of existence as we know it. Like a teacher with an infinitely greater mind than his student conceals his brilliance in order to allow “space” for the student to contain the ideas on his limited terms.

    This tzimtzum/concealment is a called justice (din and gevurah), which withholds, measures and limits the transmission. By contrast, compassion (Havaya) activates the flow of energy and light.

    Now we can understand the meaning of Rashi’s words: The basis of all existence is rooted in the element of “justice”, which concentrates and conceals the Divine light. Without this concealment an independent existence can never come to be. Thus, genesis begins that the universe was created with the name Elokim. However, G-d recognized the far-reaching consequences of a universe whose engine is strict justice and concealment. He therefore infused into the Tzimtzum an element of compassion – ingrained in the concealment is the purpose that it must bring light. When the great teacher conceals the full intensity of his mind he does so not as an end in itself, but as a means to convey the idea to the student. In other words, the concealment (justice) itself is ultimately an expression of compassion, allowing the student to absorb the wisdom. So too, the concealment of the Divine energy (the tzimtzum), so necessary for existence to emerge, is not an end in itself but an act of compassion that will allow us – an autonomous entity – to unite with the Divine, step by step, on our terms.

    Here we have the answer to our initial question as to the nature of existence: Existence as we perceive it is actually a state of concealment. The deeper you travel into the intimate recesses of the human spirit the less tangible is the sensation, the fewer are the words, the less defined is the experience.

    In other words, the entire nature of existence is turned on its head, upside down and inside out: Our sensation of the revealed is actually a state of concealment, and that what is concealed is the true state of revelation. The visible is an artificial cover, and the invisible is true reality. This existence as we know it, as we perceive and experience it merely a shell, the surface layer that shrouds what lies behind the curtain.

    And the journey – and purpose – of our lives is not to be distracted by the outer mechanics, not to be deluded into thinking that there is nothing more than the outer shell. The objective of life is to weaken the hold of the concealment (justice) and reveal the compassion and revelation within.

    No person is immune to the forces of “justice” in this dark world. Our challenge is not to be overcome by the severer moments of life, and recognize the compassion even in the darker moments. Knowing that compassion is imbued into the very fabric of existence (or else the world could not have endured), becomes an eternal source of hope, giving us the strength to overcome any challenge.

    This is one of the main themes of Rosh Hashana, when we celebrate the birthday of the universe and its crown-jewel, the human being:

    One of the reasons for the Shofar blowing is to sweeten the severe judgments (hamtokot ha’gevurot), and transform them to forces of love and compassion. As the Midrash states, “When G-d is ready to judge He sits on the chair of judgment. But when the shofar is sounded, He rises from the chair of judgment and sits down in the chair of compassion, and He transforms the judgment to compassion” (Midrash Tehillim 47. Vayikra Rabba 29:3). As we say in the Rosh Hashana Musaf prayer: “Accept the shofar blast to change the Throne of Judgment for that of the Throne of Mercy.”

    The Shofar – a ram’s horn – is also a reminder of the ram that replaced Isaac whom Abraham bound and was prepared to offer to G-d. Which is why the Torah reading of the second day of Rosh Hashana is Akeidat Yitzchak—the binding and offering of Isaac (from Genesis 22). As the Talmud explains: “G-d said: ‘Sound before Me a shofar made of a ram’s horn that I may remember for your sake the offering of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and I will consider it as if you bound yourselves before Me’” (Rosh Hashana 16a). Indeed, according to the Midrash, the Akeidah actually took place on Rosh Hashana (Midrash, Pesikta Rabbasi, ch. 40. Zohar III 18a).

    Much has been written about the controversial episode of Abraham being ready to offer Isaac (see G-d Said to Abraham Kill me A Son). One of the explanations lays in the dynamics of the “justice” and “compassion” within existence:

    All the personalities in the Torah are quintessential archetypes of Divine virtues and human traits: Abraham represents the flow of love (chesed), and Isaac embodies the withholding energy of justice and discipline (gevurah). Abraham’s binding of Isaac was a Divine act in which Abraham transcended his own natural fatherly love to introduce an even deeper love by sweetening the severe judgments of Isaac; infusing the concealment with compassion. And in the merit of binding Isaac, the entire course of history was changed.

    The Divine compassion is very often concealed – deeply concealed – in our harsh world. Even with the sweetening of the severities through “binding of Isaac,” human history is a tragic testimony of far too many cruelties… One can only shudder to think what life would have been like without the “sweetening” of gevurah that momentous Rosh Hashana morning 3783 year ago on lonely Mt. Moriah.

    3783 years…

    And ever since we have blown shofar on Rosh Hashana to sweeten the severities and be spared from judgment.

    It’s awesome when you think about it: Despite all the traumas of history – the enslavements, the genocides, the massacres, the expulsions, the persecutions – despite it all, the Jews every Rosh Hashana, wherever they were, blew the Shofar, with absolute confidence that the ram’s horn, in merit of Abrahams’ ultimate sacrifice, would lighten and sweeten the severities.

    And sweetened they were. Today, 3783 years later, we live in a distinctly sweeter world.

    Yet, there are still gevurot (severities) to be overcome. So we prepare to sound the Shofar once again (even on Shabbat, when we don’t actually blow Shofar, Shabbat accomplishes the same thing), knowing that as we do so G-d “rises from the chair of judgment and sits down in the chair of compassion, and He transforms the judgment to compassion”

    All this power lies in the modest, unassuming blessing: Have a good and sweet year!

    The great Kabbalist, Reb Levik, explains: “Good” refers to revealed kindness (chesed), and “sweet” intimates the sweetening of the severities (gevurah).

    On my own behalf and on behalf of all of us here at the Meaningful Life Center, I want to thank you for all your warm blessings and wishes for the New Year, as well as for your generous support and partnership in our work.

    All those that bless shall be blessed says the Torah:

    May you and your loved ones be blessed with a good and sweet year!

  29. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Diane Elliot

    Dear Friends,

    As we approach the new moon of Tishrei–also known as Rosh HaShanah (Head of the Year), Yom Ha-Teru’ah (Day of the Great Shofar Blast), and Yom Harat Olam (Birthday of the World)–I offer two teachings on Teshuvah, the sacred art of return, one of the core practices of Judaism. It’s helpful to understand that the practice of Teshuvah is many-layered. It includes awakening to how we have fallen short of being what we could be, how we have hurt others and, in so doing, have hurt ourselves. It involves the recognition that we are all connected, that one cannot do damage to another without injuring oneself, and visa versa. And at its most essential level, the gift of Teshuvah reminds us of this overarching Truth: that, no matter how extreme our circumstances, no matter what we have done or failed to do, we are surrounded and supported in Love, and that we can always make the choice to see, hear, and reconnect with its Source.

    Blessings for a year of sweetness, peace, and truth,
    Rabbi Diane

    lulai heh-ehmanti lirot b’tuv-YHVH b’eretz khayyim

    Would that I might, through G~d’s goodness,

    perceive the Truth while in the land of the living!

    —Psalm 27:13

    When we’re in a state of unity, when we’re feeling high and connected with the Divine (for example, during prayer, love-making, listening to music, dancing, ecstatic moments in nature), we don’t need Teshuvah, purification, or free will. These three processes, all connected, come into being at the “moment of Creation”—that is, the moment at which the multiplicity of the World emerges from the undifferentiated Oneness of Eyn Sof. Thus, the origin of falsehood—that is, evil and impurity—can be directly traced to the separation from oneness.
    Free will is our ability to knowingly choose between good and bad, true and false, right and wrong, and to then act in accordance with what we have chosen. We can choose to love or hate, to be at peace or at war with ourselves or with others. When we human beings choose to deny or turn away from the Source of the World, then free will becomes a barrier, an obstacle preventing the world and everything in it from drawing life from its Source.
    In order for creation to continue drawing life-force, to avoid being cut off from its Source, we must choose again and again to reach from the midst of our lives in this world “back” to the level of “before creation,” to perceive and witness and unite with the Oneness which is the Tzur Olamim (the Rock of Worlds): the underlying vibration, the continuity of breath, the movement that continues ongoingly when all else becomes still.
    [adapted by R. Diane Elliot from Rebbe Nachmanof Bratzlav’s teaching “Mayim” (Water) in Likkutei Moharan I:51 and commentaries on it]

    “I am My Beloved’s and My Beloved is Mine”

    The initials of the month of Elul (aleph, lamed, vav, lamed), which stand for “Ani L’dodi v’Dodi Li, I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine,” are not a mere metaphor; rather they are the essence and substance of the Teshuvah of these 40 days (from the first of Elul to Yom Kippur).

    The matter of Teshuvah is a unique and very deep level of spiritual work that is required of us. As the Sages said (Babylonian Talmud, Brakhot: 34b): “No completely righteous person can stand at the level that a master of Teshuvah stands….” (This is because) the essence of Teshuvah is “Ani l’Dodi” (I am my Beloved’s), that is, a return to The Holy One of Blessing, a re-connection with the One, not only a return to being as before the sin.

    This is by virtue of giving yourself over to “Ani,” (Great Self), making your “I-ness” (ego) transparent to the Beloved, giving yourself over completely to HaShem, you and all that belongs to you—all your concerns, your desires, your passions….

    And this is the special, unique spiritual level of Teshuvah, as Rabbeynu Yonah wrote at the beginning of Gates of Teshuvah: “Teshuvah is among the goodnesses with which HaShem showered all creatures, preparing this way for them to rise up from the pit of their actions….”

    In other words, G~d who is good and who bestows goodness provides a path of Teshuvah through which people can rise up and expand themselves, not only achieving a state (of purity), as if they had not sinned, but lifted farther than before. So that after they have missed the mark, even in very base and humiliating ways, they emerge with spirits enlarged, as it says in Torah, “If I scan the heavens, there You are, and if I descend to the pit, behold—You!”

    [excerpted from Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky’s teaching on Elul, Netivot Shalom, pp. 241-242, translated by R. Diane Elliot]

  30. Wendy Post author

    From David Zaslow

    The Shofar
    by Rabbi David Zaslow

    First, we use the horn of a beast
    in order to become the beast;
    no intellect, submissive to its Master.
    Second, we become the horn itself.
    Not even a beast, but an inanimate horn
    to be blown by the blower
    just as we are blown into life.
    Third, we become the sound of the horn.
    Not even matter.
    But sound that fills great spaces
    and binds all objects and listeners
    just as the Holy One
    becomes the Holy Sound at Sinai that we hear.
    Fourth we become the air
    inside the sound.
    The silent air before it is blown
    into sound inside the horn of a beast.
    We become the silence
    of the Creator before creation.
    Last, we return.
    We become ourselves
    standing next to one another
    in the synagogue remembering
    what we had become,
    and where we had been.
    Only then can we hear the shofar:
    silence shaken into cries
    on a journey from one end
    of a bent beast’s horn to the other.
    On a journey somewhere between our hearing
    and the sounds we hear,
    somewhere between the blower
    and the shofar blown,
    somewhere between the Creator
    and ourselves;
    between ourselves and ourselves.
    And from such a Place,
    in such a moment, there is no boundary
    between the head and its horn,
    between the beast and its burden,
    between its cries and the silence beneath its cries.
    From such a Place
    we say we hear the shofar blown.
    And only then is the mitzvah fulfilled,
    as are we full and filled.
    We glance at each other knowingly,
    hearing the Sound
    through the horns of our own bent lives.
    We all hear the same cries:
    our own cries to our Maker.
    Our Maker’s cries to us.

  31. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Gershon Winkler

    Turning 5752
    A Teaching from Gershon…

    In a few weeks, we humans as we know us will turn 5,752 years old. Happy Birthday to us all. To celebrate this momentous occasion, we will immerse ourselves in special sacred rites and prayer across a period lasting close to a full month, beginning with the first of the Hebraic moon of Tish’rei, and closing a little more than three weeks later. The entire series was in ancient times referred to simply as Rosh Hashanah ראש השנה or “Head of the Year” (Ezekiel 40:1).

    It is as mysterious as it is intriguing that when you reverse the letters that spell Rosh Hashanah ראש השנה, you get שאר הנשה Sha’ar Ha’Nasheh, which is Hebrew for “The Remainder of What is Forgotten.”

    New Year resolutions are as old as the sun itself, and every Rosh Hashanah we try to make a few. The problem is that as humans we are not as capable of actually making them stick, and we often fall back into the very patterns we pledged to leave behind, and recall with vividness what we had intended to forget. Regardless of how hard and noble we try to renew ourselves and start fresh, there is always some remnant left over of what we had hoped was forgotten and what we assumed was stored away for good in inaccessible archives of the distant past. Why is this? Because, to move forward, to refresh, to renew, one needs to have what to move forward from, what to refresh and renew from. Otherwise, it is akin to an Olympic diver demanding that the lower diving boards be removed, as well as the edge of the pool itself from which he or she first learned to dive many years back. To do so would of course leave the high dive platform with no foundation, with nothing to stand on. Wherever we move to in our lives, we need to remember that we are moving there by virtue of where we had been until that point, each previous phase of our journey sprouted by the one that came before it. Our life walk is not fragmented into individualized compartments of failures and successes, foibles and achivements, but is rather one long, streaming road that goes on and on and on without a seam to be found anywhere. It is no wonder that the earliest reference to Rosh Hashanah included the word zee’karon, “Remembering” (Leviticus 23:23).

    “Out of a single carving shall it be made” (Exodus 25:36) was the most important instruction our ancestors were given in the desert 3300 years ago when they created the seven-branch Menorah. Like a tree, it was to be shaped out of a single entity, not several pieces welded together. Out of the One comes the many, and out of the many emerges the One. “Come forth from the four winds, O Single spirit, and breathe fresh life force into these who are slain, so that they may come alive!'” (Ezekiel 37:9).

    Rosh Hashanah, then, is more than the Jewish “New Year”. It is at the same time a reminder that renewal requires acceptance and acknowledgment of what was, of the remnant of that which we attempted to forget. It is a five-part festival of the harvest season during which we (1) examine where in our lives and in our fields we need to seed fresh growth [Rosh Hashanah], (2) weed out those parts of our selves and our fields that do not belong in our life walk and which only hinder our spiritual unfolding [Yom Kippur], (3) celebrate our essential selves and the basic gifts of the earth by returning to basics [Sukot], (4) conjure forth fresh waters of qualities and commitments to rebirth ourselves and our fields anew (Hoshanah Rabbah), and (5) have closure with what we wish to leave behind, not by destroying our past, but by transforming and incorporating our past, thus bundling our harvest and tying the bales with the very weeds we yanked out of our lives and fields at the onset (Sh’mee’nee Atzeret).

    It is by virtue of the mistakes we make that we come to the places of personal ennoblement. It is precisely by virtue of the evils we may have perpetuated yesterday that we have today the leverage to ascend to heights otherwise inaccessible.

    The 16th-century mystic Rabbi Yehudah Loew [MAHARAL] of Prague taught that Evil is powered by a capacity for its existence that is as divinely-rooted as is the capacity for the existence of Good. As the 18th-century Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azulai wrote: “It is the spark of holiness present even in evil that enables it to exist altogether” (Ohr Choch’mah, Vol. 2, folio 218a). The greater the degree of Evil, the MAHARAL continues, the greater the Good that that very Evil could become if reconfigured. No capacity, no capability is possible without being empowered by the divine root of all roots, so the greater the power drawn for wreaking wickedness the greater the power — that very same power — for channeling toward goodness.

    So, on Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge and accept our humanness. It is after all our birthday. We acknowledge our faults and we see also in them the link that they represented in bringing us to where we are now. On Yom Kippur, we nonetheless recognize that while what we did wrong yesterday has gifted us with our betterment today, we may in the process also have hurt someone along the way, and so we ask them to begin the process of forgiving us and acknowledge our vulnerability. On Sukot we celebrate our vulnerability, not as our weakness but as our strength, for it reminds us of our mortality, and how dependent we are on the Grace of God. And so we eat, sit, sleep, in a flimsy, vulnerable lean-to. On Hoshanah Rabbah we take the willow in hand and celebrate the gift of the water, the rains, the most vital element without which we cannot live, without which we cannot grow our food, and which itself is gifted to us not by the intermediary processes of our labor but directly from Creator. And on Sh’mee’nee Atzeret we rejoice and feast, dance and sing, in celebration of our newfound bounty in the form of renewed faith in self, God and Other.

    A Blessed New Year of Remembering

  32. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman

    ‘Who by Fire, Who by Water’: Is our fate determined on Yom Kippur?
    By Lawrence A. Hoffman · September 1, 2010

    NEW YORK (JTA) — High on the list of Jewish martyr stories still retold, or at least alluded to, every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the terrible medieval tale of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. For refusing to appear before the Bishop of Regensburg, who had requested that Amnon become a Christian, he had his limbs hacked off. What was left of him was arrayed alongside his severed parts and returned home in time for Rosh Hashanah.

    As the chazan reached the climax of services that day, Amnon interrupted with a beautiful liturgical poem, and was promptly transported to his heavenly abode. Three days later he appeared to the saintly Rabbi Kalonymos to teach him the poem and instruct him to spread it everywhere.

    That poem, the Un’taneh Tokef, today is a centerpiece of the High Holy Days liturgy.

    So goes the story, which is still told annually in many a synagogue before Un’taneh Tokef and its two-fold message: First, that “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water … who by earthquake, who by plague [and so forth]”; but second, that “penitence, prayer, and charity” can somehow alleviate the hardship of the decree.

    It is hard to know which is more troubling: the prayer or the story of its authorship. “Who by Fire, Who by Water” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), the first volume in the “Prayers of Awe” series, chronicles the fascinating controversy that surrounds them both.

    The problem with the prayer is that it seems patently scandalous. Was the fate of the 9/11 victims predetermined on the prior Yom Kippur? Did they die because they were insufficiently penitent, prayerful or charitable?

    The problem with the story is that it is hardly a message that inaugurates a new year with spiritual promise. Besides, it is pure fiction — there never was a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. “aMNoN” is a rearrangement of the letters in the Hebrew Ne’eMaN, “faithful.” This is a morality tale of a putative “Rabbi Faithful” who stood fast in the face of adversity.

    The poem probably was composed as early as the fifth or sixth century by a Byzantine Jewish genius named Yannai, who symbolized anything but Jewish martyrdom in the face of inhuman persecution. Yannai personified a Jewish literary efflorescence rarely matched in the millennium-and-a-half following.

    Perhaps the story we should be telling every Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish potential for artistic brilliance, Judaism as a well of creative potential, not Judaism as the religion of the persecuted masses. Un’taneh Tokef illustrates classic liturgical poetry at its best, an abundance of biblical and rabbinic allusions wed to clever Hebrew wordplay and alliterative excellence.

    But what about the poem’s troubling message? While the first half of “Who by Fire, Who by Water” provides the truly stunning story behind the myth and the poem (alongside an annotated translation of both), the second half elicits commentaries from some 40 thoughtful contributors who tell us how they handle the poem’s message.

    Here, arguing over the poem’s merits, are rabbis and laypeople; men and women from all denominations of Jewish life (some of them artists, writers, scholars, teachers and musicians); from around the world and spanning generations. Prayer book editors from Europe and North America wrangle over whether to include it, fudge its message or trash it. Modern feminist and professor Wendy Zierler surveys Un’taneh Tokef as a theme in modern literature.

    Israeli professor Dalia Marx recalls how the poem emerged anew as a symbol of Israelis dying in the Yom Kippur War of her youth. Bible professor Marc Brettler provides the biblical backdrop for the poem, and several writers subject it to literary analysis, exposing its very many poetic virtues.

    Author and scholar Erica Brown plays with the image of God as writer of our fate: What kind of writing would God prefer? Fiction? Journalism? Scholarship? “Who shall live and who shall die? The answer is ‘Me!’” concludes Rabbi Edward Feinstein, in his insistence that Un’taneh Tokef speaks directly to our most cherished illusion — that we are in charge of our fate, when in fact we are painfully out of control.

    Isn’t that the whole point of the High Holy Days, delivered, in Rabbi David Stern’s judgment, “with the poetic force of a two-by-four”?

    But still, does God really work that way? Does the God of Judaism write real-life obituaries in advance, not just fiction, journalism or whatever?

    No, says Rabbi Delphine Horveilleur of Paris, the very idea is unpalatable. The poem’s theology is “infantilizing.” But it is a poem, with all the complexities of Shakespeare, Keats or Cummings, and requiring all the interpretation they do. It may not even be about God at all, so much as it is about us.

    Perhaps the poem’s real climactic claim is that even though “our origin is dust and our end is dust,” we yet carry God’s name in our very being.

    “We are part of something everlasting,” says Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.

    Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig concurs: “We may write books, create foundations, generate ideas, found or revitalize synagogues that will nurture generations long after we have died.”

    Both the poem’s authorship and its message matter profoundly. Which Jewish type we emphasize, Amnon the martyr or Yannai the poet, will determine what Judaism we hand to the next generation.

    The dizzying panoply of commentaries gathered here ask and answer the core religious questions of our time: Who is God? What is fate? How do humans matter? What spiritual truths can carry us forward when mortality’s harsh reality becomes finally unavoidable?

  33. Wendy Post author

    Rosh Hashanah 5770 September 18 – September 20, 2009

    “Judgment and Compassion”
    by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
    President, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA
    The Kabbalists teach that there are ten energetic qualities that permeate a human being, each of which when used properly, or in a combination, have merit. Among these energies is the quality of Gevurah- Judgment, Severity, Withholding or Carefulness. There are times when we must be cautious, set limits and say “no” in our response. Our ancestor, Isaac, epitomized this quality in this world as he was almost sacrificed by his loving father Avraham, and learned through fear and trembling that in order to survive and grow one must be capable of cautiousness and judgment for if not, after all, “one can get killed.”

    Our Sages teach that during certain seasons, it is more appropriate to express certain energies and limit the expression of others. During the month of Elul through the High Holy Day season, our task is to move from the realm of Gevurah to the realm of Chesed- Kindness and Compassion; for as the Sages put it, if G-d were to be angry and judgmental toward us during this season of evaluation who would survive?

    So how do we move psychologically and spiritually from the realm of Judgment to the realm of Compassion? Our Sages have set up behavioral tasks, both requirements of Jewish Law and ethical exhortations, to help us accompany this important shift within. Let us just focus on four customs that each of us can implement during the forty-day period from the first of Elul to Yom Kippur. Every morning there is a Shofar blowing after morning services that we are to listen to. This awakens us to our task, it enters our soul and calls us to accomplish our spiritual duties, to live out our dream rather than dream away our lives. This Shofar brings us back to Mt. Sinai with the knowledge that G-d awaits our return patiently and lovingly and is always there for us. It also encourages us to follow a spiritual path and let go of the material servitude that has caused us to lose our way. When we pray with a minyan who are all engaged in this task of awakening, all engaged in movement toward loving kindness, it is a powerful influence.

    Second, the Sages mention three more duties to be engaged in during this season to help us accomplish our spiritual task of movement from Judgment to Compassion: Teshuva, (repentance), Tefilla (prayer), and Tzedaka (acts of charity). Teshuva forces us to take a hard look at our judgments, at our anger, face the reasons for our feelings, take responsibility for our part in the situation enabling us to feel more compassionate through our greater awareness and eventually to reach out and find reconciliation with others and G-d. Tefilla enables us to overcome anger and judgment through emotional expression. When we pour our hearts out to G-d, and release our anger, we are usually more ready to be compassionate and forgiving. Finally, Tzedaka, the act of giving itself, behaviorally moves us from anger to compassion. We train ourselves to give and we become givers. We also interact with people who need our giving and become interconnected and compassionate toward them.

    May G-d give us the strength during this season to overcome our severe spiritual judgment toward ourselves, and toward others so that we can implement the psycho-spiritual task of this season to learn to be compassionate as G-d is to G-d’s children. Shana Tova!

  34. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Gershon Winkler

    A Teaching from Gershon…

    There is this strange concept in ancient Jewish wisdom: You cannot fill a vessel
    that is empty. Only if it’s got something in it, of any quantity. To receive Blessing
    you need a “Vessel capable of grasping Blessing”, the ancients insisted, for “Less
    grasps More” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 5:7). This seems puzzling on the
    surface of it because why else would I be in need of Blessing if I weren’t running
    on empty? It is precisely because I am lacking that I am in need. So if I am
    empty, please fill me up! Hello!!

    Let me tell you a story.

    About 2800 years ago, there was a great Jewish prophet named Elisha. He was the
    foremost disciple of the prophet Elijah (Eliyahu), and he was a seasoned miracle-
    worker, a real true-blue shaman. One day a guy comes to share some bread with him,
    and Elisha instructs his aide to share the bread with everyone. The aide looks around at
    the several hundred people gathered around the prophet and says, “No way. There are
    only like twenty loaves here.” And Elisha again insists that he share the bread with
    everyone. So the aide goes around, and lo and behold the loaves of bread multiply and
    keep multiplying until everyone in the crowd has been fed (Second Kings, 4:42-44).

    So he was that kind of guy.

    Well, one day, a widow who had fallen on very hard times came to Elisha to seek his
    help. She had lost everything, was very poor, and in deep debt, to the point that she
    was going to have to offer her sons as indentured servants unless some miracle
    occurred soon. Elisha then asked her “What do you have in your home?” She says, “I
    have nothing in my home other than a teeny-tiny drop of oil.” Says Elisha, “Go to your
    neighbors and borrow from them as many empty vessels as you can. Then go home,
    shut the door behind you, and pour that teeny-tiny drop of oil into all the vessels.” The
    woman went to her neighbors and with the help of her sons schlepped dozens of empty
    vessels to her home, then went inside, shut the door behind her, and began filling all of
    them with oil as her teeny-tiny drop of oil miraculously swelled into gallons and gallons
    until she ran out of vessels. Elisha then instructed her to sell the oil, which she did, and
    soon she recouped financially and lived happily ever after (Second Kings, 4:1-7).

    The Zohar teaches us the following about Blessing, that Blessing is drawn to us from
    Above by what we already possess if we cherish the gift of what we already have.
    When we cherish what we do have, no matter how little of it we possess, the
    appreciation itself is potent enough to draw further blessing from the Root of all
    Blessing. This is why, when that poverty-stricken woman came to the prophet Elisha
    seeking his help, he didn’t ask her what it was that she lacked. Rather, he asked her what it was that she already had, that she didn’t lack, that she cherished already
    having. Her reply sounded pathetic: “I have nothing in the house. Well, I do have a
    smidgen of oil” – which the Zohar elaborates on, “Meaning, just enough to spread
    across the tip of her finger”. Elisha’s reply, the Zohar elaborates, was: “Oh! You have
    consoled me. I was worried you might feel like you have nothing at all. But what you
    acknowledge that you do have is more than enough to draw Blessing from Above”
    (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 88a). In other words, you took the time and effort to look beyond
    the obvious scenario of your situation to uncover the hidden, the blessings in your life
    that were overlooked, overshadowed by your problems.

    The woman could have said, “I have nothing whatsoever.” Because what is a smidgen
    of oil? But since she demonstrated her awareness of even so little being precious
    enough to consider as a blessing of some degree – it sufficed to draw down further
    blessings of further degrees, enough to fill all of the pots and pans that she had
    borrowed from her neighbors.

    Great teaching. In order to invite more of what you need, you must first come to grips
    with what you already have, and acknowledge the gift of it, even if it’s just the shirt off
    your back, or your health, or enough of your health to move around, and so on – even
    if you have absolutely nothing at all but peace, it’s a good start, “for there is no greater
    vessel capable of grasping Blessing than Peace” (Midrash Bamid’bar Rabbah 21:1). It’s
    like the Kabbalistic take on Creation, that the fledgling primeval universe was
    completely empty, and therefore when the Light of Creation entered it, it exploded, it
    shattered, because it was not a “Vessel capable of grasping Blessing” – having

    nothing within it. Shattered, it became filled with the sparks of the Light of
    Creation that it failed to contain, and thus, by becoming filled with something,
    even the debris of the implosion, it became a vessel capable of receiving the
    subsequent unfolding of existence as we came to know it.

    Blessing is primarily drawn not by virtue of what is obvious to us that we have, but to
    what is not obvious to us that we have (Talmud, Baba Kama 42a). What is conspicuous
    to us, is in that moment measured, large, small, worth five dollars, worth three dollars,
    worth a buck fifty, great, not so great, etc. On the other hand, taught the 16th-century
    Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague, what we have that is not right off obvious to us is in
    the realm of the immeasurable and draws Blessing because Blessing is immeasurable as
    it emanates from the realm of the Infinite as opposed to the Finite, “For the eye casts
    boundaries and limitations, whereas Blessings are without either” ( _Maharal in Chidushei
    Aggadot_, Vol. 3, folio 21).

    This is an exercise that requires us to look deep inside our life situations, to seek out
    what gifts we have been in possession of all along but have been oblivious to all this
    time. This takes effort, this takes introspection. “The Blessing Flow from Above comes
    to us in strengths and quantities commensurate with our desires and efforts to draw it
    Below. This is akin to breast milk, abundant and ready to flow forth, but dependent

    upon how determined the infant is in suckling” (Kitzur Sefer Yo’nat Ilem, No. 122). The
    widow in the story of Elisha did not stop at declaring that she had nothing in the house.
    She stayed with the question, examined deeply her situation to see if there was
    anything of any value in the house, and remembered that there was a teeny-tiny drop
    of something worth being thankful for.

    The Hebraic New Year 5771 is almost upon us, sneaking up on us earlier than usual this
    year. What an auspicious time to examine Blessing in our lives. Often we become
    frustrated and skeptical around this time that promises renewal in the year to come.
    And then the new year comes, and it’s same-old, same-old. Perhaps that is because we
    expended so much energy and intention praying for a better year than we had without
    really examining the good stuff that came to us during the past year, the Blessings.
    Instead, we skimp right over all the wonderful things that happened and pray for
    something better. This Rosh Hashanah, it would be refreshing for a change to spend a
    little time being thankful for whatever went right this past year and only then praying
    for a good year ahead. By so doing, we will create in our lives “A Vessel Capable of
    Grasping Blessing.”

    Like the ancient rabbis taught: Before you ask God for what you lack, thank God for
    what you have (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 2:1).

  35. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Miles Krassen 5767

    Rosh HaShanah

    Three Precious Secrets for Overcoming the Law of Strict Judgment (Karma)

    Dearest Friends,

    On behalf of each and every one of us, please join me in praying for Peace. (Psalms 122:9).

    The Day we have been preparing for since the 15th of Av is finally arriving. The New Moon of Tishri, on which we celebrate Rosh HaShanah, falls this year on Shabbat. Our tradition teaches that on every Shabbat, the entire world is raised to a higher spiritual level. This year, when Shabbat and Rosh HaShanah coincide, the ascending energy is even more auspicious.

    We celebrate the Beginning of Creation on Rosh HaShanah, but there is a famous Talmudic debate, concerning whether the world began around the spring equinox in the month of Aviv, or around the fall equinox in the month Tishri. (See B.T. Rosh HaShanah 11a). Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev explains that we have these two views, because our Jewish Wisdom tradition is one of the oldest examples of integral spirituality and includes two complementary processes.

    The existence, maintenance, and renewal of our world depend on what the kabbalists call Or Yashar (Direct Light) and Or Chozer (Returning Light). In the spring, when the month of Aviv begins with the first two letters of the alphabet, we experience the direct light of involution. The miracle of new creation appears before our very eyes as signs of spring emerge directly from the Divine Source. In the month of Aviv, we receive a new infusion to carry us through the spring and hot summer. With the fall new moon of Tishri, whose letters begin with the end of the alphabet and go in reverse order, we experience the secret of evolution, the process of returning to the Source of all beginnings. The reverse order of the letters alludes to the process of retracing the path of emanation back to the letter, “Yod.”

    The Hebrew letters TiSHRY alert us that the time has come to see through any sense of being permanently stuck, condemned within the limitations of the previous year’s identity and self-image. On Rosh HaShanah, we have the unique opportunity to begin a return to a state of indeterminate possibilities within our source in the YOD, Hokhmah (Wisdom). As the verse says, Wisdom is found in the place where we are completely transparent to the Divine Source. (Job 28:12).

    When we return to our Wisdom, which is so much deeper than anything we may think we are, we are able to see divinity more clearly. We can recognize that at the very root of Divine Manifestation G-d is El Rachum ve-Chanun, (the Power of Unlimited Compassion and Kindness). Throughout this sacred period, we repeatedly pull ourselves up to this highest level of manifest Divinity, by invoking this most Holy Name:

    El Rachum ve-Chanun…

    As the Berditchever Rebbe teaches us, generally we think dualistically about ourselves and our lives and we pray that despite our shortcomings, we will be favored with rav chesed (unconditional love). But on Rosh HaShanah, we rise above our limited individualities with their various stages of development and understanding. The view we regain when we return to our Wisdom source transcends the conflicting modes of dispensing divine justice. Beyond the polarities of limited understanding and strict justice vs. unconditional love, we find G-d, El Rachum ve-Chanun, always awaiting our return.

    At the level of Keter (the Crown of Divinity), we are awed by this recollection that Divinity cannot fail to forgive us, because a Power that is Rachum ve-Chanun cannot really bear to witness another’s suffering.

    On Rosh HaShanah Be-ing assures us: I will surely conceal My own concealment… (Devarim 31:18).

    Rebbe Moshe Chayyim of Sudilkov used to prepare for Rosh HaShanah, by meditating on his Grandfather, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s, parable of the labyrinth:

    Once a King decided to test his subjects’ understanding and devotion, so he built an elaborate labyrinth around the Palace. Whoever wanted to see the King had to find her way through the labyrinth. At each stage, there were both frightening deterrents and alluring treasures. Although many set out to reach the King, none was able to succeed. Either they were too frightened by the obstacles or too distracted by the treasures. Finally, one came who simply would not settle for anything but finding the King. When she succeeded, she realized that the labyrinth was illusory. Nothing had ever really prevented her from reaching her goal.

    Rise up and shine, because your light is returning… (Isaiah 60:1).

    When a light is brought to a dark place, all the darkness disappears. The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that learning the Torah of the labyrinth has the power to overcome all our confusion concerning who we are and what G-d is. Guided by the light of our souls, we can make our way through all of the illusory obstacles that separate us from El Rachum ve-Chanun.

    What separates us from this illumination? Our sages teach us that only our identification with habitual patterns of behavior condemns us to imagining that we are separate from our divine soul. Behind all of the illusory aspects of the labyrinth of our experience, G-d is always there for us as El Rachum ve-Chanun. Be-ing blesses us with the great Karma-breaking practice of the Ten days of Teshuvah: ten days that return us to alignment with the One.

    As a sure method for overriding the karmic law of judgment, the rabbis teach us Three Precious Secrets: teshuvah (returning our awareness to the Shekhinah), tefillah (expressing the deepest concerns of our Heart while resting in the Divine Presence) and Tzedakah (contributing our resources in support of causes that connect us to El Rachum ve-Chanun).

    Reb Nossen of Nemerov teaches us in the name of his Rebbe, Reb Nachman of Breslov, how teshuvah and tefillah are directly related. The essence of teshuvah, is when the Torahs that we learn become our prayers. Just hearing some nice teachings isn’t enough to really transform us. As long as Torah remains a head trip, it’s not powerful enough to overcome our karma. Only when we take the teaching in so deeply that we feel it in our Hearts, is its power to override karma released. We open the hidden place in our Hearts where El Rachum ve-Chanun is dis-covered. In that discovery is the Divine Power that can heal any split, see through the illusory labyrinth of separation from divinity, and override any karmic judgment.

    The more we discover El Rachum ve-Chanun in our Hearts, the more our prayer life echoes the Psalm that we have been saying the entire month of Elul:

    My only prayer is to remain continuously aware, discerning the Pleasantness of Be-ing everywhere, from the vantage point of the (King’s) Palace. (Psalms 27:4).

    The third precious secret for neutralizing our karmic debts is tzedakah: supporting righteous causes. This is effective when our Hearts are so opened by teshuvah and tefillah that we are ready to do something to help reveal El Rachum ve-Chanun in this precious and holy world.

  36. Wendy Post author

    From Rabbi Rachel Bareblat
    Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5765

    The word we hear most often at this time of year may be teshuvah. My dictionary translates it as “answer, reply; return, repentance.” Some translate it as “atonement,” or “turning-toward-God.”

    As a kid, I learned that teshuvah happens during the Days of Awe. I was instructed to find everyone I might have offended in the previous year and seek their forgiveness. That practice has its root in the Talmud, which argues that for a sin committed against God, prayer and repentance can atone, but for a sin committed against another person, forgiveness must be secured from that other person before the prayer and repentance can do their work with God.

    But there’s more to teshuvah than apologizing to people one might have wronged. It goes deeper than that.

    Teshuvah is a process of cleaning. Imagine a windowpane which hasn’t been washed in a year. It’s dusty; it’s dirty; it’s grimy. Maybe it’s festooned with cobwebs. Maybe it’s muddied. Though the sun may be shining outside that window, light won’t penetrate until the glass has been made clear. Each of us is a windowpane, and though God is shining, we can’t see that until we take the time to clear away what’s clouding our vision.

    Or imagine a small pond that boots have walked through, where animals have splashed around and stirred up the silt. Although the waters are naturally clean and pure, agitation makes them muddy. Each of us is a pond, and we want to be clean and clear, able to discern the source of light shining into us, still enough that rays of light can penetrate all the way to bedrock.

    The mystics teach that the heart’s desire is to come face-to-face with God. This goes deeper than the intellect; this is the desire of the neshama, the soul. The purpose of teshuvah is to prepare ourselves to fulfil that deepest desire of the soul, to turn towards God.

    And we can’t turn towards God until we’ve done our own spiritual housecleaning. Apologizing to people we’ve hurt is a good piece of that, but it’s not the whole process. This is a time to ask oneself: what patterns am I re-enacting with the people in my life which are hurtful or which obscure what’s really important? This is a time to ask oneself: how am I letting my own issues get in the way of relating the way I want to relate? This is a time to ask oneself: is my ego preventing me from being the person I want to be?

    A surface reading of the Days of Awe tells us that this is the season to repent of our sins so that we can atone on Yom Kippur. But the English word “repent” carries different connotations than teshuvah; and “sin” carries different connotations than chet. Chet is an archery term meaning “missing the mark.” (As it happens, “Torah” can also be read as an archery term-which can be translated as aiming-toward-wisdom.)

    It’s not that if we sin less, we’ll be closer to God: rather, when we become aware of ourselves as close to God, we’ll be less apt to miss the mark. But how do we become attuned to God? How do we purify ourselves? How do we learn to face in the right direction?

    Traditionally, we learn to face in the right direction by reading Torah. The Ahavat Olam prayer tells us that Torah is our proof of how much God loves us, which may sound a little bit like a backhanded compliment but really isn’t meant that way. The mystics teach that the Torah is our ketubah, sign of the eternal commitment we made with God at Sinai. Maybe the Torah has answers.

    Sometimes the Torah does have answers. But other times…not so much. Today’s Torah portion isn’t an easy one to draw clear teachings from.

    The more I read this portion, the more questions I have. Near as I can tell, they’re the same ones commentators have been asking for centuries: Why does God ask this thing? Does God ask it, or is Abraham hearing the wrong voices? Why doesn’t Abraham talk back, as he does when God wants to do away with Sodom and Gemorrah? Why doesn’t Abraham explain anything to Isaac? Why doesn’t Isaac cry out when he’s bound to the altar? What does it mean that the angel calls Abraham’s name twice to stay his hand? What goes through Abraham and Isaac’s heads during this macabre scene? Why is Sarah absent?

    The first line of the portion tells us that God put Abraham to the test. If the test was the binding, and potential sacrifice, of Isaac, did Abraham pass? Was he supposed to go through with it? Was he supposed to resist? What was he supposed to do…and what are we supposed to learn from it?

    Historically, the dominant interpretation has been that Abraham passed the test by being willing to sacrifice what he loved most. That’s a common reading outside Jewish tradition, too; Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is an extended wrestle with that idea. Kierkegaard decided that the absurdity of the world requires a leap of faith. For him, the story is about submission to God’s will, and binding Isaac for sacrifice was a sign of Abraham’s faith.

    But that’s not the only interpretation. Others have argued that binding Isaac was an instance of Abraham’s failure; that he blew it, he should have talked back. Right after this story, the Torah tells us that Sarah died; midrash holds that she died as soon as she heard what Abraham had been willing to do, because her horror was so great. The Talmud states that a command by a prophet in God’s name to uproot God’s law should not be obeyed; maybe Abraham wasn’t supposed to obey because God’s instruction here clearly goes against halakhah. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has suggested that God was unhappy with Abraham for his eagerness to obey the command to slaughter Isaac, and that’s why God never spoke to him again after the Akedah.

    There’s a third interpretation. This one says Abraham was stalling for time. God gives him a one-line instruction, and Abraham takes days to get to the critical moment. He cuts his wood slowly. He loads his animals slowly. He plods as slowly as he can toward the mountains. In this reading, Abraham takes as long as he can because he knows, or hopes, that God will intercede. He never meant to kill Isaac; that’s why he told his servants, “the boy and I…will worship and return to you.” If it had come down to the last second, he would have stayed his own hand-but would have walked down the mountain having lost faith in a God Who would ask such a thing and genuinely expect him to do it. In this reading, Abraham is also testing God.

    In that case, what do we do with the angel’s statement, “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son from Me?” It’s that since that gives us trouble. Biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky believes we can translate the line differently: “Indeed I know you are a God-fearer-but (now) you have not held back your son from me.” In other words, “Abraham, I know you’re righteous, so why didn’t you act like it?”

    The angel who speaks up at the end of the story doesn’t seem to take these nuances into account. Then again, our tradition regards angels as essentially single-minded. They don’t grapple with the yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, the good and evil inclinations, as we do; they can’t know the capacity of a human heart. Angels exist to obey; they don’t wrestle with questions like “what did God really mean by that?” In Judaism, angels are literalists.

    Some scholars have also argued that the end of the story, which is written in a different style from the rest of it, might be a later addition: it might have been added after the fall of the Temple. Without the second angel’s tidy little speech, the story is much more ambiguous. That last paragraph might be the first-ever commentary on the original story; just one so old that it’s been incorporated into the text itself.

    Lipmann Bodoff wrote that Abraham’s real challenge was acting as though the worst were going to happen, while knowing in his heart that it wouldn’t. He compares it to the bravery shown by the Israelites walking into the Sea of Reeds. There’s a midrash which says the waters didn’t part until they had entered up to their necks; it looked like the Israelites would drown. But despite the available evidence, they knew in their hearts that God would keep His redemptive promises. And so did Abraham.

    Then again, maybe we’re focusing on the wrong part of the story. This portion isn’t called “The Testing of Abraham”-it’s called “The Binding of Isaac.” Maybe this is a story about Isaac’s acceptance of what binds him…and the paradox that as he accepts being bound, so he is freed by a new way out which nobody saw beforehand. Maybe we should emulate Isaac and acknowledge that we too are bound, knowing that struggling against our limitations only makes the ropes tighter, that the only way out is through. Maybe in binding ourselves to our tradition, we can achieve freedom from attachment, and what seemed like self-sacrifice will suddenly become clear as liberation.

    The tricky thing about this story is that it supports all of these interpretations. The moral of the story could be, we should submit to the will of God. The moral of the story could be, people do terrible things to their children in the name of faith.

    In this story Isaac might be a boy, or he might be a grown man; he might be a silent weakling, or he might be exercising tremendous strength of will. Abraham might be a maniac willing to do anything God asks (after all, he would have been “just following orders”), or he might be a wise man who stalled for time until God sent the ram to reward his reticence.

    We don’t know which interpretation is right, or which is true. It seems unfair, somehow, that the Torah-which is supposed to provide guidance, to help us live sanctified lives-is so unclear on this. The story is there, but Torah doesn’t tell us what to make of it. So where do we go?

    One place to go from here is up.

    Imagine a tower that stretches infinitely high into the heavens. Inside the tower is a spiral staircase, with landings on every floor; at each landing, there’s a window. The view from the lowest window is different from the view on the fifth floor, or the tenth, or the hundredth. As we climb the stairs and pause at the different levels, we see new things. Where on the ground floor we saw earth and stones, from the tenth floor we can gaze out over the landscape. After a long while we see stars. Maybe even galaxies. Eventually something vaster than we can imagine: what the mystics call the ein-sof, literally “without-end.”

    The view is different from different landings, but that view is always God. God is everywhere; maybe hard to see from the “lower” levels, but there nonetheless. What changes, as we work to ascend that tower, is us. As we ascend we become able to see more of God…but God is fully there on every floor.

    Engaging with Torah is another way of looking out those windows. Depending on what window we’re looking through, we’ll find different things in the story of the Akedah. Maybe it’s ambiguous for a reason: because the process of studying it is itself a way of learning to see God in difficult places.

    What’s important is that we’re climbing the tower in the first place. That we want to find God in our lives, and in our texts, even if the process seems circular or seems like a lot of work.

    Learning to see God through all of our windows is a lot of work. It takes focus, and life is full of distractions. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our daily lives, emotional entanglements and personal challenges. To become cloudy, like that pond that’s been walked-through.

    And that’s okay; that’s human. Judaism doesn’t teach renunciation of the world: we’re supposed to sanctify ordinary life, not withdraw from it. The process of teshuvah helps us look around, remember where we are and where we want to be going, and take one more step toward the next window, the next insight, the next face of God.

    May your year be full of windows and insights. And may you be blessed with the willingness to seek God wherever you go, knowing that what you’re looking for is right there, waiting to be found.


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