Bob Schwartz

Tag: Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Abraham Joshua Heschel on Repentance

In the realm of spirit, there is no difference between a second and a century, between an hour and an age. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch cried: “There are those who gain eternity in a lifetime, others who gain it in one brief hour.” One good hour may be worth a lifetime; an instant of returning to God may restore what has been lost in years of escaping from Him. “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life in the world to come.” (Avot 4:22)
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

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Ohigan, Rosh Hashanah and Autumn: The Other Shore

“The goal of our life’s effort is to reach the other shore, Nirvana. Prajna paramita, the true wisdom of life, is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached.”
— Shunryu Suzuki

These days in September, three celebrations coincide: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; Ohigan, the twice-yearly Japanese celebration of the equinox; the autumn equinox itself.

One way to harmonize these is to look first at Ohigan. The name literally means “other shore”, and is taken two ways. There are the ancestors honored who have crossed over to the other shore. And there is the crossing over to enlightenment, on the path of the paramitas (perfections): giving (dāna), morality (śīla), patience or forbearance (kṣānti), effort (vīrya), concentration (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajñā).

Then there is Rosh Hashanah, the Birthday of the World, the start of Ten Days of Awe, during which through teshuva (turning), tefilla (prayer) and tzedaka (righteousness) we emerge by the time of Yom Kippur on the other shore as newer people in a new year.

It is autumn again. Summer is left behind again. We can live with giving, morality, patience, effort, concentration, or wisdom, or not. We hope at least to arrive safely on the other shore of winter, maybe more enlightened or newer.

Rosh Hashanah: Tashlich

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the custom of tashlich is to throw bread into a body of water, casting your sins away. (When no natural body of water is available, a well or even a bucket has been known to do.)

A passage from Micah is recited:

What god can compare with you; taking fault away,
pardoning crime,
not cherishing anger for ever
but delighting in showing mercy?
Once more have pity on us
tread down our faults
to the bottom of the sea
throw all our sins.
Micah 7:18-19, Jerusalem Bible translation

Fault, crime, anger, sins. Ourselves and others. Pardoning, mercy, pity. Hard for ourselves and others. And as delightful as ducks and fish eating bread on the lake.

Rosh Hashanah

If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix.
If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)

Shana Tova! (A Good Year)

Selichot, Angels and Heschel

I lit a candle
For the care of those
In the storm’s way
The light answered:
It is up to you.

The Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, on Wednesday evening, September 20. In preparation for that, on Saturday night, September 16, are the prayers and contemplation of Selichot.

I’ve written before about a controversial Selichot prayer, Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyers of Compassion):

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

The controversy is theological and has gone on for centuries, with the prayer being redacted and even deleted among some Jewish communities and traditions. Machnisei Rachamim asks angels to serve as intermediaries for prayer, and some claim that this is wholly inconsistent with the Jewish theology of an unintermediated and direct line between Jews and God. One contemporary rabbi who opposes it claims that its continued recitation is a symptom of Judaism becoming “too spiritual.”

Rather than weighing in on this dispute, and being a Jew who is probably “too spiritual” for some (that is, whether it is angels, saints or bodhisattvas, humankind needs all the spiritual help it can get), I turned to the greatest of modern Jewish theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, for some thoughts on angels. I found this story he told, which is not only about angels, but about the Torah portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the akeda, the binding of Isaac.

At a Vietnam War protest in 1967, Heschel talked about being a child in Poland, learning about the akeda from his rabbi. Heschel said:

“Isaac was on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. There he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat very fast. I actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife and how my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard, ‘Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad for now I know that thou fearest God.’ And here I broke into tears and wept aloud. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked my rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’ I said to him, still weeping, ‘But rabbi, suppose the angel had come a second too late!’ The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot ever come too late.”

And then Heschel said: “An angel cannot come too late, my friends, but we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late”

The Book of Life (Days of Awe)

The Book of Life (Days of Awe)

Who writes
Who reads
The sentences
In careful paragraphs and chapters
That follow ancient codes?
Or the disjointed scrawl,
Random and indecipherable,
No system at all?
The contest is closing in days.
Who judges the book,
By what rules?
How will we know
If we win or lose?
Another new year growing old,
Another life on the shelf.

Days of Awesome: Day 1 (Rosh Hashanah)

 

I brought them out of the land of Egypt and I led them into the wilderness. I gave them My laws and taught them My rules, by the pursuit of which a man shall live. Moreover, I gave them My sabbaths to serve as a sign between Me and them, that they might know that it is I the Lord who sanctify them.
Ezekiel 20:10-12 (New Jewish Publication Society translation)

Note from The Jewish Study Bible:

The Sabbath is the foundational sign of the covenant (Exod. 20.8–11; 31.12–17). Scholars have suggested that the Sabbath became particularly significant in the exile, as holy time replaced the vacuum of holy space (the Temple); this might explain why the Sabbath plays such a significant role here. As in Exod. 31.13, 17 (from the Priestly tradition), it is viewed as a sign, namely a symbol acknowledging God as Creator.

Here we are confronted with the phenomenon at the heart of this holiday. At the heart of every holiday. At the heart of religion and reality itself. We are concerned with space. We are concerned with being. We are concerned with time too. But we may not be properly concerned, in a balanced way that accounts for time, space and being.

We can rule space, or at least pretend to. If you visit New York or other great cities, you see how people have shaped space to their liking and purposes. But where in New York or elsewhere have even the richest and most powerful ultimately shaped time? We can mark time, but do we understand? To help us understand, time is set aside. It may be by God, it may be by our society or community, it may be by and for those close to us.

The Sabbath each week, and the Days of Awe each year, are set aside to be different than the other days of the week or of the year. Different in fact than any other days of eternity. In part to remind us of present eternity.

For more, see The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel and The Time-Being by Zen Master Dogen, which can be found in Enlightenment Unfolds.

This is the first post in a very small project/experiment in random wisdom I call The Days of Awesome. In addition to the standard and traditional forms of worship and contemplation associated with the Jewish High Holy Days (also known as Days of Awe), each day of the holiday I will be studying a randomly selected chapter of the Tanakh (also known as the Jewish Bible or the Old Testament), which has 39 books containing a total of 929 chapters.

Among other things, this is inspired by the I Ching and by social theorist and philosopher Gregory Bateson, who is quoted as saying “I am going to build a church someday. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.”

Live Streaming: High Holy Days at Central Synagogue

Central Synagogue

Central Synagogue in New York is one of the great synagogues and congregations in America.

If you are not attending High Holy Days services in-person anywhere, for whatever reason (don’t usually attend, not convenient, not Jewish, etc.), here is your opportunity to join in the services at Central Synagogue. Without leaving the comfort of wherever you have your PC, tablet or phone. For as little or as long a visit as you like.

Central Synagogue live streams its services. Here is just a partial schedule. (You can see the complete schedule here.) All times Eastern Time.

Erev Rosh Hashanah
Sunday, October 2, 8:00pm

Rosh Hashanah
Monday, October 3
Morning Service 9:30am

Kol Nidrei
Tuesday, October 11
6:00pm or 8:00pm

Yom Kippur
Wednesday, October 12
Morning Service 10:45am
Afternoon Service 3:30pm

No prayer books? No problem. You can download those from Central Synagogue too.

Rosh Hashanah Prayer Book

Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur Morning Prayer Book

Yom Kippur Afternoon Prayer Book

These are the highest of all Jewish services with the highest of all Jewish music and prayer on the highest of all Jewish holidays at one of the most extraordinary Jewish congregations with one of the most extraordinary rabbis. And all you need is a browser.

Selichot and Angels

 

Selichot

Do Jews pray to angels? Do all of us need all the help we can get?

The Jewish Days of Awe begin soon, starting with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of October 2, ending with Yom Kippur on the evening of October 11.

It is a time of teshuvah, often translated as “repentance”, but more precisely “turning”—that is, turning away from ourselves and our ways and to God and godly ways. To start the process of reflection, on a Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah a special set of preparatory prayers begin to be recited, known as Selichot. This year, Selichot begins tonight, on the night of Saturday, September 24.

The conventional cast of characters in the soulful dialogue of teshuvah and the Days of Awe are yourself, the people and world around you, and God. But Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis, in the fascinating Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, adds an unexpected player:

Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyors of Compassion)

This is a prayer petitioning the angels to intervene with God:

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

This prayer is only recited at Selichot, a penitential service recited prior to the coming of Rosh Hashanah.

This prayer is anomalous in that the rule that Jews should pray only to God, and not to intermediaries, extends back to Talmudic times: “If troubles come upon a person, do not entreat the angel Michael or the angel Gabriel. Rather, entreat Me alone and I will help you immediately” (J. Ber. 9:1). Maimonides makes this normative, “It is only fitting to pray to God and it is not fitting to pray to any other.”

The Maharal of Prague was sufficiently troubled by the appearance of this prayer that he amended the wording (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha’Avodah no.12), an innovation that did not catch on. In modern times, no less an ultra-Orthodox authority than the Hatam Sofer wrote that at Selichot he personally skips over this prayer (Orach Chaim no. 166), a shocking confession from the leader of a community that insists ALL of the tradition is sanctified and obligatory. The prayer has been entirely edited out of Selichot liturgy in the modernist Reform movement.

And yet at least one Midrash exists that endorses the idea of angels as intermediaries of our prayers (S of S R. 2:7). And many Jews worldwide recite the words barchuni l’shalom … (“bless me with peace”), when they sing the popular Shabbat hymn, Shalom Aleichem. This prayer is found only in the Ashkenazi (northern European) tradition, suggesting it was written when Jews were surrounded by a Christian culture that emphasized the use of divine intermediaries (saints) and even had services in honor of specific angels (Michaelmas).

Rosh Hashanah: God Is Busy Writing

Hebrew Alphabet

This week begins the Jewish Days of Awe, starting with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Shana Tova – a good year.

A tale about Hasidic master Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809):

It was Yom Kippur. The faithful, weak from fasting, were waiting for the Rebbe to begin the Mussaf prayer, but he too was waiting. An hour went by, and another. Impatience turned into anguish. This time the Rebbe was really going too far. It was late. Why was he waiting?

When he finally emerged from his meditation, he explained: “There is in our midst someone who cannot read. It is not his fault; he has been too busy providing for his family to go to school or study with a teacher. But he wishes to sing. And so he allows his heart to speak: ‘You are God; I am but a man. You are Almighty and know everything; I am weak and ignorant. All I can do is decipher the twenty-two letters of the sacred tongue; let me give them to You to make into prayers for me and they will be more beautiful than mine.’ ” The Rebbe raised his voice: “And that, brethren, is why we had to wait. God was busy writing.”

From Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters by Elie Wiesel