Rosh Hashanah is Almost Here: Year in Review

It’s been an interesting year. It’s been a year with a lot of changes and with more to come.

Highlights of the changes a year has wrought:

  • 2015-09-09-selfieI’m now working as rabbi at a Jewish nursing home and assisted living facility. After years of working mainly as a freelance rabbi (with occasional forays into congregational work, academia, etc.), working within a single organization has a lot to recommend it. I’m enjoying creating longer-term relationships in my rabbinate. It is meaningful work that I find fulfilling.
  • Eva and I are in the process of adopting a child. After years of not being ready/not being sure we’d ever want or be ready to raise a child, we’ve taken the plunge and are now in the process of waiting. Which means that day to day life goes on pretty much as normal, with this great big possibility of monumental life change possible at any point from pretty much instantly to more than a year from now.

This leaves me in a somewhat odd frame of mind. For many years now (like five), there haven’t been a huge number of changes from one Rosh Hashanah to the next. It’s nice to have some really big changes (dare I say, even progress). At the same time, I’m very aware of the ways in which I’m still in a waiting position to see what comes next.

Each year is different. Each year brings newness. At the same time, the year is a cycle, ever repeating.

Working with the elderly, it becomes obvious the ways in which each life is unique. People make different choices, and even more, get dealt different cards in the game of life (yes, I know that one isn’t dealt cards in the board game). And, at the same point, certain themes come up over and over again, regardless of the experiences of a life.

Each year is also unique, but the more some things change, the more obvious it becomes that in some ways things remain the same. The details of the challenges change, but sometimes, it feels like the new challenges aren’t as new as I might like.

As we come to the new year–5776–I wonder what the next year will bring. I hope it brings a child to Eva and myself. I hope for continued satisfaction with work. I hope for a year of blessing and tranquility (okay, I recognize the contradiction between hoping for a baby and hoping for tranquility).

May the new year be a good year for all of us.

Rosh Hashanah Arrives, I Review My Year

It’s been a bit of a year.

Over the course of this year, I looked for rabbinic work, with no success (no one can remember quite so dead a rabbinic job market as this year). That being said, I hit the summer, and decided it was time to make something happen, and founded a congregation here in Southeast Portland. And while that’s dominated my thinking for the last few months, it wasn’t really what the year was about.

The spring was entirely about death. Over spring and early summer, three people in my life died. I spent all Spring in Boston with my grandfather, accompanying him on his final journey. I wrote about that here and here. In the midst of which my friend Paul Bingman died.

When thinking about this year, that’s what really stands out for me: the spring.

Yet there were other parts of the year as well: I started out the secular year by heading to Spokane to speak at a Unitarian Universalist Church, and meet up with a college classmate I hadn’t seen since college. During June, just after my grandfather’s death, I returned to Portland in time for the college’s Centennial Reunion, with a chance to get to see lots of faces I hadn’t seen since, and meet people’s children and spouses (those few who didn’t marry other classmates). It was a chance to look back over the longer-term, and see who we are now, and how that related to who we were then, in the first blush of adulthood.

It was a year I spent quality time in the garden.

It was a year our car got totalled.

It was a year. And perhaps I was less productive than I would have liked, but I think it was a year of growth for me. A year of figuring out some pieces. And I’m looking forward to the coming year, and to seeing what it brings.

It’s Been a Tough Year: Welcoming 5771

All in all, the past year, ending tonight with the start of Rosh Hashanah, has been a tough year. I’ve been mainly unemployed with little bits of work here and there. My grandmother died. It just hasn’t been a fun year.

So, hitting the end of the year provides the opportunity to look forward to change. It’s arbitrary, but saying, “last year may have been bad, but maybe the new year will be good” feels more valid than saying, “well I’ve had a bad stretch, but I think this next bit of time might be better.” No inherent reason to it, but we all invest the new year with hopes and dreams.

And so, as we sit on the precipice of a new year, I put out my hope and prayer: May the new year be a good year, for all of us.

Shanah Tovah Umtukah (A good and sweet year).

May 5771 be a wonderful year. A year of prosperity and blessing. A year of satisfaction and joy. A year of love and happiness.

Shofarot: Hearing God, Being Heard by God

The third special section of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah is Shofarot (see the previous two entries for the two earlier sections, Machuyot and Zichronot). Shofarot, means, literally, Shofars, or rams horn trumpets. On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar as part of the service, the blasts sounding through the synagogue, wailing to the soul.

This section of the Amidah quotes two types of texts:

  • Accounts of shofar-like sounds accompanying divine revelation
  • Accounts of humanity using a shofar to call out to God.

What I love about this is that it is setting up the call of the shofar as the baby-talk between God and humanity. When we speak to babies, we coo at them with the same nonsense syllables they use to coo at us. It becomes a back and forth conversation, filled with nonsense syllables, which have no semantic significance, but have great meaning to both parties involved. Both the adult and the baby feel they are carrying on a conversation, though no intelligible words are spoken. The call of the shofar is the same.

The shofar calls back and forth, between humanity and God, speaking sounds but not words to one another, communicating without the constraints of language, transcending the limitations of different modes of being. We hear God’s shofar in thunder. God hears ours in the blasts of Rosh Hashanah. We coo to God, and God coos to us.

Zichronot: Remembering Good and Bad

After Malchuyot, the Rosh Hashanah Amidah continues with Zichronot (remembrance). It describes a God who remembers all that we have done, and judges.

Despite this, it is not the harsh “fire and brimstone” section you might expect, but rather, a balanced section. It notes that God remembers all of our misdeeds, but that God also remembers all of the good deeds, both our own and those of our ancestors. We are judged not just for our faults, but also for what we have done well. Perhaps even what our ancestors have done well.

While I am uncomfortable with any idea of God weighing our missteps and our good deeds, I am comfortable with the idea that we do this often. There are the sins in all of our pasts which we wonder whether we can make up for. And while I do not count on the deeds of my ancestors to make up for my mistakes, the idea of a God who remembers what we have forgotten, who remembers the good I have done which I have long ago forgotten, if I ever noticed to begin with, is comforting. It reminds me that I am too quick to discount the good I have done, while I am slow to forgive myself the wrongs I have committed.

I cannot judge myself fairly, nor would such a judgment matter. What matters is that I try to do good, and hope that good is propagated into the universe, so that it’s echoes continue, and are remembered by a God who remembers all.

Malchuyot: Celebrating Divine Sovereignty

During Rosh Hashanah, there are three major themes that make up the extra amidah, or the Mussaf amidah. These are:

  • Machuyot (Sovereignty)
  • Zichronot (Remembrance)
  • Shofarot (Trumpeting)

Each year, as I approach these, I find myself trying to figure out how to relate to them. They are the high point of the prayer service, in which we sound the shofar, but the prayers themselves don’t necessarily speak to me. Instead, I tend to focus more on the general themes. In this blog post, I’ll focus on Malchuyot (a bit more seriously than I did a few years back).

God as king is a troubling metaphor for us in the contemporary world. To begin with, it is no longer a particularly useful metaphor, in that we no longer have kings, in the sense of an absolute ruler with absolute authority over us and our lives, and who is also responsible for our welfare. Metaphors work because they relate something unfamiliar to something familiar. In this case, both halves of the metaphor are unfamiliar. So we need to work a little harder at understanding the concepts behind it.

The king is remote, not approachable, but makes decisions which impact our lives. Just as the universe, or luck, or fate, works in ways we don’t understand, can’t anticipate, and find ourselves reacting to, so too do we envision God (not necessarily as separate from the Universe, Luck or Fate). When we pray regarding the King, we are often praying for individual attention or notice, although it seems unlikely to us that we may receive it.

But the King is more than just ancient ruler. The King also stands for the ordering principles of the universe. The King is God of nature, gravity, and all the physical laws that make the universe and life possible. The King is the force that makes for a natural world.

The King is also the force we cry out to for mercy. The one who can grant pardon, no matter what we may have done. The King is the one who can forgive that which we, ourselves cannot forgive.

I pray to the King when I am at the end of my rope, and need strength and hope. I pray to the King when I wonder at the sunset, or the fact that gravity works, despite it’s seeming impossibility. I pray to the King when I need a structure beyond science for the universe and my life.

The King is both remote and immediate. The King is, perhaps, the most traditional understanding of God. And the King listens always, but doesn’t always respond.

Who Am I to Pray?

In the beginning of the communal amidah, there is a line inserted for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

On the basis of the wise ones and those with understanding, and on the teachings of those who understand their opinions, I open my mouth in prayer and supplication. . .Misod chachmim u’nevonim umilemed da’at mevini’im, eftechah fi b’tfillah uv’tachanunim. . .

In religious traditions, there is often a tension between the humility of the individual who prays and their presumption in asking for something from God. Thus we often have formulations that read something like, “God, I am nothing before you, but could you do me a favor and . . .” One of the elements I find particularly endearing about some prayers in Judaism is that they take this tension on explicitly, and define who we are, and by what merit we ask God to hear our prayers.

In this case, we are saying that it is not on our own merit that we believe we have anything to say, but because we have learned these words from those who came before, those who had true wisdom. But I think this goes even further: we pray these words not because we claim to understand them, but because those who have understood them tell us they have meaning. I may not yet understand them, but perhaps, in time, I will come to understand them, through repeated repetition, study, and prayer.

This is not to say that my own prayers, my own words, are inappropriate. This is to say that the old words have value within them, and over time, I must find that value, and find that meaning. Until then, I repeat the words in the hope that the meaning will reveal itself to me, and that God will understand what I might someday intend.

Light in LIfe’s Treasury

I am continuing my exploration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers today with a brief line which  follows the Barechu (the call to prayer) in the morning.

Eternal light is in the storehouse of life. “Light from the darkness!” said God, and it was so. Or olam b’otzar chayim, orot m’ofel, amar vayehi.

We are the storehouse of life, and the eternal light resides within each of us.

In the account of creation, we are taught that light was created the first day, but the sun was not created until the fourth. The eternal light, Or olam, was this first light of transcendence. It is knowledge and clarity, purity and joy. When we use light as a metaphor, it is this light that we speak of.

Each of us is a repository of life. We are where life is stored, and this eternal light rests inside each of us, waiting for us to manifest it with our actions. When we act justly, we bring this light into the world, answering God’s dictum, “Light from the darkness!” When we help another, we bring the “and it was so” into the present, an ongoing creation of light in darkness.

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that God may have created the light, but it is up to us to dispense it from our treasury of life.

Light in LIfe’s Treasury

I am continuing my exploration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers today with a brief line which  follows the Barechu (the call to prayer) in the morning.

Eternal light is in the storehouse of life. “Light from the darkness!” said God, and it was so. Or olam b’otzar chayim, orot m’ofel, amar vayehi.

We are the storehouse of life, and the eternal light resides within each of us.

In the account of creation, we are taught that light was created the first day, but the sun was not created until the fourth. The eternal light, Or olam, was this first light of transcendence. It is knowledge and clarity, purity and joy. When we use light as a metaphor, it is this light that we speak of.

Each of us is a repository of life. We are where life is stored, and this eternal light rests inside each of us, waiting for us to manifest it with our actions. When we act justly, we bring this light into the world, answering God’s dictum, “Light from the darkness!” When we help another, we bring the “and it was so” into the present, an ongoing creation of light in darkness.

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that God may have created the light, but it is up to us to dispense it from our treasury of life.

May All People Form a Single Group

In the Amidah of the Rosh Hashanah (and Yom Kippur, for that matter), there is an insert, called uvechen (and therefore). It begins:

Therefore, O Divine One, Our God, instill fear among all you have made, and awe in all your creatures. May all that you have made revere you, and all you created bow down to you, and may they all form a single group to do your will with a whole heart. [my translation]

Fear, awe and reverence are tough concepts for us, today. We do not easily accept that which is beyond our control: we teach that fear is something to be overcome. Rosh Hashanah is, partly, about accepting that there is that which is beyond us.

The awe of the power of the universe, whether we call that power “God,” “nature,”  or “the universe,” is what can unite all people, as this prayer suggests. When we are filled with awe of creation, we begin to see ourselves, and all others, as part of the same endeavor. When we join together in reverence for the Divine, we are able to come together to achieve the Divine purpose. Whether we call God “Allah” or “Adonai” or “Lord,” we are all reaching towards the creation of a more just, more Holy world. And when we do so with fear and awe, we are able to join together in humility, to achieve Divine goals.