Rosh Hashanah: look closely and see the feminine aspects

There is a long standing tradition that Rosh Chodesh is a woman’s festival.  In honour of women who did not want to give up their jewellery to create the golden calf, their female descendants were allowed to take time for themselves every month at the new moon.

Rosh Hashanah is a new moon par excellence.  Both the first day of the new month of Tishri, and the new year for the counting of years (the first of Nisan is the beginning of the year itself), so how important must Rosh Hashanah be for women?

Unlike the month of Nisan when the year begins with a frenzy of house cleaning and the nearest experience of slavery most women ever encounter as they prepare their home for Pesach, Rosh Hashanah has a gentler and sweeter feel to it.  A month of preparation in Ellul focuses on inner rather than outer cleansing, as we spend the time contemplating our lives, reflecting on how we are using our time in this world, and carefully repairing the mistakes in our relationships. Ellul is the time for introspection, for healing the soul and for readying ourselves for a new beginning.  There is, I always feel, a rather feminine character to this time, as God is traditionally said to be close by, ready to help us in our approach back to the relationship we want and need..  There is a feeling of openness, a sense of nurturing and of creating space to live in, with God as the caring and warm parent who wants us to be more fully ourselves.  During the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the shechinah (the feminine indwelling presence of God) seems to be gently nudging us to be the best people we can be, to seek and to offer forgiveness for the many small hurts and the lack of proper attention we gave during the year.

The service for Rosh Hashanah itself is more majestic – God is repeatedly described in terms of masculine power in the liturgy, crowned as king of the world again and again – yet we know that this is only one facet of the day, and that God as nurturer, as giver of second chances, as open armed receiver of returning souls is still there under all the pomp and circumstance of the liturgy. 

Rosh Hashanah has a variety of different customs, many of them dedicated to the sweetness of continuing life.  From the roundness of the challah to the apple and honey, the symbolism is comforting and somehow integrally female.  The tradition to eat foods with many small components – be they pomegranates or cordon bleu baked beans – symbolises fertility and plenty. 

Rosh Hashanah is underrated as a female festival.  We can get so mesmerised by the strident masculine sound of the Shofar that we are in danger of forgetting the balancing silent gently insistent pull of the new moon as it leads us into yet another cycle, a new beginning, rebirth.

Nitzavim – standing together, united in our diversity

Parshah Nitzavim is always read on the Sabbath immediately before Rosh Hashanah. In part that is fortuitous – a wrinkle of the calendrical cycle.  

In part though there is a deeper connection, because it reminds us that all the people will indeed be standing together in the presence of God during the Yamim Noraim; and in part, I think the reason is because the importance of this speech of Moses – it is one that is critical for the people – Do not forget where you come from, what you are called to do, what you will have to give an account of. And do not forget that you are one people.

The unity of the Jewish people, standing together, all voices being heard from the richest to the poorest, the oldest to the youngest – choose any spectrum you like – ALL the Jewish people are, says Moses, “Nitzavim, Culchem” – standing present, all of us. We are all part of the whole; each of us has a role to play and a gift to give. Tradition teaches that everyone who will ever become a Jew also stood at Sinai – we too were there, accepting the covenant and agreeing to its obligations.

So the unity of the Jewish people is paramount, in prayer during the Yamim Noraim all of us should be there. However sinful we may feel ourselves (or others) to be, our liturgy calls us all together to pray in one community.  And the unity of the Jewish people is paramount in memory and mission – in how we fulfil what we are called to do. Tragically it seems to me that this unity is unravelling in so many ways. Many Jews feel less and less bound to the community, less willing to give the time or the thought that is needed to help them and the community thrive. And many Jews feel out of sorts with the community – be it defined as the establishment, the synagogue, the State of Israel, the traditions, the rituals, the beliefs or behaviours of other Jews.

I think we all have reservations about what it means to be one people. We all wonder why, in hard pressed times, we are expected to give so much of ourselves. We look at other sectors of the community and shake our heads. I for one find the hareidisation of Judaism horrifying, others of course will find the feminising of Judaism equally odd.  In Israel there is a growing gulf between the dati’im (observant of all the legalities) and the hilonim (secular Jews whose identity is Israeli)  The issue is, how to we still live with each other – how do we find the common ground of the covenant made at Sinai and stand, all of us together?  How to we make a bridge or a series of connections that allow us to stay one people without all having to bend to one common denominator, but instead allow our diversity to be one of the values we cherish? Nitzvavim reminds us we are all there – from the leaders of the community to the most menial, men, women and children. Diversity is built into our unity. Now we need to work at building unity from our diversity.

Ki Tavo : the covenant that causes simcha

The two rituals at the beginning of the sidra are interesting for a number of reasons – the first because they actively involve the Israelites in affirming the covenant relationship with God, and also because they allow them to rehearse and participate in the history of the Jewish people. From being a passive recipient of God’s goodness and Moses’ leadership, they begin to be responsible for their own religious identity.

Two other phrases stand out for me in this sidra – “you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God” (27:7) and “Keep silence and hear Israel, today you have become a people to the Eternal your God” (27:9)

In his speech to the people about their entering the land, Moses uses a variety of techniques to get his message across – the message that they are dependent upon God, that they are required to follow the commandments or God will turn away from them, the importance of remembering the Covenant and following the path of right behaviour. Carrot and stick come to mind. But embedded in all of this is the message that now the people are growing up religiously, that their behaviour is becoming their own responsibility, that the lessons of their history must be used into their future, and most of all that religious responsibility and covenantal relationship with God is not punitive or a burden, but it is something that causes simchah – joy.  

They are now a people, they have obligations to look after each other, they have the support of each other looking after them too. Most importantly, religious life is not about being alone, or about seeking the best for oneself, it is about being in relationship with others and with God.  We are now very close to Rosh Hashanah. Each of us is responsible for our own lives and how we are living them. And each of us is responsible for each other – none of us are alone, all of us are part of the Covenant, and this is a not to be experienced as a burden but as a joy.

Ki Tetzei – the battle against ourselves

Parashat Ki Tetzei contains 74 commandments, more mitzvot than in any other sidra in Torah.  Reading through the list, one first notices just how random and unrelated they appear to be, but on closer reading one sees patterns and trajectories, and notices how much daily living they give guidance about, drumming into us the values and the moral code of the Jewish peoples.

 The list of mitzvot covers a wide variety of topics, from the behaviour of soldiers in wartime, through to the complexities of family life; They expect good behaviour in our relationships with others, respect for property and animals, the safety of others; Abuses of power in sexual relationships are covered, also power over escaped slaves, proper behaviour if giving  loans or charging interest, timely payment of workers, the importance of keeping promises, and the passage concludes with the importance of remembering to blot out the name of one of Israel’s greatest enemies – Amalek.

This extraordinary sidra, packed with injunctions as to how to behave, begins with the words:  “Ki Tetzei lemilchama al oyvecha  – when (or if) you go out to war against your enemies..”  While it is certainly a command to the whole nation of Israel, the fact that the verb used is in the singular, allows commentators to frame the reading differently, and, taking note of the fact that this sidra is always read early in the month of Elul, suggest that the verse is referring to the continuous battle each of us as individuals engages in, fighting our own yetzer ha’ra – evil inclinations. Thus the verse becomes one of comfort almost – God will help us to take control of our own bad habits and selfish desires.

 How would we do that? Well that is where the rest of the list of mitzvot comes in.

 For example, the sidra begins with a soldier taking captive a beautiful woman, allowing her to mourn her past life and then potentially taking her as a wife. But soon it moves onto the problems between two wives of the same man, and the difficulties of fairness in a polygamous marriage, and very shortly after that the sidra discusses the problem of what to do with the stubborn and rebellious child.  Are these mitzvot really so random as they first appear?  Are they really only arranged in a sort of “family relationships” category?  Or are they connected at a deeper or sequential level? Is Torah using this arrangement of verses to create an understanding in us that everything we do can impact on what already is in our worlds, and on what may yet become of our lives? 

 So how do we engage in fighting our most selfish desires? A plain reading of the text would be that we do so simply by fulfilling the mitzvot as enumerated here, but something else is being transmitted as well – By understanding what the fulfilment of our immediate selfish inclinations may bring about in our own contexts we may learn to temper them and find some better control of the self. So not just behaviour is being demanded of us without our thought or engagement, but the reasoning for WHY such behaviour is necessary is being required of us too.

 Understanding why we do a particular behaviour has never been the key factor to cause us to change it – that is one of the limitations of many a modern therapy. We may know that smoking kills, but that will usually not change the behaviour of the smoker. And yet, behaving without understanding, just following the rules – can lead to us becoming automatons, doing whatever we are told to do by whoever we give such authority over us–  magazine writers, fashion leaders, work bosses, company rules,  even rabbis. 

 We may choose to follow rules and expectations or not, but each of us is responsible for the choices we make. And to begin to see our actions in a context that can seriously impact upon others is no bad thing as we follow our own inclinations in our lives.

 Add to that the second half of the verse – that God helps us to prevail over our enemy/inclinations and a lesson comes into sharp focus. We may think that what we do is only our own business, but we exist in a context and a setting that includes others and that includes the seeds of our own future selves. The choices we make have power and can bring about a great deal of difference for us and for those around us. We make them best when we consider that we are not alone either in the choices or in their results.

Rosh Chodesh Ellul: time to prepare, time to pardon

One of the first words you might hear in Israel – particularly if you mix among the anglo saxim, is the phrase “s’licha” – roughly translated as ‘please’, or ‘I beg your pardon”.  Well, maybe not one of the first, but if you stay in Israel long enough someone, hopefully, will use it after they push past you in a bus queue or tread on your toe in the market.

At this time of year, it is time for us to use the word too – as we pray the Selichot – the petitionary prayers that prepare us for the season of teshuvah – repentance. Tradition teaches that the month of Elul is a particularly good time for repentance, and the mood builds throughout Elul to the period of Selichot – the prayers that are read late on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah and continue to be read every morning until the very end of Yom Kippur.

Our tradition teaches us that prayer requires preparation, and for most of us the marathon that is Yom Kippur certainly requires training– both the physical preparation such as reducing our caffeine intake to ward off the Yom Tov headaches, and the spiritual preparation to make sure we do more than simply regret past actions, or make ineffectual attempts at damage limitation. Maimonides in his laws of Repentance laid out what might be called the three ‘R’s of the work – Regret, Rejection and Resolution – and this process clearly takes much more time than even a well focused day of contemplation. Hence the build up to the work of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – so that when we arrive at shul on Yom Kippur we really are ready for it.   There are many variations of selichot services, though they almost always include a recitation of the thirteen attributes of God, and reading Psalm 27 – and portray of God of mercy and compassion. But also a God of whom we should be in awe.  We are told that when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai lay dying his disciples asked him for a blessing. He replied “May you fear God as much as you fear human beings”. They asked him – “what, no more than that?” to which he answered that that was enough. “do you not know that when we are about to commit a transgression, we forget about God and hope only that no human eye will see us”

As part of the prayers of pardon and petition, we add into the text of the Amidah on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur a prayer to help us learn to be in awe of God. We tend to fear the opinion of other people far more than we worry about what God might think of us, and we behave accordingly.  The two themes – of a forgiving and compassionate God who is only waiting for us to return, and of a God who is to be held in awe and revered – are not mutually incompatible. The liturgy of this time weaves them in and out of our consciousness – the God who sees and remembers everything we do, both good deeds and bad; and the God who is just waiting for us to say “selicha” – “forgive me” so that we can move on into our lives, lessening the alienation and anomie we feel.

Shofetim : justice is human as well as divine.

There is so much in this sidra but the overwhelming impulse is to pursue justice – Tzedek. And one phrase stands out for me – “you shall come to the priests and to the Judge that shall be at that time and you shall enquire; and they shall declare to you the sentence of judgement….According to the law which they will teach you, and according to the judgement which they will tell you, you shall do and you shall not turn aside from the sentence which they tell you, to the right or to the left.” (Deut. 17:9-11)

This verse becomes the mandate for Rabbinic Judaism – and one might even say for the evolving and progressing Judaism of which our synagogue is a part. The law is decided not for all time, but by the judge who lives at that time; Torah it is not to be fossilised or protected from modernity or the zeitgeist – it is part of the same process that people are, learning as we add to knowledge, changing as we find new ways to express ourselves. Indeed, so powerful is this text that Rashi (11th Century) builds on the phrase about not deviating from the decision making of the contemporaneous judge either to the right or the left, to bolster the power of the rabbis by saying “even if they declare the left is right and right is left, you follow their judgment”, basing himself on a much earlier midrash [Sifre (2nd Century)].

The requirement to pursue Justice – “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” – and the importance of Torah being mediated through modern understandings of the world, is an extraordinarily powerful combination. Our understanding of what Justice means has grown and changed as we see how the world is connected and as we appreciate the shared humanity of all peoples and realise that our responsibilities continue outside our own immediate circle and networks, to all human beings.  We have both the principles of k’vod haBrit – Respect for different Jewish points of views and for different levels of Jewish knowledge and activity, and k’vod haBriyot – Respect for all that is created. Both in the Particular world of Jews and in the Universal world of creation, the idea of honouring God through the action of Tzedek – right behaviour – is part of Jewish teaching.

How do we honour both brit and briyot? Both the Jewish world and the larger world in which we live? We do so with the pursuit of justice, and we understand that justice must be brought about and administered in both the worlds in which we live. We can no longer view the world through the eyes of cloistered community; we have a modern understanding and appreciation of how completely we are part of the wider community. How we behave as Jews, be it individually, as a community, or indeed as Israel, must be shaped and filtered through both the imperative to justice and the understanding of modernity. We must read our texts mediated not only through the commentators of old, but also with the eyes of our own contemporaries.

The Midrash Tanhuma proclaims that “every judge who adjudicates according to the quintessential truth is regarded by Scripture as though they were a partner with God in creation.”  So searching out and supporting Justice brings us as close to the divine as we can get.

 The famous phrase ‘Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” “Justice Justice you shall pursue” continues “so that you will live, and inherit the land which the Eternal your God is giving to you (Deut. 16:20) and this is telling. Justice is the thing that brings us as close to God as we can be, the Land of Israel is seen in tradition as being a land which has the eye of God upon it. If Justice is not done in Israel, we will not deserve to live within it – indeed Jacob ben Asher [writing in the halachic code the Tur (c 13th century)], comments on the Talmudic statement that “The only reason Jerusalem was destroyed was because the sages based their decisions on the strict requirements of the law, without going beyond it” (Baba Metzia 30b) by extending it and saying “The only reason that Jerusalem was destroyed and Israel was exiled was because they abolished justice”.

 To simply apply law mechanically and strictly, without thought of context or complexity, is, in the eyes of the Tur, to abolish Justice.

 As we look around in our worlds, shaken by uprisings and riots, by demands and terror, let us take a deep breath and remember that mechanistic responses – even if written in our holy texts – may not be the answer, and we have also to apply the human responses of our own time.

Glorious summer – time to think of my soul as life begins over again

Summertime is always a quiet time in the life of a synagogue.  The families with children are away on holiday, the classes and courses stop for the duration, the long evenings and good weather tempt people to venture further away from home, and an atmosphere of indolence and tranquillity reigns. Well, almost.  Because while there may be fewer people around and routine committee meetings and classes take a break, the summer is in fact a time of frenetic activity.  It is just that the activity is ‘behind the scenes’ that it can go unnoticed.

There are a variety of levels of summertime behaviours in the Jewish world.  There is of course all the hard work that goes into making sure that the Autumn festivals – what one colleague calls the “Autumn manoeuvres” go well.  The choir and musicians rehearse their set pieces till souls soar on hearing them.  The administration sends out numerous letters and tickets, the wardens plan mitzvot and page numbers, the security people organise rotas, parents organise children’s services and activities, crèches and rooms, the Chair considers charities and writes the Kol Nidrei appeal, the Rabbis plan sermons and readings…. A beehive would look like a slothful place in comparison to the work that goes on behind the scenes planning for these special days.  And whatever date the services fall upon, they still seem to take us by surprise – have we notified the schools that our children wont be in? Have we invited people to break the fast with us? Is our sukkah still in working order or was last year’s rickety effort the final time it could be constructed? The list seems to grow longer the harder we work….

But there is other work to be done in preparation for these awesome days, and the work needs to also be planned and executed in these lovely summer days – that is the work of the soul, the taking stock of our lives and our selves in the bright yet warm light of God’s overseeing judgement. 

Many years ago I took a December holiday in the Southern hemisphere. Sitting on a beach and watching the people frolicking in the water, my mind kept wandering to phrases from the Machzor for the Yamim Noraim – the high holy day prayer book. Whole chunks of liturgy inserted themselves into my head, the Avinu Malkenu which begs God not to let us go empty handed, the Vidui – confessional prayers. The rather ominous image of the Master of the House who was waiting….  It was all so incongruous and rather disturbing.  Here I was some three months after the introspective fest, had celebrated Sukkot and danced at Simchat Torah – yet the powerful awareness of the days of Awe was pulling at me again.  And suddenly it clicked – it wasn’t that I was spiritually out of synch. but that I was temporally so – the change in hemisphere brought about a lurch in the seasons, and my whole body was geared to summer time means preparation, introspection, consideration of my life.  It was then that I realised just how much we are attuned to the cycle of nature in order to be attuned to our festivals.  Spring time means crocus, daffodils and matza. Dark evenings mean chanukiot and doughnuts. Summer time is the time to begin the work so that when we arrive at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are already engaged in the process that those festivals will clarify and enable.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often surprise us simply because we haven’t begun the work early enough.  Then suddenly it is time to stop and think, and there is too much to do, too little time.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the Great Gatsby “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”  

So this summer, while the weather is glorious and the temptation is to slow down and relax a little, do just that, but remember too that this is the signal to begin the preparation if you are to get the most out of the solemn period that constitutes the yamim noraim, the days of awe and repentance.