Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

Four Jewish New Years

Time has always been a sacred Jewish concept. In the first moments of creation, G-d began to distinguish times – “there was evening and there was morning, day one.” There was no sun, moon, or stars, but already there was a separation in time – evening to morning, one day from the next. By the end of the week, time had been divided, not only into days, but into sacred and profane – Shabbat, and every other time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Shabbat is holy partially because it is an island in time. Whereas sacred space can be destroyed, sacred time exists always, whether we observe it or not. “Judaism,” he wrote, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” Further, he said:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

So the Sabbath creates a weekly holy island in time, but Judaism also sanctifies its years. We think of the Jewish New Year as Rosh Hashanah, but actually according to the Mishnah, there are four Jewish New Years. This was to ensure that certain commandments were completed at their appointed times. For example, the Israelites were required to contribute a tenth of the current year’s produce, so therefore they needed to know exactly when the current agricultural year began and ended.

The first of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah. This is the holiday that we think of when we think of the Jewish New Year. It aligns approximately with one of the secular New Years too – the beginning of the school year. Rosh Hashanah is the new year for seasons. The Talmud associates it with the anniversary of the creation. It is also considered the beginning of the civil calendar, and thus the new year’s for measuring the reigns of foreign kings, for setting the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and figuring the yearly tithe.

Rosh Hashanah is also a spiritual New Year. This is when we consider our lives and how we wish to change and become better people. For most Jews, the only two “New Years” we observe are Rosh Hashanah and January 1st.

But for those who remember their days in Hebrew school, they might also remember that Tu B’shvat is the New Year for trees. This is when the sap has begun to rise and fruit has started to ripen (in Israel.) It is customary on this date to eat the fruit of the new season. Ashkenazi Jews eat 15 different kinds of fruit. In the 16th century, the Sephardic mystics of Sfat expanded the Tu Bishvat observance with a seder that uses the symbolism of fruits with and without shells to enact the process of opening up to G-d’s holiness. In modern times, we also associate this holiday with environmentalism and the planting of trees in Israel.

Rosh Hashanah and Tu B’shvat are the two most well known Jewish new year’s. But there are two more. 1 Nissan corresponds to the season of the redemption from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people. It says in the Torah, “this month [Nisan] is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first month of the year to you.” We observe Passover on the 15th of the month of Nisan. The first of Nisan is also the New Year for the reigns of Jewish kings (as opposed to secular ones), the renting of houses, and the counting of festivals between making and fulfilling a vow.

The last of the four new years is 1 Elul – the new year for tithing cattle. This one seems irrelevant today. The Temple no longer stands and how many of us keep cows? Still, many environmentalists are arguing for bringing this one back into prominence. The holiday can be about seeing the sacredness of all living beings and considering our place in our food system. It is a day on which to, as Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg put it, “abjure cruelty and affirm our kinship with creation.” Of course Elul is also the month of selichot recitations in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Can there be a connection between our consideration of the treatment of animals and our own cheshbon hanefesh – the examining of our souls? The psalmist looks at a deer’s yearning for water and sees reflected an image of our own yearning for G-d. On Rosh Hashanah we will face our animal instincts – as we begin that inner accounting, an examination of our treatment of animals can connect.

These four ancient observances give us a gift of renewing ourselves and our communities in different ways over the course of the year. It’s really quite brilliant. Rabbi Ismar Schorch wrote of Rosh Hashanah and 1 Nissan (with its approach of Pesach):

…both sacred seasons express the fullness of human need. In the spring, we join with family and friends to celebrate the rebirth of our people. Nature and history converge in a burst of new vigor, hope and creativity. We have a need to belong, to attach our lives to something greater and more lasting than ourselves, to find meaning beyond the self.

But the self is not to be denied. It must find some sacred solitude within the totality of community and peoplehood. And so we gather again in the fall against the backdrop of a natural world that is beginning to wither in order to contemplate what the passage of time means in our own lives.

Rosh Hashanah is a deeply personal, inner examination of our lives. Tu B’shvat connects us to nature and food, celebrates the rebirth of spring after a dark and cold winter, 1 Nissan connects us to our people – to our extended families and our shared Jewish story, 1 Elul begins the process of personal repentance and connects us to all life and its sacredness. Through the marking and celebrations of all four new years, we have the chance to explore our lives from many different facets and with greater depth. And the secular new year gives us a moment of sparkle and joy that makes us glad to exist in a world where sacred and secular can shine together.

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#blogExodus–Hide

 

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My son is 2 years and 4 months old.  Last week, we played hide and seek at my mother’s house.  “You hide, and I’ll count to 10,” I said.  I counted and he went and hid.  It was very clear where he was hiding.  I could see him from where I was standing, but I went to “look” for him anyway. 

“Hmmmm…” I said.  “You’re not behind the chair…”

“I’m hiding over here, mommy!” He gleefully shouted.

It occurs to me that we play the same game of hide and seek with G-d.  We are always searching, but G-d is always right “over here.” G-d is in the kindness of friends and family and in the warmth of community.  G-d is in the beautiful sunsets and the sparkling snow.  G-d is in the moment when depression lifts and the world once again appears in color.  G-d is hiding with us, even in our darkest moments.  It’s just that the dark moments are the hands covering our eyes, making it hard to see.  We just have to remember that just because we can’t see something in the moment, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when not feeling it.

I believe in G-d even when G-d is silent.

-Inscription found on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, where Jews hid from the Nazis

(as quoted in Siddur Likrat Shabbat)

#blogExodus – Grow

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Growth is being able to look at a position you once took and be willing to revisit, rethink, and revise.

Here is some of my seder thinking – personal growth in progress, because as you can see, I’m still vacillating:

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post where I spoke about what can be lost when we gear our seders only towards the children in the room. You can read it here: (https://cantorneff.com/2010/03/21/by-gearing-the-seder-towards-the-kids-are-we-cheating-them-out-of-the-best-experience/) Basically, I suggested that our kids are losing out because they don’t have the experience of learning the old melodies and traditions. I felt that in changing the seder culture to make it all about fun, that we aren’t actually succeeding in making it fun (for most people), that our children aren’t learning, aren’t finding it worthwhile, and that we are losing (for both kids and adults) the family and community memory of the melodies and traditions of seders past.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve had to struggle with my words. My own family members whine bitterly about being at our seder. This is a seder that is done almost entirely in English and with finger puppets and masks, but which otherwise sticks to liturgy and music that are traditional for our family. I am not sure that my insistence on sticking to that liturgy has helped the younger generation of my family to learn the tunes and the traditions. I fear that it might actually be the opposite – that I am the old fuddy duddy in the corner, singing the Chad Gadya from the beginning to the end, pretty much by myself.

I had a conversation with my sixth grade class about the issue and listened while they argued both sides, each contradicting themselves in their subsequent comments. In the end, they said it has to be both, but they don’t want a six-hour seder

Every year we are commanded to see ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt. If I had been there, I would want my children to know the story, remember the ancient songs and melodies, but I would also want them to want to pass the stories on to their children. For groups where no children are present, the goals are different. But in families with children, “v’shinantam l’vanecha” – you shall teach it to your children is the most important thing. We can’t teach it to them, if we lost them in the first five minutes. On the other hand, what are we teaching them when we allow the old melodies and traditions to be lost? In this, my growth must be ongoing. I am willing to revise and revisit, but I am not willing to lose the essence and meaning of the seder in the process…

A postscript.

I read this really interesting article last night: http://www.challahcrumbs.com/what-disney-world-taught-me-about-seder/. In gearing our seders towards the kids present, we should remember that our kids are still the same kids they were yesterday, even when they are sitting at the table.  So the only way to make the seder engaging for them is to keep them in mind as we create it. We should take a lesson from the four children of the haggadah: the wise, the naughty, the one who does not yet know, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. Our seder should contain elements that stimulate the wise child, invite good questions and give them an opportunity to show off what they know. The seder should also meet the needs of the “naughty” child – the one who perhaps has trouble sitting still and paying attention – this child is usually not naughty on purpose. The seder should teach the traditions, the melodies, and the history of Passover to the child who doesn’t learn these things in Hebrew school or at home (even if it means playing them off a CD, as I suggested in my original article). And it should be engaging to the special needs child – stimulating, but not overstimulating in whatever way that child needs. We have to look at who is going to be at OUR seder and then make it work.

3 Nisan – Cleanse

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To do list – Cleanse:

  • Clean.
  • Make a menu plan for the entire week.
  • Shop.
  • Cook.
  • Throw open the windows and let in the fresh spring air (fresh spring air – what’s that?).
  • Through the physical labor of preparing, begin the spiritual work.
  • Play guitar at a beautiful and meaningful women’s Seder of preparation – check!

Well, at least I got one thing done! 🙂

2 Nisan – Bless

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As a child, I found the formulation of blessing to be a little confusing. Blessed are You, Eternal G-d, who… creates the fruit of the vine, brings forth bread from the earth, etc… Who are We to bless G-d, I thought? Isn’t it G-d who blesses us with these things for which we are giving thanks?

An un-noticed gift is no barely any gift at all. Yes, the food we eat while driving and talking on the phone sustains us, but it doesn’t offer the same degree of blessing as that taken sitting at the dinner table with family or friends. Shabbat comes every week whether or not we choose to sanctify it. When we do not, Shabbat is incapable of serving our needs for rest and renewal – the gift is lost and so is the blessing. When we take the time to bless G-d with our presence, with our awareness, the blessing is returned many-fold.

So this second day of Nisan the theme is bless – and by that, I hope to raise my awareness of the process, the gift that Passover CAN be when we allow it to be not only about the busy-work of preparation, but about its results – the full and set table, family and friends, children. I will try to bless G-d by being present, as I open myself up to receive.

1 Nisan – Begin

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I love New Year’s.  I love the idea of a fresh start, of imagining who and what I could be, visioning through the process of how to get there and then setting off towards that goal.  I thrive on it, even when I find myself pursuing the same goals year after year.  It isn’t that my past resolutions failed, but rather that I am continually spiraling towards that better person, learning from what didn’t work last time, and coming up with new, refined plans.  If it weren’t for the artificial, and some would say arbitrary date markers of New Year’s, I might be tempted to always continue with what is familiar and comfortable.  New Year’s invites me to think, and re-engage in that process.  Why am I bringing that up now, in the middle of March?  Well, New Year’s is only a month away – time to start thinking and planning.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1b/Liten_askenasisk_sjofar_5380.jpgThere are four New Years’ in the Jewish calendar (plus the secular one) – so many opportunities for self-improvement!  Although most would begin this list with Rosh Hashanah, I’m actually going to start with the New Year of 1 Elul because it leads into Rosh Hashanah, which is only one month later. 1 Elul is the “new year for the tithing of cattle.” Since I am not a farmer, this doesn’t hold much meaning for me. However, the date of 1 Elul does. Elul is when we begin to sound the shofar, and turn our hearts towards reflection. For me, spiritually, 1 Elul is the new year for looking backwards (strange as that may sound), a new year of reflection and cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Every psychologist will tell you, that no real change can come without an examination of the past. 1 Elul is the beginning of that process, truly the start of all potential change for the year ahead.

1 Tishrei – Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for the Jewish civil calendar and for the seasons.  I begin to look forward towards the Jew that I want to be in the coming year. Having examined my shortcomings, I can begin to envision how to be a better Jew and a better me. The process is cyclical. As Yom Kippur comes, I will turn again to reflection on my past and with the closing of the gates after Yom Kippur I am responsible to myself to continue to do the work.

Autumn_trees_in_Dresden15 Shevat – Tu b’shvat is the new year for the trees.  Sap begins to rise in the trees in Israel, and it is a sign that the winter will soon end.  I reflect on environmentalism at this time of year.  I remember and consider how to be a steward for G-d’s creation – small things like bringing the canvas bags in the car when grocery shopping into the store rather than using them to keep the carseats warm, bigger things like engaging politically and financially in environmental causes, and trying to be active in nature as much as I am able.

8611563772_5c32ccc506_b1 Nisan – Pesach is the new year for our Jewish people as we mark the celebration of our redemption from Egypt. 1 Nisan is about half way through the calendar year after the high holy days. It’s a great time to remind myself about the promises I made back in September, and to try again to be that better Jew and improved person. In the book, “Preparing your Heart for Passover,” Rabbi Kerry Orlitzky writes, “The rabbis suggest that the leaven transcends the physical world. This leaven, this hametz, also symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. Ironically, it is what prevents the individual from rising spiritually and moving closer to holiness. Thus, what hametz effectively does in the material world is exactly what it precludes in the realm of the spirit. That’s why it has to be removed.”

248048_2054969291815_5382438_n1 Nisan falls at the beginning of spring time. In both the secular and Jewish world, people are throwing open their windows and doing spring cleaning. Passover (15 Nisan) invites us to bring a spiritual realm into our physical labor, to think, as we clean, about the ways in which we have become puffed up, selfish, self-absorbed, or like the things that we are cleaning – the ways that we have become weighted down and inwardly cluttered. As we remove chameitz, dust, clutter, and the residue of months closed up for the winter, we can expand ourselves into our breath of fresh, clean air, look in the mirror and move forward a little lighter.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Machine-made_Shmura_Matzo.jpgFor me, it invites another question. A lot of people love Passover food. Those people obviously have very different taste buds than mine. The holiday demands that we “rejoice in it.” But I will admit that I struggle with that year after year. I don’t like the food, I don’t like the restrictions,… I don’t like cleaning. It is difficult to not have it be a real drag. I challenge myself every year to find the joy in it. This year may be easier as I am hearing my 2 year old son practice the first two of the four questions, and my heart is full. I am beginning to participate in the shalshelet, the chain of our tradition, not just as a teacher, but as a parent, and there is great joy in that. Even beyond that, though, by turning my thoughts to the spiritual cleansing, the renewal, and the fresh start that Passover brings, I hope that I will “rejoice in it.” Maybe part of my spiritual hametz is that I haven’t liked Passover and this year, it is time to remove that and start fresh, envision what Passover can be.

Four New Years. Four opportunities for a fresh start. Four chances to make the same resolutions again and again and spiral myself towards the vision of who and what I can be. Each time I get a little closer, but I will never get there. Life isn’t about arriving. I believe that life, best lived, is a constant process of becoming.

My Guest Post

I was invited to do a guest post for the URJ’s 10 Minutes of Torah liturgy series. You can read my post here:
Psalm 116 Guest Post
Enjoy!