New Light on Rosh Hashanah

For the coming month of Elul, I’ve decided to start a separate blog series on the Rosh Hashanah prayers, in coordination with a podcast that will make the same material available in a listening format on Spreaker.  I’ll continue posting here also, though perhaps lest often for awhile.

If you’d like to follow my new blog as part of your own preparation for the holidays, you can connect to the “Blog for Elul” at Rosh Hashanah 5778 by clicking here.

The Meeting of Sun and Moon

This coming Monday, August 21, a solar eclipse will be visible, partly or in its totality, over much of North America. The next day, we will celebrate the New Moon of the Jewish month of Elul, the last month of the year 5777.  Are these two astronomical events connected? And if so, what does it mean?

Yes, they are connected. The moon, in its dance with the sun through a month, always has a dark time when we cannot see it at all.  That followed by the “new moon” when a sliver of the moon’s sunlit side appears in the sky, shortly after sunset.  But the dark moon does not usually result in an eclipse; that only happens when the sun and moon are aligned from a certain earthly point of view (the “path” of the eclipse).  That unique alignment is happening just before Elul’s new moon.

What does it mean?  We are told that in ancient times people were awed by eclipses and feared them as omens. Not so in Judaism — our priests and rabbis knew that this was an astronomical phenomenon. Nevertheless, they also knew that the world is a divine creation, and that the connection between our own lives and the phenomena of nature can inspire us.  For example, the Torah tells us to set up our calendar by the moon. Our Sages then used the moon’s waxing and waning to help us understand the cycles of good and bad times for the Jewish people.

Our tradition also describes each lunar month as having its own unique character within the annual round of moons. The month of Elul is cherished as a time of teshuvah, “return.,” in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As we begin to look back on the past year and prepare for the new one, it is a time conducive to reflection and introspection.

Elul is also the month when “the King is in the field,” as a traditional parable puts it. Rather than having to approach God in the palace amid pomp and ceremony, one can experience God out in the fields, among the people, open to prayers in a different way, recognizing our trouble and pain outside the restraints of the great system of halls and chambers that organizes cosmic energy.  For us, it is a time of repentance because we are asked to be humble too, and step out of the frameworks that we use to organize our lives, to meet the king in the fields.

The word Elul is spelled alef-lamed-vav-lamed.  These letters also make an acronym for a famous verse in the Song of Songs (6:3):  Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, which means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The relationship between God and us is like that of lover and beloved in that beautiful biblical poem, where also the two sometimes celebrate their coming together and sometimes are apart, yearning for one another.

This resonates with the traditional symbolism where the sun represents the divine and the moon the Jewish people. Astrologically speaking, sun and moon move in ways that are sometimes close, sometimes far.  They are closest together at the dark of the moon, but we cannot see it. Metaphorically, our relationship to God in this darkness is largely behind the scenes, even unconscious.

But in a total eclipse, where the sun is covered by the moon during the daytime, their relationship is out in the open, so to speak.  Yet the sky will darken, because the moon hides the sun’s light. In an uncanny shift of roles, the brilliant sun retreats, highlighting the moon and the darkness.

We can see, though, that the moon even in her “darkest” moment has within her the greatness that can cover the sun.  So with us: when the “light of day” is hidden, this is when we as human beings must become more aware of our potential, to bring forth what must be born from the darkness.

The month of Elul asks us to look back at the past year –  our personal lives, our communities, Israel, the world.  Certainly public life has been stunning for those of us living in the USA, where the eclipse will largely be seen; a dramatic eclipse is in many ways a fitting metaphor for the past year.

At the same time, Elul reminds us to look forward, to remember and anticipate our connection with God.  As the New Moon emerges we can ask how we can increase the light.  But also, remembering the eclipse, we can ask how to be shown the potential of the dark times, consciously encountering the hidden parts of ourselves, and liberating those resources for good.

Good Chodesh!  May you have a good month!

 

 

 

 

Kids Whose Parents Fight All the Time

The fighting didn’t start January 20th or November 8th or even two years ago; it’s been going on a long time.  The volume was turned up when Republicans decided they would vote “no” on any Obama proposal.  After the 2017 inauguration it exploded to an unbearable decibel level.

If this were your home, and you were an adolescent who had grown up with years of fighting all around you, you would be traumatized. In moments of clarity, you would see that your parents fight over anything. Even when something as clear as day occurred, like the trash pickup accidentally spilling garbage on the street, they would argue over whose fault it was that the can was too full or it wasn’t placed in a correct position.

Likewise: for three days we have listened to arguments about blame.  Today you can read a well-researched article on assigning blame to “alt-right” and “alt-left,” based on historical and statistical analyses of how extremists on either end have engaged in violence over the past 50 years.  WTF?  says the teenager.  As if that would stop the fighting?

So, three points.

Point 1: Listening to this day and night is not good for us; we need healthy choices. What would the guidance counselor advise the kid who is stuck in this impossible household for 3 more years?  Work hard, get good grades, plan your own future.  Learn from the mistakes around you.  Don’t take drugs or drown your sorrows in binge TV.  Join a club at school. Volunteer for an organization on the weekends.

You get the analogy.

Specific additional advice for our situation: Ignore those quadrated screens of commentators saying the same things every time there’s another fight.  If you must get the news, check it quickly in the morning (not before bed, it damages your sleep), ask yourself if this is worthy news, then go on with YOUR day.

Point 2:  This is like a captivating magic show; we are the gullible audience.  You know how the magician works: he keeps his hands moving around the objects on the table or waving the wand, saying “Watch!  Watch!  You see it, keep watching!”  (Watch Russia v USA. Watch Kim v Trump. Watch alt-R v alt-L.)  But the action is happening where you aren’t looking – in the magician’s other hand, or his feet, or on the other side of the stage.

While everyone’s attention is distracted, be smart!  Look at what’s going on elsewhere, backstage. That’s where you find the directors with scripts, stage managers, and the crew – mostly the group called the “Cabinet.” Orders are being given, the scene is being redone as they try to create a society in Trump’s image.  But unless you look hard, you won’t see those folks until the end, when they come out to bow for the credits – and try to get their boss re-elected in 2020.

Point 3:  Learn from what has happened. This could be a teachable moment for people, for any of us who thought “there’s always a way to work with a situation.”  For example, the CEOs who quit acquiescing to this administration are thinking differently. Maybe this is a time when those who think mainly about management – of money, resources, people — can think together about ethics, about fairness, the public good. Maybe they will listen now to people other than big shareholders who want to make megabucks.  Charlottesville was a very loud wake-up call.

The fighting could become worse, and that’s the fear that arises, in a child or in us. If we give into fear, we become paralyzed.  But we aren’t helpless.  Day by day, we can make good choices.

For Emma Lazarus and the Mother of Exiles

in reply to Mr Stephen Miller:

 

Not like the silver tongues of ancient times

Who taught with wisdom in the city gate —

Today a brazen youth steps forth with hate

To twist the meaning of an honored sign!

Our mild-eyed lady need not yield a line

Of meaning from her poem. O let him prate

With facts and figures all drawn up to mate

His pompous thoughts. But we will not resign.

When we refuse the despots in their tower,

Resolving to undo their secret schemes,

Heart’s knowledge reveals to us a different power:

The race is won by courage, love, and dreams.

The golden door will long outlast this hour —

The torch remains aloft, undimmed its beams!

–A Cosmopolitan

ON NOT BEING ALONE

If it’s true that we each have to do our own “work on ourselves” – our psychological and spiritual work – how then do we deal with the flip side of that coin, that we have become a highly individualistic and even narcissistic society?

With that question, I feel a fear of loneliness and of eternal separation from others – each “just workin’ on ourselves.”  Then one of my internal voices waxes nostalgic over the days when family and neighborhood were closer – people who cared about you were close at hand.  If not in the same neighborhood, then a short drive away – an hour or two at most.  My parents moved back to their home state because a four-hour drive to their parents, from the next state over, was just too much!

But that is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a prod to imagination but also colors reality in false shades.

As I look at my own life and my children’s, I realize that today we form different networks of support. We probably have more separate networks where one set of friends doesn’t know another set. But still the close circle, the people you would call when you’re having a major personal problem, is a small one. Possibly more friends and less family – but it was always true that there was a special aunt or cousin you could turn to, or on the other hand someone you would never turn to even in your own family.

So with spiritual work: It’s not necessarily the case that we are alone in our individual search for meaning and purpose. In fact, I would suggest we can’t be alone for long.  The reality today is that, as with our family and neighbors, we aren’t required or expected to have the same group (e.g. the same church or even religion throughout our lives), the same teacher or mentor, the same personal companions on the journey, .  And that’s good.  When a group expectation is present, it’s difficult to avoid the traps of the collective ego, the voices that warn you are going “out of bounds,” that you’ve “crossed a line,” that you’ll make others feel uncomfortable.

But our fear of being alone often drives us to seek security in some kind of lasting commitment.  So what do I mean when I reassure you that we can’t be alone for long?

We have a fundamental need to be seen, acknowledged, by someone else.  We cease to exist unless we can look into the face of another and feel “seen.”  My son told me yesterday that his four-month-old gets fussy if, when awake, he is left too long separate from the goings-on of the household. “He needs to be seen,” he said.  Yes.  From infant development, to achievement in school, to the discoveries we make, all throughout life, of who we really are, a blessing comes with each moment of being seen.

Depending on our temperament and how strongly and healthfully we are seen when we are young, we may feel more or less independent.  Many of us need to be in the presence of a personal teacher; the Face gazing on us must be a flesh-and-blood person.  Yet some can feel the presence of a teacher through words, through a voice or even through books. Some do not need an authority or expert so much as a friend, someone who sees us and gives us honest and loving responses.  Some have teachers who are not living persons – they are guided by ancestors, angels, souls, or supernal guides conceived in different ways.  Some can be in the presence of angels through art – sculpture, music, light and color.  We often think we are seeing; but when the experience is deep, we are also being seen.

I like the teaching that each of us has an Angel Out Ahead.*   This Angel is a force in the Imaginal world which we also inhabit (remember: imaginal is not imaginary; it is a real existence in a different form).  When my children lived at home, I could sometimes perceive their angels.  I learned that when one of them was having a difficult time, about to explode in anger or tears at the dinner table, I would focus on the faint luminous presence that was just in front of them, just above their forehead.  Time stopped for a moment, long enough for the child to collect him/herself and move forward with more confidence.

So we are never alone. That light is always shining, just ahead, mysteriously seeing, absorbing who we are at that moment and illuminating the path forward.

That angel may be experienced in many forms.  As a guardian angel that warns us, like the voice that told my husband, “Move!” just before a car hit him, so he was moving with instead of resisting the energy; it probably saved his life. Or as inner angels of kindness that remind us to slow down, relax, soften our prickles.

Is it one angel, or many?  I suspect the latter – angelic dimensions of those around us in visible form, and invisible helpers, teachers and guides by the multitude.  And we can now see camps of angels among whom we move on a daily basis, communities we chose or landed in, with whom we now share an interdependence.  With good fortune, we may be in communities of people who agree to a rule of law, to basic respect for the bodily integrity and property of others, people who greet you pleasantly and serve you with a reasonable amount of grace at the market or the coffee shop, and whom you greet and serve in your turn.  These fundamental forms of civilized behavior are also graces, from the Angels Out Ahead in harmonic vibration together.

When we encounter the dark, we often feel alone because darkness is the thickening veil of separation from others. But when we begin to see the light at the edges, when we see through the clouds, then we also learn to “see through” the opaqueness of the world and of other people.  We can even see their angels.   I learned that when we see a person coming down the street, we should imagine him or her accompanied by angels, chanting “Baruch Ha-Ba!  Blessed is the one coming forth, made in the image of God!”

Bruchim ha-Baim!  Blessed are the Angels in this world and in all their forms, who ensure that we will not be alone.

 

 

 

 

 

* The phrase “Angel Out Ahead” comes from the work of Tom Cheetham on Henry Corbin, who was adapting the Zoroastrian idea of the celestial “twin.” See Cheetham, All the World an Icon, chapter 4, section 4.  The Talmud has a similar idea in the idea of guardian angels (which the Jewish Encyclopedia relates to the Persian idea also). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 10:6) extends this to the world in the saying from Rabbi Simon, “There isn’t one blade of grass that doesn’t have an angel in heaven who strikes it and says ‘Grow!”  (Most internet sources incorrectly attribute this to the Talmud and change it to the angel “bending over and whispering” to the grass. The actual quote is a little more striking.) The word used for heavenly angel is mazal rakia, which would usually mean an astronomical constellation or star, which would have its unique quality.  The word “strike,” while it at first sounds harsh, could be read as like striking a tuning fork, so the grass would vibrate in sympathy with its heavenly counterpart.