Monday, August 31, 2009

The Shofar 1: "Awake, O You Sleepers"

What is the meaning of the shofar which we blow on Rosh Hashanah? A quotation garnered from S. Y. Agnon's Days of Awe:
Despite the fact that the blowing of the ram's-horn on Rosh ha-Shanah is an explicit decree in the Scripture, it is also an allusion, as if to say: Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in Teshuvah. Remember your Creator, O you who forget the truth in the vanities of time and go astray all the year after vanity and folly that neither profit nor save. Look to your souls, and better your ways and actions. Let every one of you abandon his evil way and his wicked thought, which is not good. [Maimonides, Hilkhot Teshuvah III.4]
For more on the past, present, and future meanings of the shofar, from a Messianic Jewish perspective, check out Derek Leman's article Elul: Preparation, Reflection, Spiritual Discipline.

Repent one day before your death

Rabbi Eliezer would say: Repent one day before your death. (Pirkei Avot 2:10) He asked his disciples: Does a man know on which day he will die? Said he to them: So being the case, he should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die; hence, all his days are passed in a state of repentance. Indeed, so said Solomon in his wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:8): "At all times, your clothes should be white, and oil should not lack from your head' '' (Talmud, Shabbat
For more thoughts on teshuvah, repentance, from the prophet Haggai and from the teachings of Yeshua, check out David ben Avraham's article 'Tis the Season to Repent.

How do I go about doing teshuvah?

Elul is a season of teshuvah (repentance, turning). Last week we ended the week with the question, "And have you nothing to mend?" I want to start the week off with a different question: how do we do teshuvah?

The dangerous irony is that I could spend all month blogging about Elul and repentance and never actually get around to doing it. But how do I go about doing teshuvah?

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach ("Reb Shlomo" to his followers) was known as "the singing rabbi." He was one of the most influential Jewish religious songwriters in the 20th century. He was also a pioneer in the baal teshuva movement, through which countless Jewish young people have returned to the Jewish faith and way. Reb Shlomo told two stories:
The first one is someone came to the Holy Rizhner* and said, “Can you please teach me how to repent?” and he answered, “Listen, man, when you did your sinning you didn’t come to me to ask me how to do it. If you know how to sin. You also know how to repent.”
The other story is, someone came to the Mittler Rebbe**, who’s like a master of Teshuva and has written many books on Teshuva. “You have written so many books; please teach me how to do Teshuva.” So the Mittler answers, “To tell the truth, after all the books I’ve written, I still don’t know.”
Reb Shlomo said "Even if you study all the books in the world about repentance, nobody can tell you how to do it, just you alone."

I think the truth Reb Shlomo was communicating is that teshuvah is something that comes from faith--it comes from the heart. Thus, there's no fool-proof formula that can be prescribed.

But just because there's no exact formula for teshuvah doesn't mean we should be discouraged. Rather, we should see it as an opportunity to serve God. Most of the practical advice I've read on doing teshuvah during the season of Elul has involved several things:
  • Set aside time to prayerfully consider your life before God. Go somewhere where you can be in solitude for a time.
  • Ask yourself questions like, "What regrets do I have from the previous year? What mistakes did I make? Is there anyone I need to ask forgiveness from? Are there any wounds in my heart that affect how I think of or relate to certain people--my spouse, my family, friends?"
  • Be specific--list out your realizations so that you can take them with you and continue to do the process of making things right. Then at the end of the high holy days you can dispose of the list as a way of showing that God forgives sin and accepts the penitent.
  • Don't go overboard in being introspective! Teshuvah isn't about beating yourself up. As much as possible, let your teshuvah be characterized by gratefulness (to God for revealing these things to you) and joy--the kind of joy you get when you return home after a time away.***
I'm committing to putting my money where my mouth is (as it were), by working through these practical steps in order to "bear fruits in keeping with repentance." (Matt 3:8) How about you?

For more practical advice on doing teshuvah, I recommend checking out Rabbi Russ Resnick's article "The Month of Elul."

* Yisroel Friedman (1797-1850) (Der Heyliger Rizhiner)
** Dov Ber of Lubavitch (1773-1827)
*** Returning home is how Reb Shlomo described the most fundamental way of teshuvah.

Friday, August 28, 2009

And have you nothing to mend?

Whew! My last few postings have been pretty chock full of information. That's all well and good, but I really don't want to lose sight of the spirit of Elul--the main point of doing these daily postings.

So, let's take inventory. I myself have definitely been swept into the preparatory spirit of Elul this week as God, in His mercy, has been bringing to light unresolved issues in my heart, and giving me the impetus to repent, to forgive, to make a change. How about you?

As we continue to allow God search our hearts this coming Shabbat, I thought I'd finish out the week with the following encouraging story:

Once on the New Moon of Elul, the zaddik* Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev [18th cent] was standing at his window. A Gentile cobbler passed by and asked him, "And have you nothing to mend?"

At once the zaddik sat himself down on the ground and weeping bitterly cried, "Woe is me, and alas my soul, for the Day of Judgment is almost here, and I have still not mended myself!" (Days of Awe p. 26)
As you continue to prepare for the high holy days, make sure to take time to ask yourself before God: "Have I something to mend?"

* A zaddik (or tzaddik) is a righteous or saintly person. Within Hasidic Judaism particularly, the tzaddik is seen as a true spiritual leader and guide, a person to whom the Hasidim should cling in order to strengthen their relationship with Hashem.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why do we celebrate the new year at Rosh Hashanah?

Yesterday we ended with the question of where we got the name Rosh Hashanah [lit. "head of the year"] for the first day of the seventh month. Why do we observe the new year celebration in the middle of the year, on Rosh Hashanah?

The answer was alluded to in one of the footnotes from
yesterday's post:

There were two celebrations of a new annual cycle in ancient Israel, one in the spring month of Aviv (later called Nisan), 'the first of the months of the year' (Exod. 12:2), and another in the fall at 'the turn of the year' (Exod. 23:16, 34:22)." (Entering the High Holy Days, p. 4)
Did you catch that? In ancient Israel, there were actually multiple new years!

While this may at first seem strange, it actually is not. Here in the United States, we also have multiple new years: on January 1 we celebrate the turning of the year, while the government (and many corporations) have a fiscal year for accounting purposes. And schools start a new year each September!


In Judaism, Nissan 1 is the new year for the purpose of counting the reign of kings and months on the calendar, Elul 1 (in August) is the new year for the tithing of animals, Shevat 15 (in February) is the new year for trees (determining when first fruits can be eaten, etc.), and Tishri 1 (Rosh Hashanah) is the new year for years (when we increase the year number. Sabbatical and Jubilee years begin at this time). (
Thus, in the mishnah* we find:

The first of Tishre is the beginning of the year [Rosh Hashanah] for years, sabbatical cycles, and the jubilee. (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:1)
Similar to New Year's Day in the United States, Rosh Hashanah is the time in the Jewish calendar when the year number increases. But while in the U.S., the year increases on the first day of the first month, in the Jewish calendar, the year increases on the first day of the seventh month--at the "head" or "turn" of the year! Thus, it's become the custom to wish each other 'L'shana Tova!' (literally "To a good year!") at Rosh Hashanah, and to eat apples and honey in hope for a sweet year.

If this was new to you, let me know in the comments section below!

* The mishnah is the earliest written codification of Jewish oral traditions (compiled c. 200CE by Judah haNasi). It contains the details of how the people of Israel kept the commandments of the Torah in practice. The mishnah is the core around which the Talmud is organized.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Biblical Origins: Rosh Hashanah

The following passages in the Torah concern the first day of the seventh month:
In the seventh month on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord. (Lev. 23:24-25)

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded. You shall present a burnt offering of pleasing odor to the Lord. (Num. 29:1-2)
The Torah prescribes complete rest, loud blasts of the horn, and burnt offerings . . . yet it doesn't seem to provide an explanation of why. So where did we get all the central themes of Rosh Hashanah--the New Year, the proclamation of God's kingship, examining ourselves in anticipation of divine judgment, peoples' names being inscribed in the Book of Life?

Here's what I found:

First: Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar to fall on a new moon. Reuven Hammer points out that the number seven seems to be of particular importance here:
Just as the seventh day of the week is holy, so the seventh month of the year has special significance. Since each new moon is a sacred time, it is logical that the seventh new moon--counting from Nisan, in the spring--should also acquire a special aura of holiness. (Entering the High Holy Days, p.4)
many scholars have suggested that the first day of the seventh month was popularly celebrated in ancient Israel as a divine coronation day, the time of God's assumption of the kingship and the beginning of a new cycle of the year.* (Ibid)
Scholars find allusions to such a "divine coronation day" in Psalms 93-100**, liturgical songs which focus on God as creator, king, and judge:
The LORD is king, He is robed in grandeur. (Ps. 93:1)

Rise up, judge of the earth! (Ps. 94:2)

For the LORD is a great God, the great king of all divine beings. In His hand are the depths of the earth; the peaks of the mountains are His. His is the sea, He made it; and the land, which His hands fashioned. (Ps. 95:3-5)

Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together at the presence of the LORD, for He is coming to rule the earth; He will rule the world justly, and its peoples with equity. (Ps. 98:7)

The Lord, enthroned on cherubim, is king. . . Mighty king who loves justice, it was You who established equity, You who worked righteous judgment in Jacob. (Ps. 99:1,4)

Acknowledge that the LORD is God; He made us and we are His; His people, the flock He tends. (Ps. 100:2)
Specific references are also made to one of the sounds of the shofar--the teru'ah--in Psalms 95:1, 2; 98:4, 6; and 100:1. This sound is connected to the proclamation of God's kingship.

So where did the holiday get the name Rosh Hashanah? More tomorrow...

* "There were two celebrations of a new annual cycle in ancient Israel, one in the spring month of Aviv (later called Nisan), 'the first of the months of the year'
(Exod. 12:2), and another in the fall at 'the turn of the year' (Exod. 23:16, 34:22)." (Hammer, p. 4)

** According to tradition, Psalms 90-100 were composed by Moses (see Ps. 90:1).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rosh Hashanah and Judgment

We began our preparations for the high holy days by considering the proclamation of God's kingship at Rosh Hashanah, and what making such a proclamation requires of us. In fact, it doesn't take long to discover that the central theme of Rosh Hashanah in Jewish practice is the theme of judgment.

Jewish scholar Reuven Hammer writes:
The notion of judgment is nowhere mentioned in the Torah in connection with Rosh Hashanah. What, then, inspired it? When we examine the psalms connected with a possible ancient New Year celebration, we see that they already embody this concept. After describing the proclamation of God as king, Psalms 96 and 98 conclude with the idea that God is coming "to judge the earth; He will judge the world in righteousness and its peoples in faithfulness." In God's role as judge and ruler of the world, God is responsible for judgment. There is, then, a direct ideological connection between the New Year, marking the beginning of God's reign, and the idea of a godly judgment of the earth. (Entering the High Holy Days, p.22)

Next week we will continue exploring the history of Rosh Hashanah practices. Until then...Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

אני לדודי ודודי לי

Tonight begins the month of Elul. The sages pointed out that Elul can be read as an acronym for Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li--"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." (Song. 6:3) This is the spirit of Elul--a time of soul-searching, reconsecration to God, and preparation for the high holy days.

In twenty-eight days we will hear the sound of the shofar, summoning us before the Ribono shel Olam. In twenty-eight days we will reverently acknowledge the Holy One as King over all.

But the proclamation that God is King cannot be made lightly. Psalm 99:4 describes Hashem as the mighty King "who loves justice." And in this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, God tells the people of Israel, "Justice, justice, you shall pursue." (Deut. 16:20)

The Reform prayerbook Gates of Prayer says it well:
A people which seriously calls God Himself its King must become a true people, a community where all members are ruled by honesty without compulsion, kindness without hypocrisy, and the brotherliness of those who are passionately devoted to their divine leader. When social inequality, distinction between the free and the unfree, splits the community and creates chasms between its members, there can be no true people, there can be no 'God's people'. (#30, p.13-14)
A true king will call his subjects to account. Thus, the month of Elul is dedicated to searching and preparing ourselves to stand before God and reaffirm the ancient declaration of His kingship: Hashem Melech L'Olam Va'ed.


Shalom and welcome to Bedikat haGetz!

In Jewish thought, the spark represents a connection to the divine. Sparks also signify the potential for light.

It has been said that within every Jewish soul there is a pintele yid, a hidden spark. A mystical Hassidic teaching even calls this 'the spark of the Mashiach.'

The purpose of this blog is to share 'sparks of light' which inspire me as I endeavor to study my Jewish heritage. I hope that by sharing these with you, I can fan the spark within your soul, inspiring you to greater devotion to God and His Messiah, the true light of the world.

The sages say that when Moshe saw the burning bush and turned aside to take a closer look, God was pleased and judged him worthy to reveal Himself to him. We who are followers of Yeshua have been instructed to 'test everything; hold fast to what is good.' I believe that the pages of Jewish tradition are rich with good. It is a heritage we will be blessed to receive--if, like Moshe, we are willing to turn aside to take a closer look.

But don't take my word for it...