This essay was written and emailed to family, friends and students in September 2014, before ROSH HASHANAH 5775.
A Guide to the Bi-Curious
Rosh HaShanah 5775 begins on Wednesday 24th September 2014 at sunset. That’s the date in the Gregorian calendar. Mid-week, towards the end of the month, two-thirds through the calendar year. Ordinary enough and nothing about that date leaps out to grab our attention. But in the Hebrew calendar, it’s the new moon, the first of the month of Tishre. And that’s the first clue to what’s really going on.
Yom Kippur starts on Friday 03rd October at sunset and ends at three stars on Saturday 04th . Yom Kippur is always on the 10th day of the lunar cycle. The period from Rosh HaShanah though to Yom Kippur is referred to as ‘The Days of Awe’, or ‘the ten days of repentance’ and other sobering titles. These are ‘solemn’ days are punctuated by much self-examination, prayers asking of forgiveness and mercy, confession of our sins, physical duress, including two fasts and, like a mourner, not washing on Yom Kippur, visiting graves, receiving malkot, (lashes), pleading with God not to punish us and instead to spare our lives, not because we deserve such consideration, because we say repeatedly that we don’t, but only because God is merciful and lenient. Generally, these days are not really considered ‘fun’ times.
There are, however, contradictory elements during this time. While there are the ‘austere’ and ‘fearful’ aspect of the ‘days of judgment’, there is also a sense of celebration and great joy during these same days. The abundant meals, usually with meat and wine, elaborate tables set on both nights of Rosh Hashanah, the luxury of fresh apple dipped into honey , and then eating our bread dipped in honey (instead of the usual salt ) at all meals throughout the 10 days, wearing our finest clothes and buying new clothing to wear at this time, especially on the second night of Rosh HaShanah, the positive affirmations and good wishes and blessings to anyone you meet (‘may you have a good year’, ‘may you be inscribed into the Book of Life for a blessed and sweet year’ etc), bodies cleansed and washed in warm water and the tradition of wearing white garments , at high holy day prayers, all point to joyous and bright aspects to temper what might otherwise be felt and understood as one-sidedly gloomy times.
There are more ‘mixed messages’ and balancing of opposites. Rosh HaShanah literally means ‘The Head of the Year’ and refers to the first day of the month of Tishrei , the seventh month of the year. Six months before, on the opposite side of the balancing scales, is the month of Nissan, the first month, and called in the Torah ‘the head of the months of the year’.
‘Year’ points to solar cycles and seasons, and ‘month’ joins with lunar rhythms and tides. Each one has their own ‘head’ and they do not always think alike. At full moon , the sun and moon are optimally apart, allowing for an ‘easier’ dialogue, even ‘differences of opinion’ between the two forces. At such a time, the two heavenly bodies are (from our perspective on earth) equal in size and in equal ‘dialogue’ and authority . While both forces have their own effect on the earth, and necessarily affect one another, there is enough distance between them for each to ‘have their say’ without one overwhelming the other. The sun rules daylight clarity and science and symbolises proof, demonstration, discrimination, rational consciousness and the implications of different seasons. The moon suggests the nighttime of dreams and poetry and embodies values, imagination, fuzzy logic, intuition, meaning and the influences of menstruation and the ocean tides.
Rosh Hashona, however, is different. It is the only time in the Hebrew calendar that a major festival is consecrated on a new moon, when the sun and moon are at their closest. Two powerful and different forces getting close can be an extraordinarily creative time and is also potentially a dangerous time.
Alchemic texts refers to this ‘dark moon’ as a time of mystical intimacy of the masculine and feminine forces, a Coincidentia Oppositorum , a particularly intense conjuntio fraught with dangers. Traditional Jewish sources similarly connect the dark moon with Lilith .
The paradox of joining opposites and the experience of wholeness continues. The real revelation and telos of the experience of the ten days, of heartfelt self-examination and earnest self-evaluation, is only fulfilled and completed by joining with the experience of the days of Sukkot. This weeklong festive time of joy and overflowing begins on the full moon of Tishre after Yom Kippur, and culminates in ecstatic dance and enthusiastic devotion .
The ‘contradictory elements’ and the compensatory connection between the Ten Days and the festival of Sukkot reveal patterns that show up everywhere and are not limited to these days alone. There is at least one significant lesson that Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days, the month of Tishre and the entire year teach in common: The closer we get to embracing all our many internal contradictions, the closer we get to living with the experience of God in our lives. The more we look, the easier it is to notice this fundamental truth about ritual times and the ceremonies through which we connect with God. Paradox is everywhere and opens a window into eternity. Although this cannot be logically explained, the curious sense of ‘rightness’, and the meaning achieved by understanding it, can be experienced as the truth.
Everyone is sometimes generous and sometimes selfish, at some times good and at other times mean. We are never only one side. We can all cope well enough with internal contradictions when they are sequential and there is some distance between them. ‘Yesterday I was sad, today I am happy.’, ‘Last week I was angry, now I’m calm.’ The difficulty only arises when these two feelings or senses or understandings both want to inhabit us at the same time. Then we experience a tension of opposites.
And in this regard, we are made in God’s image. We are instructed both to love and to fear God (Deu 6:5); we are told that God is jealous (Exe 20:5), Job has a difficult time with God and Isaiah tells us “I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I LORD, make all these things.” (Isa 45:7)
The entire three weeks, from start of Rosh HaShanah until the end of Simchat Torah (‘Rejoicing in Holy Teaching’) are really one single piece of music with different movements. ‘Worrying’ about our own dumbass behaviours and the possible karmic whiplash and weight of the awkward blush-times of the past year is embraced and moistened by the knowledge and humour that, in the end, ‘if you could climb high enough, you would see that the reason the Heavenly Court grants its forgiveness is that ultimately there is nothing to forgive. From the highest plateau you would see that you are dancing your part perfectly. You always have. And you always will.’
The new moon of Rosh Hashanah is about bringing all the ‘opposites’ of who and what we are together in one place and at one time, our weaknesses along with our well-adapted and superior aspects. This is what informs our attitude during this time: intense, serious, reflective, repentant and also confident, generous, spontaneous and bold. We ‘play the game sincerely’ of being concerned about the state of our souls and ‘ashamed’ at our short-sightedness and in the very same instant, we do not take ourselves so seriously that we forget to laugh at our humanness. This is the special gift of God’s blessing to us at this time and the meaning and renewal of the year.
It is by virtue of the close proximity of the paradoxical opposites that we are able to live our lives with an awareness and acknowledgement of our inferiorities and at the same time to confidently anticipate abundance, joy, curiosity and holy quiescence in the year ahead. This is how we become fully human, in the image of God