rosh hashona on a bicycle

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’ aspects 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 night-time of dreams and poetry and embodies values, imagination, fuzzy logic, intuition, meaning and the influences of menstruation and the ocean tides.

Rosh HaShanah, 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 refer 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 merciful (Ps107) and jealous(Exe 20:5), compassionate (Exe 34:4) andvengeful (Nachum 1:2); 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 the 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 soothed and moistened by the knowledge and humour that, in the end, we humans are brim-full of contradictions and we can only ever do the best we can. We learn self-acceptance because‘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 a quiet 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.

i ‘Contrasted with the astronomical definition of the new moon, which is not visible to the naked eye, the new moon in the Hebrew Calendar is marked by the day and hour that the new crescent is observed.’ The ‘new moon’ is also referred to as the ‘dark moon’, since, although a tiny piece can be seen, it is mostly unseen. Rosh Hashanah is designed to cover both meanings. (cf. note xiii below.)

ii The apple was chosen since in some mythologies ‘the Garden of Eden is scented like an apple orchard’. It has nothing to do with the fruit that Eve offered to Adam. There are various opinions as to what that fruit might have been. But none of the contenders is an apple.

iii Both in the taste that brings joy and in the physical sense of well-being that accompanies its consumption, scripture usually connects honey with goodness, happiness and joy. The Manna in the desert tasted like honey. Solomon’s bride tasted of honey. And the Promised Land was called ‘a land of milk and honey’, (even if some opinions say that this meant from dates.) Honey is happy.

iv In alchemy, salt is the feminine principle of preservation, endurance and reality. So then when we dip our bread in honey, the honey will have to fulfill that function of grounding us into reality during these 10 days. Indeed, honey is an extraordinarily powerful and useful medicine, one of the greatest preservatives that there is and the most enduring of any known food. Based on the homeopathic principle of ‘like cures like’, for all their obvious differences, honey is psychically ‘like’ salt and they would thus be the ‘tikkun’ for each other.

v It is traditional on the ‘High Holy Days’ for both men and women to wear various white items of clothing. The usual sense is that this is a celebratory gesture. In addition to wearing a predominantly white tallis at night on Yom Kippur, men most often wear a kittel on Yom Kippur. Although the kittel is a long white over-shirt, the kittle is actually a death-shroud. So one happily walks about in the world wearing the very item of clothing that one will be buried in later on in life. But it is not only on this ‘difficult’ day that the kittel is worn. It is traditionally worn also at Pesach, a festival of liberation, and also worn by the groom at his own wedding, by all accounts a day of great happiness. Again there is a close dialogue of birth-death, love-fear, happiness-melancholy, movement-stillness, joyful song and mourning.

vi Tishrei corresponds to Libra, the scales of justice and judgement. The Hebrew names of the month have been in use from the time of the Babylonian exile, and they correspond to, and are the same as, the months of the Zodiac, used in ‘Western’ astrology and developed in Babylon through the late bronze and early iron age. Most of the names, in several ancient languages, and all of the meanings of the months correspond.

vii Pesach, like many other sanctified days in the calendar year, is on a full moon, the full moon of the head-butting Ares and exactly opposite to the full moon of Sukkot. A month after Pesach, on the full moon of Iyar, is ‘second-chance Pesach’. Purim, one month before Pesach, is celebrated on the full moon of Adar-Pisces, the ‘lucky fish’ month. On the full moon a month before Purim, Tu b’Shvat is celebrated, the ‘new year for trees’. The full moon of Av, Tu b’Av, which nowadays is trivialised into a sort of ‘modern Jewish Valentines day’, is more properly an esoteric and erotic ‘renewal dance’. (It is significant enough for the Talmud to equate Tu b’Av with Yom Kippur.) Sukkot, a time of great joy closeness with God after the demands of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, is on the full moon of Tishrei. In all, six of the twelve months of the year have significant full-moon festivals, which shows how important and auspicious these times are considered to be.

viii “God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also.” (gen1:16) There is a lot of controversy and discussion over the matter that, according to the Bible’s telling of the story, initially the sun and the moon were created equally as ‘great lights’. They had a disagreement, the moon complained and God made the moon smaller. Thereafter, the sun was called ‘the greater’ and the moon became the ‘lesser’ light. After further negotiations with God, the moon was given the stars to assist and beautify her and she was eventually promised that in the days of Moshiach, the revelation in the world of God-awakened consciousness, the moon’s initial glory would be restored.

ix Shavuot is on the 6th day of Sivan, when the moon has already clearly established her own differentiated identity. Hanukah, from the 25th of Kislev through the new moon into the Tevet, lasts 8 days and is a classic ‘turning of the dark’ winter festival, as found in almost every culture in the world, that goes through observing the end of one lunar cycle and the establishment and ‘rebirth’ of another one. Only Rosh Hashanah ‘stays in the dark’, intimate, concealed and powerful with her beloved.

x “Whoever blesses the new moon in its time welcomes in the presence of the Shechina.”
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 42a. Every month, at the new moon, there is a special ceremony to bless the first sighting of the moon. It is a minor observation and especially observed by women. This is called ‘Rosh Chodesh’, literally the ‘head of the month’ (in distinction to both ‘the head of the year’, Rosh HaShonaand “the head of the months of the year’, Nissan. More talking heads.)

xi For example, when fire and water get too close, usually either the water gets steamed up or the fire gets doused down. To get usable hot water and a contained fire requires some skill.

xii Every philosophy and religious teaching posits two (occasionally more) intersecting forces that ultimately make up one indivisible whole. How these parts communicate, or don’t, pretty much determines the theory and practices that follow.

xiii The term ‘dark moon’ means both the time when the moon entirely disappears from sight, usually for one day in the month, and also when it makes its very first appearance, since at that time, most of the moon is ‘dark’ and cannot be seen. Rosh HaShana is uniquely a two-day festival, which covers both of these meanings.

xiv Adam’s first wife according to the Kabbalah. Equated with Hel, Ma Kali, Baba Yaga, Ereshkigal and other ‘Dark Goddesses’, she represents the ‘underworld’ forces of birth-death and creation-destruction

xv This is a paradoxical condition. One ‘leaves’ and the other ‘arrives’. The ‘lower’ aspects of Self empties out to make space for a new higher revelation of Self. Ecstatic from ex statis, to be ‘out of oneself’, that is, the ego steps aside; and Enthusiastic from en theos, ‘God arrives in’. If one desires to have a conscious experience of the divine, then the second condition is dependent on the first. If the ego does not find a propitious and humble attitude with regards to the arrival of the Holy, the experience of the revelation of the Divine results either in the flooding of consciousness and madness, or in defensive delusional self-importance. Jung calls both of these undesirable outcomes ‘inflation’.That is why, when a person’s ego has an experience of opening to a greater-than-ego consciousness, the first part of the sequence is ‘ecstasy’, ‘getting out of the way of yourself ‘for what is to follow.

xvi The conversation of the soul is the who of experience and meaning. The language of the mind is the how of proof and demonstration. (goes on a bit) (scroll to Hillman) (goes on a lot)

xvii Except perhaps a Tzaddik, a Rebbe or Awakened Master, who no longer of the same order as most people. ‘Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment’, Chogyam Trungpa

xviii CG Jung considered holding the tension of opposites as essential and necessary part of developing a religious consciousness. He called the ‘irrational experience’ of ‘something; greater than us, breaking through the ‘transcendent function’’. “If the tension between the opposites can be held long enough without succumbing to the urge to identify with one side or the other, the third, completely unexpected image, one that unites the two in a creative new way, comes into view.”

xix A modern translation says ‘zealous’. We think ‘jealous’, which is more erotic and passionate, says it better.

xx “(God) himself admitted that he was eaten up with rage and jealousy and that this knowledge was painful to him. Insight existed along with obtuseness, loving-kindness along with cruelty, creative power along with destructiveness. Everything was there, and none of these qualities was an obstacle to the other.” While this statement might be accurate, and support the point we are making, caution is required to avoid the humanistic and transpersonal next step. Rather than interpreting God on our terms, it is worth attempting to receive God on His own terms, without interpretation. And Job got that, and he got an embodied experience of the Divine, which is a pretty good result, all things being considered. But one might need a darker eye to appreciate that.
“No friend or animal wants to be interpreted, even though it may cry for understanding.” Hillman. (Jung’s ‘Answer to Job’, missing the prefatory notes.)

xxi Actually, to get a better perspective on the three weeks, we would have to go back to and include the regaining of our ‘holy ho wholeness’, 6 weeks earlier, on the full moon of ‘Tu b’Av’. Then, to make sense of this time, you would have to go back six days, to the 9th of Av and ‘temple destruction-renewal’. Which is yoked to the ‘three weeks’ of creative breakdown-breakthrough behind that. And then there are 40 days (and the other 40’s in the Bible) of desert-revelation (or flood-rebirth) before that. These follow on from Shavuot, the harvest of abundance, which is also day-50 , the Jubilee, after the 7 sephirot-tweaking Omer weeks since Pesach. That’s already half way around the year in one big cycle of life, tracing a path through the significant psychic events that the soul needs to experienceanew each year.

xxii From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Published in vaad hanochos hatmimim ‘week in review’, January 03 1998.