1st Week of Elul

August 26, 2014
new moon

New Moon

It’s very dark outside tonight. It’s the first night of the month of Elul.

Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. A month from tonight will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.

Tonight I will say my prayers and look at that dark sky. Tonight, I will ask the questions and I will not rush to the answers, because now there is time to let the true answers emerge:

Against whom might I have sinned in the past year?

Some of them are people I know personally. I avoided them, failed to return their calls, whispered about them, excluded them, hurt their feelings, embarrassed them, neglected them, or ignored them. I failed them in some way, large or small.

Some of them are people I don’t know personally. I dismissed them as a group. I thought I knew all I needed to know. I made pronouncements about them. I forgot that “they” are individuals with hopes and dreams, each of them some mother’s child. I forgot that they are made in the Divine Image, just like me.

This first week, I will make an honest effort to identify all the people towards whom I need to make teshuvah. I will figure out, too, what behaviors and attitudes I will need to change in order to make teshuvah, a genuine new path. I will think about what I can change, and what I cannot, to whom I can apologize and for whom an apology would only cause more hurt. In the latter case, I will need to think even harder what to do, in order to put wrongs right.

Before I can do any of this, I need to sit and think and be honest with myself. That is my task this first week of Elul.

For sins against God the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone until the injured party has been appeased. – Mishnah Yoma 8:9

 

 

 


Got Regrets?

August 22, 2014

 

Shame, Blame

In the Jewish calendar, Av is the month of “Terrible Things Happening.”

Given the fallible and fragile nature of human beings, those terrible things are often the product of human behavior. And faced with terrible things, we human beings are prone to blame. We point our fingers at one another, like Adam and Eve in the garden, who tried to blame each other, the serpent, and even the Divine for their misbehavior. Adam’s protest, “That woman YOU gave me did it!” is both funny and tragic.

We approach the end of the month of Av 5774, and this year, all I can say is “Thank Goodness.” Tuesday evening we shall begin a new month, the month of Elul.

Elul is the month that we begin our fall journey of teshuvah, a process of sorrow, responsibility, and change. We notice that we cannot control the behavior of others. We can only control ourselves, and that only imperfectly. We still have our emotions, and we still have our memories of hurts past. But in Elul we are called to ask, “What is my share of this?” and then, “What can change?”

The challenge of Elul is to stop pointing fingers. What have I done, what have we done, and what can be different going forward?

Image by Ian Muttoo, some rights reserved


What is Shabbat Nachamu?

August 8, 2014
"The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" by Victor Raphael

“The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl” a meditation on Isaiah 40:1 by Victor Raphael

We’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks, haven’t we? This year, it wasn’t just in the liturgy and the calendar: it’s been a hard time for Israel, for a lot of people in the Middle East, and for the world. So this week, I will likely listen with tears in my eyes when I hear the familiar words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort, My people!

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu.” It takes this name from the beginning of the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this week, Isaiah 40:1: Nachamu, nachamu ami! [Comfort, comfort, My people!] After the terror of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish People turn to God and to one another for comfort.

There’s a lot of midrash on this passage: who is comforting, who is comforted, and how? The rabbis speculate whether it means comfort as in “There, there” or comfort as in “strengthen.” There is even a midrash that suggests that it is God who needs comforting, after the terrors of Tisha B’Av!

The problem of suffering has puzzled human beings forever. Often suffering comes to those who have done nothing wrong. Sometimes wicked people thrive. How shall we make sense of it all?

I read this line in my own way. I think Isaiah is telling us that to get comfort, we need to give comfort. There is much undeserved suffering in the world, and I am not qualified to judge who “deserves” or does not. What I know is that a lot of us are hurting. This Shabbat, when we feel we need comfort, may each of us reach out to someone else and say, “Take heart.”

Shabbat shalom.


A Jewish Valentine’s Day?

August 5, 2014
"Love Ring" by Daniel Lee

“Love Ring” by Daniel Lee

Did you know there’s a Jewish Valentine’s Day? There was never a Jewish “St. Valentine” but there’s an ancient holiday of love.

Tu B’Av is a minor but fun Jewish holiday. After the mourning of Tisha B’Av, this is a lovely little day to be happy and to celebrate love.

  • Tu B’Av = Fifteenth of the Month of Av. In Hebrew, the letters that form the number 15 can also be pronounced “Tu.”
  • Today in Israel, it’s called Chag HaAhavah, the Holiday of Love, and it’s a favored day for weddings. Think of it as Jewish Valentine’s Day.
  • In Temple times, in Jerusalem, the grape harvest began on the fifteenth of Av and ended on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. On both those days, single girls dressed in white and went to dance in the vineyards in the afternoon. It was a traditional time for courtship.
  • There are no big religious observances for the day. However, it’s a good day to get married, a good day to fall in love, and a great day to tell your loved ones “I love you.”

In 2014, Tu B’Av falls on August 10-11 (begins at sundown, runs until sundown.) For future years, check the Hebrew calendar at http://hebcal.com.

 


Weather and the Jewish Year

July 31, 2014

 

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

Queentimely wrote in response to a recent post:

I don’t know how many readers you have in the southern hemisphere, but it might interest those in the north to be reminded that it’s actually winter here — cold (in Melbourne terms), blowy and dark early.

Excellent point!

One of the quirks of living in California is that the climate and the seasons match that of Israel pretty closely. That’s very handy for us, because the Jewish calendar is rooted in the seasons of the Land of Israel. I am prone to forget that for most of the world, it isn’t so tidy.

For instance, Jews worldwide begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the close of Sukkot. In both Israel and California, that day falls at about the earliest date one might reasonably expect some rain. Therefore the weather is perfect for eating and sleeping in the sukkah: not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too wet. However, if one is celebrating in Minnesota or in Sweden, the sukkah is apt to be downright soggy and cold, because autumn had already arrived weeks before.

The same goes for Passover: it’s a spring holiday, hence the parsley and the egg on the seder plate. However, the 14th of Nisan may be a bit early for spring in some northern climes. In the southern hemisphere, Jews sit around the seder table in the fall.

So why not simply attune the holidays to the local climate? Long ago, when Jews were forced into Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, we decided to keep our calendars aligned with that of our homeland. So Jews in Spain, Jews in South America, Jews in Australia, and Jews in Finland keep the same calendar, no matter what the weather is doing in their local neighborhoods. Just as we face towards Jerusalem for prayer, we align the Jewish year with that of the Land of Israel, because it is, and always has been, home.

So, readers: if your climate or seasons are radically different from that of Israel, how does it affect your observance of the calendar? If you have celebrated the Jewish Year in the far North or south of the equator, I hope to hear from you.


Welcome to the Month of Av

July 28, 2014

Francesco Hayez, "Destruction of the Second Temple" 1867, photographed by marsmet543

Francesco Hayez, “Destruction of the Second Temple” 1867, photographed by marsmet543

Av (ahv) is the eleventh month of the Hebrew year.

It’s often mentioned as the “unluckiest” or “saddest” month of the year, based on a mention in the Talmud in Taanit 19a: “When we enter Av, our joy is diminished.”

Av has a number of sad anniversaries in it. Foremost of those is the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, on which we remember the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. These were the greatest disasters in Jewish history before the 20th century.

Av is also a hot, dry time in the Land of Israel, when water is even more precious than usual and when the sun beats down even in the relatively cooler places like Jerusalem and Sefat. 

Rosh Chodesh Av (the 1st of Av) began July 27 at sundown in 2014.

In 2015, it will begin at sundown on July 16.

In 2016, it will begin at sundown on August 4.

What are your associations for this time of year?


Welcome to Tammuz!

June 27, 2014
Ishtar & Tammuz

Ishtar & Tammuz

Tammuz 5774 begins this weekend, on the evening of June 28, 2014.

Welcome to Tammuz! We observe it in the summertime, just as did the ancient Babylonians, who named it after their god Tammuz.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. So the month of Tammuz still carries the name of a long-forgotten idol. In ancient Babylon, the month was dedicated to the god, and it began on the first new moon after the summer solstice. The shortening days and the blistering heat made a setting for a period of ritual mourning for the god, who was understood to die and be resurrected annually, similar to the Greek Persephone and Ra/Osiris of Egypt. He’s even mentioned in the Tanakh as one of the foreign gods sometimes worshipped in Jerusalem, much to the distress of the prophets:

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then he said to me, ‘Have you  seen this, O son of man? turn yet again, and you shall see greater abominations than these!” – Ezekiel 8:14-15

There are no holidays in Tammuz, only one fast: on the 17th of Tammuz there is a fast from sunrise to sundown in memory of breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, the beginning of the end for Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. That day begins the “Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we recall the destruction of the temple and other disasters.

Tammuz isn’t a happy month. Traditionally, the sin of the Golden Calf is supposed to have taken place in Tammuz. There are also some notable yahrtzeits (anniversaries of deaths) in the calendar this month:

This is usually a quiet month in synagogues. Behind the scenes, preparations for the High Holy Days are underway. Many people take vacations now, and it is also the season for congregational trips to Israel. It is quiet, but a time of gathering energy, of things just over the horizon. Stay as cool as you can.


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