Friday, September 28, 2007

Sukkot: Season of Our Joy

After the solemnity of the High Holy Days, comes Sukkot, which is the Jewish Thanksgiving. It is the Festival of the Ingathering Harvest, the last harvest before winter.
Sukkot is one of the shaloshim regalim--the three pilgrimage festivals--seasons in which Israelites were commanded to bring offerings to the temple in Jerusalem. It is commanded in Torah thus:

"On the fifteenth day of the seventh month is the feast of Sukkot (Booths) to Adonai, to last seven days...when you have gathered the produce of your land, you shall observe a festival to Adonai...You shall dwell in sukkot seven that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I, Adonai your G-d." (Leviticus 23: 34, 39, 42-43).

Sukkot started at sunset on Wednesday. So on Wednesday afternoon, N. and I decorated the Sukkah so that we could observe the festival. I strung the chile lights up while N. cut branches from trees that needed trimming on our land. We figure it will take several years of Sukkot building to actually trim down the trees as much as they need it.

A sukkah is essentially a harvest booth. In the days of old Israel, people would build booths near their fields and orchards in order to sleep near where they were working the harvest. The booth should have branches across the roof, called schkach, to shade the interior, but it should be thin enough that one can sit in the sukkah at night and count the stars, as our father Abraham did of old, reminding us that the offspring of Israel will number as the stars.

We beautify the mitzvah (commandment) of the sukkah by decorating it with vegetables and fruits of the harvest. Ours has Indian corn and peppers tied to the roof, and pumpkins and squash to decorate the table. We take our meals in the sukkah throughout the seven days, which is enough to satisfy the commandment to dwell in the sukkah.

Since the first night and day are days of festival, we light candles (or lamps--since we are outside) and make a blessing over a cup of wine (called Kiddush) to usher in the Holy Time. Being that we are the spiritual descendents of wanderers (Ivri--Hebrew--means boundary crosser), we do not, as a rule, sanctify spaces; rather we sanctify time. For example, the synagogue sanctuary is not a sanctified space. But the times we celebrate there are holy, as is the holy kahal--congregation--that prays there.

There is another commandment we observe at Sukkot. It is the commandment of the four species. In Leviticus we are also told:

" shall take the product of goodly trees (citron), together with the branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees (myrtle), and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your G-d seven days." (Leviticus 23:40)

Lulav and Etrog
by N.

During Sukkot we wave the lulav and etrog, in six directions while we are dwelling in the sukkah. The lulav is a bundle that has the palm branch in the middle, two willow branches on one side, and three myrtle branches on the other. The etrog is a citron, which smells really, really good! It looks like a lemon, but it is larger and jucier and smells sweeter. We hold the lulav in the right hand, and the etrog in the left hand, and we face east. We shake the lulav three times east, three times south, three times west, three times north, three times up and three times down. This shows that G-d is everywhere! While we do the shaking, we sing "Hodu l'Adonai ki tov!" That means "Give thanks to Adonai for G-d is good."

There is a story about what the lulav and etrog mean. The willow branches have no smell and no taste, like the Jew who does not study Torah and does not do good deeds. The myrtle branches have a sweet smell, but no taste, like the Jew who studies Torah, but does not do good deeds. The palm branch is from the date palm, and it has no smell, but the dates are sweet to taste, like the Jew who does not study Torah but does good deeds. And the etrog--the citron--has both a good smell and tastes good, like the Jew who both studies Torah and does good deeds. We bring them all together when we thank G-d on Sukkot because the it takes all kinds of Jews to make our people Israel.

Back to you, Mom!

Here is Bruce demonstrating the waving of the Lulav and Etrog in our Sukkah.

Sukkot brings together so many things! All of the senses are involved. We sit in the beautiful Sukkah and feast our eyes on the colors of autumn and the full harvest moon. We wave the lulav, smelling the myrtle leaves and the citron. We taste the sweet wine and eat good food there. We hear the swish of the lulav and the melody of Hodu l'Adonai. We feel the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze of sunset, and the night air on our skin and in our breathing. All of the senses are involved in making a memory. The memory of wandering in the wilderness, fed by manna from the desert. The memory of all of our ancestors, who also sat in their sukkot the same way that we are now.

As we sit in our Sukkot--booths that shake a little in the wind, we also look at our houses with thankfulness, and remind ourselves of the fragility of our lives. Everything we have could be gone in an instant. It is essentially dust in the wind. We are commanded to rejoice in the bounty of earth, given to us freely. We are reminded that life is fragile and fleeting, a gift from the Eternal. And we remember that we are one with our ancestors, who wandered in the wilderness, becoming a people through shared hardship and emunah--reliance on the Eternal.

In the Birkat ha-Mazon--the blessing after food, we sing:
"Poteach et yadecha..."--You open your Hand and satisfy the needs of every living thing.

Essentially, everything we have comes from the Eternal. We did not make it. We do not own it. Our existance is predicated on the gift of life and the gifts of the earth. And therefore we have the obligation to care for and nurture life and the earth that sustains it. It is not ours to destroy. We must be good stewards of creation so that we and our children may live.

During Sukkot we read Kohelet the Preacher, who said:

"What profit it a man of all his labor that he works under the sun? One generation passes and another comes, but earth abides forever...For what has a man from all his labor, all his striving under the sun. For all his days are pains, and occupation a vexation...this also is vanity. There is nothing better than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy pleasure for his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of G-d...All the days of his life which G-d has given; for that is his portion...Let him remember that the days of his life are not many; for G-d answers him in the joy of his heart." (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4; 2:22-24; 5:17-19).

It is good to take the time to rejoice in the fruits of our labor, for our lives are fragile and fleeting and what remains is memory.

Chag Sameach--Happy Holiday--during the Season of Our Rejoicing!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Preparing for the Harvest Moon

Tonight is the full moon. This moon is called the 'Harvest Moon' by many. The full moon tends to rise very large and very yellow at this time of the year because of it's position in the sky. As the sun appears to move south now, due to the earth's tilt, the moon and the plane of the ecliptic appear to move north.

In the Jewish calendar this is the full moon of the month of Tishrei, which has significance, as we shall see.

This full moon is also coming hard on the heels of the autumnal equinox, which happened overnight between Saturday and Sunday just past. In this part of the world, it happened in the early morning hours of September 23.

Here is the sunrise on Monday morning. I try to take the position of the sunrise on the solstices, exquinoxes and cross-quarter days, but Sunday morning we woke up to much needed rain. So I took the picture on Monday. I also took it from a different position than the front porch. I have the whole apparent movement of the sun through the seasons documented from the front porch now, so I moved to the corner of the house in the side garden.

And here is the sunset on the equinox, taken from the back door. I thought I would add sunsets this year. It has moved a fair distance south, and now setting south of Tijeras canyon. At the summer solstice, it sets above the Sandia mountain front. Maybe next year, I will get really ambitious and capture the annalema!
Now there's a project...

This year, the Jewish festivals have been very close to the solar year quarters and cross-quarters. And we are in the month of Tishrei, the month that has more holidays than any other month. In fact, counting the two days of Rosh Hashanah (Tishrei 1-2), as well as 7 more days of repentance, and then Yom Kippur (Tishrei 10), we have already had 10 days of holiday this month. But we are not done yet. Tomorrow night, on Tishrei 15, we begin the seven day festival of Sukkot, the Ingathering Harvest festival. And then we have one more day to linger--Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, bringing the grand total of holiday days in Tishrei up to 18! So although the days of awe ended at sunset on Yom Kippur, we still have Holy Days to prepare for!

It is the custom to arrive home from synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur and immediately begin to build the Sukkah--Booth--that we will eat in and dwell in during the Ingathering Harvest Festival. The purpose of this is the link the Holy Days and to express confidence that the repentance of Yom Kippur was effective. We are turning from awe to joy.

In our family, we never seem to be able to do that. We could, I suppose, bring out two boards and put them together, but we are tired and very full after the break-the-fast meal, which is a combination that leads us to fall into bed rapidly upon arriving home after a full day at synagogue. So on Sunday morning, after a good breakfast of eggs, bagels and creamed herring (the last left over from breaking the fast), Bruce pulled out the parts of the Sukkah.

Now, being that he is an engineer, there is no sloppy nailing involved. He has the braces already bolted to the uprights so that all he has to do is put the boards in place and bolt them in. I watch with some trepidation as he and N. go about putting up the frame and then they tie on the walls and roof, made of trellis, with pre-cut lengths of rope, that Bruce prepared the first year we were married. Well, actually, Bruce cut them. N., our resident pyromaniac, burned the ends to keep them from fraying. (N., who can start a fire in rain with a bow drill, is also responsible for burning the chametz every year just before Passover starts).

Why do I watch with trepidation? Because the Sukkah--the harvest booth--is a symbol of the transience of all material goods in life, and therefore is supposed to shake in the wind. Being an Engineer and a card-carrying Geek, First Class, my husband has great difficulty with this concept. Nothing he builds should be anything but solid. This year, I fluttered around, as usual, reading aloud the rules for Sukkah building as recorded in the Talmud out of Seasons of Our Joy by Yitz Greenberg, in order to remind Bruce that this is not just some Yiddishe Mama whim, it's THE LAW!

Finally, Bruce stopped, and with an exasperated sigh, announced, "This Sukkah is going to shake in the wind! I put only one carriage bolt in each brace, whereas last year it was two. And I told N. not to tighten it as tight as he did last year!"

"Yeah, Mom," N. agreed. "Just try it! It shakes."

To paraphrase the Mayor Daley of my childhood:
Dey tell me its gonna shake in the wind. I dunno. Looks pretty solid to me.

But then, Bruce insists that there are the legally prescribed two and a half walls there, too. I count only two. Seems like we need another half-wall on the north. When I pointed this out, Bruce rolled his eyes and invoked a legal fiction. Then he put the tools away, humming the tune to Leave a Little Bit Undone all the while. I should have never purchased that CD!

Tomorrow I will put on the strings of Chile lights. This is a New Mexican Sukkah. And we will hang the vegetables and put on the schkach (branches on top). And we will invite in the Ushpizin--the Holy Guests. And we will proceed to dwell in the Sukkah for seven days. Thank goodness "dwelling" can be defined as eating in the Sukkah, because the nights have become frosty here on our mountain ridge.

But tonight, I need to set dough for Challah. Another Holy Day starts tomorrow morning.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Rabbi's Sermon and Blessing OR The Most Beautiful Yom Kippur Ever

Our Yom Kippur was a beautiful day. It was a warm and sunny fall day. The leaves are just beginning to turn in Albuquerque, although the Bosque is still green, but we can sense the season to come in the turning of the first leaves.

One of the highlights of the day for me, is the morning service. There are so many memories bound up in that service for me. We sing "Shachar Avacheshka," which is "Early will I seek You..." and it is one the few congregational hymns still done in the old Reform, Germanic style. Even the English words reflect the heritage of Classical Reform:

"Early will I seek You, G-d, my refuge strong.
Late prepare to meet You, with my evening song.
Though unto Your greatness, I with trembling soar,
Yet in my inmost thinking, lies Your eyes before.

What this frail heart's dreaming, and my tongue's poor speech,
Can they even distant to Your greatness reach?
Being great in mercy, You will not despise,
Praises which 'til death's hour, from my soul shall rise."

The theme of the morning service is that of the Day of Decision. Yom Kippur is the day when the metaphorical gates of heaven are open to all who seek to enter with a humble heart. The normal morning prayers, the Shema (Hear, O Israel!) and her blessings, the Amidah (standing prayer) and the K'dusha (G-d's Holiness), are supplemented with reminders that the House of Israel is called to holiness, and that we are unable to do this awesome work alone. We read the Viddui--the confession--silently and then together, as a congregation. We ask earnestly for G-d's great help in our desire to come nearer to holiness. The Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is Nitzavim--You Stand--taken from D'varim (Deuteronomy):

"You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai, your G-d--the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every one in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water--to enter into the sworn covenant which Adonai your G-d makes with you this day...And it is not with you alone that I make this covenant: I make it with those who are standing here with us today before Adonai your G-d, and with all who are not here with us this day...For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor far away. It is not in heaven that you should say: 'Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down for us, that we may do it?'...No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and on your heart, that you may do it...I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse..."

The emphasis of the Torah reading is the idea that we are standing before the Eternal, but that whether we will have life or death, blessing or curse, is our own choice.
After the Torah, reading, I had the honor of chanting the Haftarah (Prophetic Reading) in Hebrew for the 11th year. The Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning is taken from Isaiah: K'rah b' Garon--Cry Aloud:

Cry aloud, lift up your voice like a shofar and declare to my people their transgression, to the House of Jacob, their sin...Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing like a reed and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?...Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?...Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn...You shall renew your body's strength,; you shall be like a watered gardern, like an unfailing stream. Your people shall rebuild the ancient ruins and lay the foundation for ages to come..."

All of this ritual and beautiful and moving. It was made even more beautiful this year, because the congregation has gotten a sound system for the choir. When we designed the sanctuary, we did not make allowance for the accoustics from where the choir stands, and the sound went up into the nichos in the ceiling. I know the music of the High Holy Days, and I know it is beautiful. I know what it should sound like. But since N. has been too old for babysitting and children's services, I have been sitting out in the congregation in order to help him manage his prayers, and have not been with the choir. Therefore, I have been unable to really hear the harmonies and counterpoint, and I had forgotten how beautiful the music really is.

And when I think about it, my vow to be there and to be one with the prayer instead of standing outside the service with my perfectionist hat on and with the critical voice in my head, also made the beauty of the service far more apparent than it has been in many years. I don't know what it was, exactly, perhaps all of it--the sound system, staying in the "good reality," hearing the words as if they were addressed to me and not some "they" out there--but not only did the service appear beautiful to me, but the holy congregation that I stood among glowed with love and beauty. I was getting it: This is what it means to choose life and blessing. It is to be life and blessing, love and beauty, and thus see it in everything.

I have no doubt that I will still wrestle with this all of my life. This is, perhaps, one of the challenges that I was born with; a challenge that the One will use to draw me closer to holiness. But the high vistas are nice to reach occasionally, if only to remind us of what is possible.

There was much then, that was high and holy, that I experienced on Yom Kippur. However, it was the rabbi's sermon at the morning service that really spoke to me. I cannot reproduce it here. There were too many insights and impressions to ponder, to do it justice. I will, rather, give my understanding of the theme and then post the link when it is available.

The sermon was about two meanings of fear. There are two different words for "fear" in Hebrew, one that has the sense of the fear we have that causes us to avoid danger, and one that expresses the existential fear/awe that we have when we encounter that which is much bigger than ourselves. It is that second fear that we deal with in our encounters with Holiness. On Yom Kippur, we fast and deny ourselves bodily pleasures. We dress in white, the color of the shrouds we will be wrapped in by the Chevrah Kaddishah (Burial Society) when we die. The rabbi pointed out than on Yom Kippur, when we do all of these actions, when we contemplate the emphemeral nature of our lives, we are practicing for our deaths, so that we do not live in fear of it. So far, so good. I could nod in understanding and appreciation of what he was saying. Yes. Yes. That makes sense.

Then came the kicker. The rabbis said something to the effect of this: But what we really live in fear of is life. We hide from ourselves those things about ourselves that scare us, and by doing so, we do not live our lives. We distract ourselves with the foilables and tragedies of the rich and famous, and delight in their sins, in order to avoid living fully. We are not choosing life. We are afraid to know it. We go to our graves not having lived. And the rituals of Yom Kippur are meant to turn us around, to cause us to face those things that we most fear, and enable us to choose life. If we so choose.

And for me, that was the missing piece. What is perfectionism, really, but the attempt avoid failure? And the avoidance of failure comes from this fear the rabbi was talking about. As I said last week about perfectionism: "A perfect heart is non-living. It is a fantasy, an idol we pursue because we are so alien to where we actually live." And where does perfectionism come from? It comes from fear. Fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of not being acceptable as one is. And the need to control comes from that same root. Perfectionism and the need to control both come from fear.

The rabbi completed his sermon by telling this story of the Baal Shem Tov (the Master of the Good Name, who was the founder of the Hassidic mystical tradition):

The Baal Shem Tov was found to be wise enough to be shown the world as it really is, so the angels commanded that he look upon it. He looked upon it and saw a great pit, full of fire. And suspended over the fire was a tightrope. And upon the tightrope was a man walking. He walked unaware of the tightrope he walked upon or of the fiery pit he was suspended over. And then, suddenly, the man walking was made aware of his predicament. And he began to cower, and lose his balance, teetering from side to side, nearly falling into the fiery pit. And the Baal Shem Tov called out to him: "Do not fear! Do not fear at all! You can fly! You can fly!"

This is my rendering of the story. It creates in me a visceral reaction of great joy. I do not wish to deconstruct it. There is a song that comes from this story. It is based on a saying of Rebbe Nachman of Bratislava, he of the empty chair. The choir sang a rendition of it after the sermon. But I am more familiar with the NIFTY campfire version of it:

Chol Ha-Olam Kulo
(The World is Just a Narrow Bridge)
All of the world is just a narrow bridge,
Just a narrow bridge, just a narrow bridge.
All of the world is just a narrow bridge,
Just a narrow bridge.
And the main thing is not to fear,
And the main thing is not to fear at all.
And the main thing is not to fear,
Not to fear at all!
It is really quite extraordinary what being there does for one's soul. I want to be there more often.
The Rest of the Day
The rest of the day went beautifully but not perfectly. In the afternoon service, we remembered the history of our people and the faith of the ten martyrs. We passed around a lemon studded with cloves, sniffing it to help with the faintness of lack of water and food. We listened to the afternoon Torah--"You Shall Be Holy" --from the holiness code in Leviticus, and the Haftarah of Jonah, reminding us that the Eternal does care for "Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!" We sang Ani Ma-Amin--our hope for the making of the messianic age. We remembered our dead and cried for them through the singing of El Malei Rachamim--G-d, Full of Compassion, during Yizkor, the memorial service. And all the while, as we grew more haggard and hungry, the tear-stained faces of the holy congregation, joined by those no longer with us and those yet to be, grew in beauty and goodness and light.
And then the sun got to be low in sky and the Sandias glowed orange the reflected light in the east. And we began the great service of Neilah--the Gates. Our voices sounded thin and raw in the vastness of this service, "as the gates begin to close." Our last pleas brought with great longing and reliance, as the congregation leaned into the last prayers.
"This is the house of G-d, this is the gates of heaven.
Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and thank Adonai!...
Remember us unto life, O, King who delights in life...
Oh, Source of Blessing, you are with us in death as in life..."
And the mighty El Norah Ahleela--G-d of Awesome Deeds:
"G-d of awesome deeds, G-d of awesome deeds,
Grant us pardon as the gates begin to close!
We who are few in number look up to You, with trembling,
we praise You, as the gates begin to close...
Proclaim a year of favor, return the remnant of Your people to honor and glory,
as the gates begin to close..."
The cantor and choir surprised our rabbi, using a setting he had written, adapted from the Sephardic tradition.
Once more, we stood before the open ark and sang:
"Avinu Malkeinu--Our Father, our King, let the gates of heaven be open to our plea...
Avinu Malkeinu--do not turn us away empty-handed from your presence..."
And, as the sun set, we leaned into the last prayers as the gates began to close. All of us, standing together. And the congregation fairly glowed with beauty:
"Turn back, turn back...for why should you choose to die, O House of Israel?...
Now send forth your hidden light and open to Your servants the gates of help...Open the gates, open them wide! Open the gates, Adonai, and show us the way to enter...
Seu sha'arim...Lift up your heads, O gates! Lift yourselves up, O ancient doors! Let the King of Glory enter. Who is the King of Glory? Adonai of Hosts--G-d is the King of Glory!...
And as the sun set, the final Kaddish:
"We sanctify Your name on earth, as we pray for the coming of Your Kingdom, in our own day, our own lives, and the life of all Israel..."
"Shema, Yisrael..Hear, O Israel, Adonai is G-d, Adonai is One!"
And three times: "Blessed is G-d's glorious kingdom, throughout space and time!"
And seven times: "The Eternal is G-d!"
And then, the long, triumphant blasts of the shofarot, the rams horns, for many in Congregation rose to to the Tekiah (including N., who had practiced for this moment).
And we made Havdalah--the separation between the Holy Day just passed and the work day to come.
And then the second really extraordinary moment of the day for all of us--the rabbi's blessing.
He always gives us a blessing at the end of a service. After Havdalah, he said, "Let's all join hands..." and at that moment he looked up and saw the congregation standing, utterly spent with the day's prayer before him. Did he see the same glow of beauty that I had noticed growing throughout the afternoon? I don't know. But I think he must have.
He faltered, and said, "...but you are already holding hands..." And then he bowed his head, and was overcome with...what?...but, whatever else it was, he cried. I have never seen this before. He gave the blessing from one of the Songs of Ascent: "Blessed are you in coming in and going out..." in a broken voice. Tears of joy. Awesome.
What an incredible day. The most moving, amazing Yom Kippur I have ever experienced.
What a great thing 'being there' does for the soul.
We broke our fast quietly this year, all of us together, and yet it was quiet. Small conversations. Talk turning to the ordinary things of life as we ate bagels and lox, creamed herring and crackers. Lemonade stinging our raw throats. "Yes, this is Sam's last year of college"..."Marilyn is interviewing for jobs"..."It was good, very good this year"...This was a hard year for her, but we had such intimacy. I miss her terribly"..."What are you doing for Sukkot?"...
It is time for life to creep in as we turn to the festival of Sukkot. The season of our joy. The celebration of the Ingathering Harvest.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre Night

Tomorrow at sunset is the beginning of the most solemn holy day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement, practicing Jews abstain from food, water, sexual relations, anointing the body and wearing leather. These things are signs of life and enjoyment, and on the day of Yom Kippur, we are pleading with the Eternal to remember us for life and to inscribe us in the book of life for the coming year. It is a time to consider our ways, to return to the ways that give us life, and to make atonement for our sins against the Eternal. For the sins we have committed against others, the fast of Yom Kippur does not atone. For we must go to those we have wronged and ask their forgiveness, which we hope to receive. And we must give forgiveness to those who ask for it, for none of us is able to stand before G-d and claim that we have not also done wrong.

The process of Jewish repentence is three-fold. A person needs to acknowledge that they have done wrong, and acknowledge exactly what the wrong is. No defensiveness, no justifications. Then she must resolve to right the wrong and to not travel down that path again. This may require restitution or some other action that can make things right. Then, and only then, can one go to the person(s) wronged and ask forgiveness. The person asked forgiveness may or may not grant it. If it is not granted, then one must humbly go back to them three times, while otherwise actively righting the wrong in whatever way is possible. If the person wronged does not forgive at the third time, and you has done all of the repentence possible, then you move on, because you cannot force someone to forgive you. Forgiveness in Jewish thought does not mean that you are excused from the consequences of your wrong action, whether legal or otherwise.

Yet for all of this, Yom Kippur is not a sad fast. It is known as the great white fast, for on that day we dress ourselves in white, as did the high priest on the day of Yom Kippur of old. On Yom Kippur, we are hopeful. By this time during the high holy days, we have made amends with those we love and received their forgiveness. And we have given it as well. And that, especially within the very close relationships, is often a tender and sweet time. And now, as we begin the fast, we know we have been given another day of life to once again return to the paths of life and receive forgiveness for all of the ways in which we have not yet become the people that we were created to be.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, we eat a good meal, for it is commanded to end the ten days of repentence with a feast. Traditionally, since we this is a pre-fast meal, the foods are not spicy or rich. I use a Greek Chicken recipe with potatoes. We drink water rather than wine. Then by 5 PM, we will clear the table and place a white cloth on it, and holy books, to signify that prayer and learning will be our sustenance over the holy day.

Then we go to the Kol Nidre service. Kol Nidre is the ancient prayer that is chanted in the synagogue three times. It is sung to a haunting melody and many think of it as the most beautiful, moving moment in the Jewish year. (I have included a link to Kol Nidre at the My Jewish Learning site. I have also tried to upload a really first class You Tube version, but, alas, I don't know how to get it into my post. Here is the link).

The origins of Kol Nidre are mysterious. The name Kol Nidre simply means all vows, and it is not a prayer, but rather a legal formula. On Yom Kippur, all Jews, whether righteous or not, pray together. The plea for forgiveness is communal. We do not say "I have sinned" but rather, "we have sinned." In the Vidui (confession), we acknowledge all possible sins from the beginning to the end of the alef-bet, whether each one has done each sin or not, because they affect us all. So it is thought that the Kol Nidre might have been written for Jews who were forced into conversion to Christianity in the medieval times. Even they would be welcome in the synagogue on Kol Nidre night.
The UAHC publication Gates of Repentence, the Machzor (High Holy Day prayer book of the Reform movement says this about Kol Nidre:
"Kol Nidre is the prayer of people not free to make their own decisions
people forced to say what they do not mean...we identify with the agony
of our forebearers who had to say "yes" when they meant "no." Kol Nidre
is also a confession, for we are all transgressors, exiled from the Highest
we know, all in need of the healing of forgiveness and reconciliation..."
Here is the actual text of the Kol Nidre in English: "All vows, obligations, oaths, anathemas, be they called konam or konas, or by any other name, which we may vow or pledge..... From this Day of Atonement until the next.....we do repent. May they be deemed to be forgiven, absolved, anulled or void, and made of no effect. They shall not bind us not have power over us, and the vows shall not be considered vows, nor the obligations obligatory, nor the oaths, oaths."
Gates of Repentence renders it thus: "Let all our vows and oaths, all promises we make and the obligations that we incur to You, O G-d, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void, should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them."
NOTE: Remember that Yom Kippur atones only for our obligations to the Eternal. It does not atone for our obligations to others. Any vow made between us and another person cannot be absolved by simply reciting a legal formula. They must be absolved by mutual agreement and the request for forgiveness from the vow between those involved. I say this because, sadly, antisemites have used the Kol Nidre to make all kinds of untrue claims against Jews.
It seems odd that the recitation of this legal formula would move us to tears, but it does. Year after year. I think it does because for several reasons. One is that, as we get older, we realized that each year at Yom Kippur, we stand and vow before G-d that we will be better people. And each year, being imperfect, we fail to realized this vow. We know that we are weak, that without the reliance on the true Master of the Universe, we are "grass that springs up in the morning, and withers and fades..." The need for the Kol Nidre is also an expression of our need for a merciful Judge.
Secondly, through the Kol Nidre, we remember the deepest darknesses of our people. The times of being driven and in exile, of having no home and no country. We remember when our ashes darkened the skies of Europe. And yet, we are still here. Another Yom Kippur, and Israel lives and endures, and expresses a profound dependence and trust upon the One. Even after all of that, we still affirm the covenant...we are still Yisrael, the G-d-wrestlers.
And finally, there is a wild sort of hope expressed in the Kol Nidre. We are not asking to be absolved of last year's vows between ourselves and G-d. No, we are assuming that we will be written in the book of life; that we will live, imperfect though we are, until next Yom Kippur. We are assuming that G-d is truly forgiving and compassionate, knowing who we truly are: frail and vulnerable. We think back on the years and centuries in which our people have come to say these words, and that the continuity goes on and will go on, down the years and centuries to come.
In a sense, the rest of Yom Kippur is more of the same. We spend the day at prayer, and are nurtured on the words, the passionate longing, the hope of our people. We step out of regular time and engage Holy Time in a profound way. It is long, and it is different than all other Jewish times and seasons. Oddly enough, though, I look forward to standing, shoeless, to hear Kol Nidre sung. I stand among the holy congregation here, but I feel the presense of the old ones, the ancestors, the ones to come throughout time and space...all with me to affirm the eternal covenant, until the gates close at Neilah service, as Yom Kippur ends.
And through the whole of the night and the day, we express not only our trembling at the awesome nature of the day, but also the tenderness and love that exists between us and the Eternal, partners in a long and fruitful endevor to bring holiness into the world.
Fitting with this loving kindness is my favorite Yom Kippur prayer, Ki Anu..."For we are..."
For we are Your people,
You are our King.
We are Your children,
You are our Father.
We are Your inheritance,
You are our Portion.
We are Your flock,
You are our Shepherd.
We are Your vineyard,
You are our Keeper.
We are Your beloved,
You are our Lover.
May we all be written and sealed for blessing in the awesome Book of Life.

Equinoctical Storms

This coming Sunday is the Autumnal Equinox in the northern hemisphere at 9:51 UT which translates to 5:51 AM locally (MDT). It is the beginning of astromonical autumn. Meteorological autumn began on September 1.

Very often, during the time around the equinox, as the jet stream becomes unstable and begins moving south, storms come across the west coast from the Pacific ocean. We are getting just such a pattern as the equinox approaches this year. Last night we awoke at around 3 AM to lightning, thunder, and a brief period of pouring rain. We had to run around the house closing windows. By the time we got the windows closed, it had stopped raining!

This morning, as the sun was rising, we had the most spectacular rainbows. Here is one that arched across the sky in the west. I could not get the whole rainbow in the picture, but when I went out into the front, I did get the picture of the other limb of the arc over our house.

The autumnal equinox gives me a bittersweet feeling each year. We have been noticing the days getting shorter now, since the cross-quarter day in August, and as we draw near to the equinox, the shortening of daylight is noticible from day to day!

It is dark when we get up in the morning, now, and the sun is setting just before 7 PM here. Our cottonwoods in Albuquerque and the Aspen up here are beginning to turn, and the nights are getting cooler. The shadows are shortening, as the sun's resting place in the evening moves further and further south. Although I love fall, I feel the dark time of winter close on it's heels.

In the old calendar, the Autumnal Equinox was celebrated as Mabon, a time to celebrate the harvest. It is also known to farming peoples under various names as the time of Harvest Home. Christianity renamed Mabon as Michaelmas--the feast of the archangel Michael. Michaelmas marks the beginning of the fall term in school in parts of Europe.

In the Jewish calendar, there is no exact cognate of the equinox, because it is a lunar calendar, intercalated to keep up with seasons. The closest holiday that marks the autumn harvest is the festival of Sukkot, which comes at the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox and is a celebration of the Ingathering Harvest. This Year, Sukkot starts next Wednesday evening at sunset, which is pretty close. I will be writing about Sukkot extensively during the festival.

Today it rained off and on all day here at the house, and we got quite a good downpour this evening, when I arrived home.

But the sky was clearing at sunset, although the stormy clouds were still overhead. It was a lovely sunset. Everyone's mood is subdued tonight. New Mexicans are easily influenced by a full day of clouds and rain. We are not used to frontal weather like that, and everyone gets a rainy-day feeling akin to seasonal affect disorder.

Fall is definitely strengthening and winter cannot be far behind.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Increasing Memory Recall Using the Mind's Eye

One of the "totally cool" things about unschooling is that it goes on. It happens on weekdays. And weekends. Morning. Evening. And in the case of the recent lunar eclipse, even at 3 o'clock in the morning. And so it happens also during the Holy Days.

On Friday evening, I got out of the bath and headed for the kitchen to get the finishing touches on the Shabbat dinner. (Yes, it did feel like overkill just a bit--given that we had been doing ritual for two full days straight. Evening to morning to evening. But Shabbat comes every week, Holy Days or not). Anyway, I called out for N., intending to have him feed the dogs. But there was no answer. I called again and Bruce responded: "He's busy right now, don't talk to him."

I came out of the hallway into the dining room and found N. seated on the couch--yes, the couch--it's a living room refugee, having taken up temporary residence in the dining room while the living room gets a wooden floor. He was holding the Reader's Digest Guide to North American Wildlife in his lap, and he had his hands in the air and his eyes tightly shut. I half expected him to launch into a sermon of some kind. I was thinking that perhaps we had overdone the holy days just a teensy little bit. Then he suddenly opened his eyes, and taking up a pencil and chart paper he had nearby, he began drawing.

Later, over Challah, he explained what he was doing. He was using his mind's eye to practice imagining and sketching wildlife. It is a journaling exercise for Kamana II. He told us that first you choose a picture of an animal or plant you want to sketch into your journal. Then you study it carefully for a very short time--no more than about 15 seconds. But for that time, you focus on it and discern important details. Then you close your eyes and hold the picture in your mind for 15 seconds or so more. You then look at the picture in the book again, and ask yourself questions about the animal or plant. What does it feel like? smell like? How does it sound? And so forth, recalling detail as you question yourself. You repeat this process several times, then look at the picture again, studying it once more before you close the book and then sketch the picture from your mind's eye.

Although the Kamana Book does not say this explicitly, what this exercise accomplishes is a training of the visual sketchpad (short term visual memory) and a connection to the mind's associative powers in order to put what you have learned from an observation into your long term memory. The point of the exercise is not to draw every hair on the animal's head, but to get the important details sorted and into memory quickly, so that they can be called upon in the future. As time goes on, I told N., if he practices this a bit every day, he will soon do this without even thinking about it, and be able to store his observations and call upon them without a great deal of effort. This frees his mind to do more complex processing of the information.

There is a similar journaling exercise in Kamana for learning from text. The process is to get the details into memory for association and use effortlessly. But of course, the exercising require effort at first.

What is interesting is that the primary sensory pathway for both of the exercises is visual. Even though the text is words, the mind's eye exercise with text is using the visual sketchpad and visual memory. And the processing that is happening is associative rather than linear. Memory is strengthened by the process of attaching emotion and imagination to the mind's eye images.

This is very interesting because these are N.'s strong suites-- visual memory and associative thinking. When they say a picture is worth a thousand words, what they really mean is that you can remember and call up the whole in a picture instantly. It is right before you. And associative thinking allows you to attach new information to previously stored memory in a non-linear fashion. New associations can be formed every time the information is recalled in visual form, allowing a random access that is difficult for the auditory-sequential learner to imagine. It is like using random access encyclopedias on the internet rather than an alphabetized book that can only be accessed linearly. It is orders of magnitude faster!

And that can be a problem for some extremely visual-associative learners. They do not choose to use the auditory-sequential channel because it is so slow. However, it is important for correctly processing verbal information and for ordering and executing sequential tasks. When we test working memory in intelligence and other functional tests, we are really testing auditory working memory. Even reading, which may seem to be visual, is actually auditory-sequential in nature. You are translating sounds into visual symbols and then speaking them in your mind. You read in a linear fashion, and the story is sequenced to have a beginning, middle, and end.

N., like many brilliant visual-associative thinkers, has very poor auditory working memory. He had difficulty sequencing and cannot follow a complex set of spoken directions. Last year, he began working on sequencing by watching Titanic and then taking pictures of the sinking of the toy Titanic in the snow. From there he went on to make a power point, into which we introduced more and more complex written story line about what the different characters were doing. He found the way to learn something he needed to know about sequencing, building on his strengths in order to develop skills in weak areas. He needed some guidance from me to bridge the gap, but although I suggested and guided, I did not make it my project.

Watching N. work with his visual sketchpad, I am thinking that we need to find a bridge to strengthen his auditory working memory and linear processing of auditory input. I am going to read through Kamana a bit to see if there are exercises that lend themselves to this, or if it something that may need some guidance from me. Since the majority of the population is auditory-sequential, it is likely that the exercises in Kamana are meant to guide them toward the ability to choose visual-associative thinking processing in their observations of nature. Visual-associative is the better mode for observation of an ever-chaning natural landscape. For N., who almost always uses the visual-associative mode, it is important to have the auditory-sequential option available. Although most research scientists, engineers, and naturalists are visual-associative, they also must learn to apply the auditory-sequential skills in order to communicate with the rest of the world.

There is a problem here, though. N. and people like him have very dim views of the whole "normal" auditory-sequential world. They have learned that in that world, they appear to be slow, dumb and awkward, to say the least. They are associative to the max, and they have a lot of bad associations stored in their minds. I must guide, not dictate. That means that he has to find us the pathway and be willing to venture down it far enough to see that he can successful. He must be able to start with his strengths as a scaffold and improve rapidly.

These things must be done delicately!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Yom Kippur: Perfectionism, the Cult of Control, and the Journey to Wholeness

We are in the Yamim Noraim. The Days of Awe. Yom Kippur is coming. And every Yom Kippur, I try to do it perfectly. This is the first annual Yom Kippur musing that I will blog. G-d willing, I will not repent perfectly, but rather live imperfectly and thus have more to muse about next year.

An admission. I am a perfectionist. I am not a "recovered perfectionist" or even a "recovering perfectionist." Alas, I am a dyed in the wool, true blue perfectionist. Whether it is a personality trait or whether it is determined by other attributes; whether it is genetic or developmental or environmental in origin, I do not know. But I am one. A perfectionist.

And there is something that I do know about this trait: it is highly rewarded in our culture. That unbroken string of A-grades in high school, those scholarships I received in college, that really high and darn near perfect GPA all attest to that fact in my own life. And I know something else from nearly half a century of wrestling with this highly-rewarded trait: It can be really, really difficult to live with regardless of whether you are the individual living with the trait or the unfortunate soul living with the individual living with trait. Or both. Like me.

The phrase "good enough for the government" has no currency in our household. In fact, it took me a long, long time to understand that phrase in a positive manner. I finally understood it in a flash when I was teaching a chemistry class how to differentiate between accuracy and precision. "Accuracy," I explained, "Means how close you can come to the correct answer for a measurement. For example, if the answer is 1.36 kilos, and your scale gives you a weight of 1.30 kilos, you are accurate only to the tenth of a kilo. Well, actually, kilos aren't really measuring weight at all--they are measuring mass, but in the common parlance we say weight, but...Class--don't worry about that last bit. Just focus on the meaning of accuracy." (Did you catch my perfectionistic aside that I had to correct in order not to confuse the issue further)?

But on to precision. "Now precision," I told the class, "Is something else. It tells us the number of decimal points to which a particular instrument is capable of measuring. For example, our balances in here can give us a mass to the nearest tenth of a gram. Suppose I take the mass of an object and it comes to 4.2 grams, but there is play in the pointer between the point 2 and point 3 mark. And it settles halfway between. Then I can estimate the hundredth of a gram, making it 4.25 grams, but no further! I cannot say that it is 4.23 grams and I cannot say that it is 4.250 grams. My instrument is not calibrated precisely enough for me to make any further estimations."

And at that moment I got it! The phrase "good enough for the government" does not mean that the government is okay with sloppy and therefore inaccurate measurements. It is not talking about accuracy at all! Rather it means that in a particular instance, you do not need further precision than what you have! I felt like shouting "Eureka! I have found it!" Of course, I did not. I thought I had said enough to confuse my students for the day. I admit I am slow. It only took me around 20 extra years to figure that out compared to your average person--the one who had it down at age 20 or so. But I have an excuse. My perfectionism got in the way.

Lately, I have come to develop another hypothesis about perfectionism. My new hypothesis came from several different streams of thought that I have been pondering lately. One is from reading Tom Brown, Jr.'s books. You know that reading blitz that our family has been up to lately? Well it has entered my consciousness and has been rumbling around in my cortex, causing all sorts of interesting ponderings that are quite unrelated to what my cortex is supposed to be processing given the two tests I have this week. It's amazing how productive I am at pondering right near test time. One might think that it is an avoidance mechanism. But that's kind of Freudian, don't you think?
Anyway, back to Tom Brown, Jr., the illustrious Tracker. All of his writings contain references to a spiritual element that underlies his tracking and survival abilities. Sometimes he states it explicitly, but mostly it is implicit to his world view. The idea is that you will think and act like an alien on your own planet until you understand yourself as a part of the whole, living being of the environment you are in. When this happens, you become a part of a whole greater than yourself and experience a belonging in the environment that makes the process of survival natural and undifficult. It becomes like experiencing flow. You are not trying. You are being. Sounds Zen. Or Chassidic. Or mystical. In other words, it is a truth that underlies all of the myriad religious traditions humanity has developed. The point is that the Tracker talks about wholeness and being part of a living whole. As we shall see, I have come to see that perfectionism is the antagonist of wholeness and of life.

Another thread for the wool-gathering comes from some other reading that I am doing. I have been reading a book called The Overscheduled Child which was previously called Hyper-parenting. The authors changed the name because a lot of parents would not even pick it up due to the implied criticism of their parenting. See what I mean by perfectionism being a highly rewarded trait in our culture? The authors talk a lot about the origins of the need to be perpetually active and competitive in our culture. They believe it comes from a false sense that we can control all outcomes if we are perfect parents.

Finally, at Rosh Hashanah second day services, I ran into a friend that I had not talked to in a long time. In the course of our conversation with still another person, she brought up the fact that I am a member of 'the club.' She meant the cancer survivor's club. And she commented to both of us that, "Elisheva has been through some really tough experiences and low moments, but through them I have seen her grow." Turning to me, she said, "You have given up running around trying to control everything all the time, and you now have a peace and wholeness you did not have before." (I call it an AFGE--Another F-ing Growth Experience. It's another version of the two-by-four's that the Eternal regularly aims at our heads. Look, I rely on G-d, but that doesn't mean that I think S/he/it is nice. As 'Rabbi' Mick Jagger puts it, you get what you need).

I began talking about how, really, this was not a conscious change on my part. What really happened was two-fold. First, I went through my cancer experience rather passively. I was exhausted from surgery, my marriage had ended, I was trying to raise my kids and support them all on my own, and now I had treatments to manage as well as a household to keep up. Not to mention that full time job that goes with supporting said kids. I was too damned tired to remember my own name half the time, let alone try to control what was happening. And it felt good to be passive and not try to "run around controlling everything." Secondly, I went through anger. I was angry that I had spent more than twenty years being a good girl. I ate right. I exercised right. I denied myself chocolate. I did Tai Chi. I got A's. I was darn near perfect. And it still happened. I got cancer. Obviously, attempting perfection did not lead to control. And control did not lead to a perfect outcome. In fact, the outcome was downright lousy. All that work and misery about perfection and I get this? The big "G" really does have a twisted sense of humor.

Aside: One side effect of this is that I no longer buy into the "perfect health, perfect body" mythology that pervades the airwaves in the US. I now enjoy eating and drinking and being satisfied. I figure that G-d designed chocolate to go with your whole grain cereal and morning coffee, and that a glass of wine with Brie is as close to the Garden of Eden as I'll ever come. And that union with my husband on Shabbat really does help reunite the Eternal and the Shechinah, even if my body and his are far from the ideals that grace every fashion magazine in the western world. I'm going to die sometime in the future no matter what and I refuse to stand before the Eternal and say that I did not enjoy every good thing creation offered because I was worried it would kill me. That means Tai Chi and CHOCOLATE. Walking and Wine. Break the symetry and live!
Of course, I do not do that perfectly either. But every time I slip into perfectionistic thinking I make myself and everyone around me unhappy. As I said, It comes slowly to me.

But back to the hypothesis I mentioned.
Hypothesis 1: Perfectionism arises in part from the idea that we can control all outcomes.
Hypothesis 2: This concept of control comes from the idea that human beings have godlike power and is, therefore, idolatrous.

Now on to some language lessons.

First: The word "perfect" has a teleological implication. Perfection is something to be attained at the end of something. It is not a state of being and becoming. It is a state of finality. Or to put it more plainly, as the biologist that I am: Perfect is non-living. No living system can be perfect. Since perfection implies lack of growth and change, anything that is perfect cannot be living.

Second: There is no Hebrew word for perfect. Any translation that renders a Hebrew phrase into something like "perfect sacrifice" has been misunderstood. The closest we can come is the Hebrew root, Shin-Lamed-Mem
שלם, which gets rendered into words like Shalom, Shalem, and Shleyma. The root meaning has the sense of wholeness or completeness. The greeting 'Shalom aleichem,' often rendered as 'peace be with you,' is really wish for wholeness. Shalem, as in "Ma-shlemcha?" which is often rendered as "How are you?" actually means something like "how is your health/wholeness?" Think about it: the English word health, comes from hale and means whole. And that brings us to the problematic word "shlayma" which is the one that gets translated as "perfect." But the sense of the word is more like "complete" or "whole." As in the phrase "refuah shleyma" which gets translated sometimes as "perfect healing." It would be better translated as something like "complete healing" or "whole healing."

As I said, I am a perfectionist. And perfectionism is death. It is idolatry. So what to do?
Well, the first step is definitely not to apply perfectionism to becoming whole! I am going to become whole and try to do it perfectly! That's a trap!
Do you see where it is, o wise and gentle reader? The trap is in the trying. Trying is stress. Trying is hard. It disarticulates things rather than putting them together.
Our culture is about reductionism. The art of picking things apart into smaller and smaller pieces until nothing means anything. And at Yom Kippur, this is what perfectionists like me tend to work at. Taking it all apart. Trying to find out where we failed at perfection. Resolving to correct it. To be more perfect next year. An impossible task.

Wholeness--well, that's the state of things that are living and being. Completeness.
Somehow, you cannot try to become whole. You either are or are not whole. You either are or are not part of the whole. Wholeness. Oneness with "the Spirit that moves through all things." Completeness.

I seem to be approaching the idea. And I get that getting it is the same thing as being it. It is like approaching a limit in math. You can approach and approach but you will never get there. You are there. Or not. You are whole. Or not. It's like I need a calculus to transcend the dichotomy. (I always did say that math is mystical in the extreme). Thank goodness I do not have to become like Isaac Newton and invent this calculus. It is there in the practices and teachings that underlie all of human spiritual ritual and custom. Including mine.

So this Yom Kippur, I am not going to work at it. I am not going to try. I think I'll just get dressed in white and be there. Fast not because it is hard and making things hard is the way to get to wholeness. Fast rather because it allows one to understand the fundamental importance of the cycle of hunger and fulfillment, of thirst and satisfaction, of emptiness and fullness. It is not the one or the other. It is, rather, in the completion of the cycle, the fusion of the yin and the yang, the devekut--the clinging--of Adonai and Shechinah--the completeness of the sparks from the shattered vessels, that allows us to break the dichotomies and become at one with all of life.

In Yiddish it is rendered in a more homely way:
Es iz nito a gantsere zakh vi tsebrokhn harts.
There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.

There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.
Not a perfect heart. A perfect heart is non-living. It is a fantasy, an idol we pursue because we are so alien to where we actually live.

That is Yom Kippur. To stand before the Eternal offering only the wholeness of a broken heart.

May we all be inscribed for life and goodness, wholeness and blessing in the new year.
(Note that the word perfect is nowhere to be found in this blessing!)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rosh Hashanah Sweetness

We had a sweet Rosh Hashanah.

On Wednesday evening, we had an early dinner and then hurried to synagogue, where Bruce and I ushered. I love ushering, because I see and hug so many people that I have known for over 20 years, many of whom I have not seen recently! I get a high off of just standing at the door and greeting them and saying "L'shanah Tova!" (A good year!) and "Gut Yontiff!" (Good Yom Tov--which means holy day).

A funny thing happened this time. An elderly woman unknown to me came in the doors. I greeted her, and because she looked European in her dress and manner, I greeted her with the Yiddish "Gut Yontiff!" rather than the Hebrew greeting. She sniffed at me and said: "I don't speak Yiddish." So I said, "Aht m'diberet Ivrit?" (Do you speak Hebrew?). She said, "I speak German." I apologized that I have not learned German yet and wished her a sweet new year in Hebrew and in English. Then she went up to M., another greeter, who has a Spanish surname, and said testily: "What kind of name is G. for a Jew?" M., without missing a beat, said, "I'm a Spanish Jew. My family has been here for four hundred years." She muttered and went on in. M. wondered what that was all about. I suggested that she is probably Israeli. She clearly understood Hebrew although she did not answer me in it. She spoke English with a German-Hebrew accent, and she was offended by Yiddish. She was forthright to the point of rudeness from an American point of view, which is typical for Israelis, especially the 'Yekkies,' (German Israeli Jews--so called by other Israelis because they insist on formality and wear suit jackets even in the summer heat among the much more relaxed and pragmatic Israelis).

On Wednesday, after morning services and hearing the Shofar, we brought S. and J. home with us to eat Rosh Hashanah Dinner. They are the most wonderful couple that have known for years. We enjoy their company very much. They are retired teachers who love children, too, and they get along wonderfully with N. They do not have grandchildren, so they are informally local 'grandparents' for N. and he is their "kadishul"--the person they expect to remember them by saying kaddish for them when they return to G-d, may that be a long time coming!

They were here last Rosh Hashanah and the weather was cold and windy. They were also here at Passover, but we were busy with the Seder. So this was the first time they had a chance to walk around outside at "the new house" and enjoy the beauty of what Bruce call's "our little piece of paradise."

N. has been enjoying being up in trees lately. He climbed up in "his" tree and blew the shofar on Rosh Hashanah afternoon. I did not get a picture of the shofar, but upon hearing it ran in and got the camera. By that time he was done, but here he is in the tree.

On Friday, we went over to Oak Flat for Second Day services. It was warm and beautiful. There is something special about praying together surrounded by the fragrance of Ponderosa Pines and the sounds of birds and children.

N. climbed up about 25 feet in a Ponderosa Pine there, too. I had several of the Yidishe Mamas (Jewish Mothers) shouting at me and frantically pointing, telling me that he was up there. I smiled and waved at them, not the least bit worried. N. has been climbing trees for years. I know what he is capable of, and I saw that he was close to the trunk of the tree and perched on thick, strong branches. The YMs shook their heads, certain that he was headed for disaster. But we finished the services with N. intact, and after the Aleinu he came down from the tree, eager to join us for Kidush and lunch. When admonished by one of the YM's, he gave her a look that plainly said 'Poor earthbound one, you don't even know what you are missing,' and bit into the cookie she gave him. " Thanks," he said, "I'm starving." She looked gratified and handed him another cookie. He's got the YM mentality down. Just eat what they feed you and all will be forgiven.

He said to me: "Two cookies on the second day of Rosh Hashanah! It's going to be a very good year."

Happy 5768!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rosh Hashanah: A Sweet New Year

Tomorrow at sunset Rosh Hashanah begins, and with it the most solemn and yet joyous season of the Jewish year, the Yamim Noraim--the High Holy Days. This ten day period of supplication and repentence ends after Yom Kippur.

The High Holy Days are not really "home" holy days, unlike most of the rest of the Jewish holidays. Rather, these are synagogue holy days, upon which the congregation comes together for an intense period of ritual and prayer. But there are some sweet home customs for the two day holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah at Home

by N.

We spend a lot of time at synagogue on the High Holy Days, but there's also the home front. On the home front, most of what we do is about food. When we sit down to dinner tomorrow night...well, it will be dinner but very early because Mom and Bruce are ushers at temple and have to be there early. So when we sit down at 4 o'clock, there will some unusual things on the table along with the china, the candles and the kiddush cups we have on Shabbat. First, there will challah, which we have for Shabbat, too, but this Challah is different from all other Challah. It is round! We make the Challah round because roundness symbolizes the fullness of life, something that we pray for on Rosh Hashanah. Some people also make Challah in the shape of ladders, to remind them of Jacob's Ladder. Mom makes the challah with raisins and cinnamon for a sweet new year. Another thing we have on the table are cut apples and little bowls of honey. The apples, a symbol of the coming fall harvest, are dipped in the honey, and we say a blessing and then serve each other bites of them and say: L'shanah tova mituveka--Have a good and sweet year! And then there's the fish Mom bakes, head and all! Rosh Hashanah means 'the head of the year' so we have the whole fish. Also, mom says to remind you that fishes have their eyes open all of the time--and at this time we want to have our eyes open to our sins so that we can know them and make t'shuvah for them, which means to turn around and go a better way! Last of all, we have honey cake for dessert--again, to remind ourselves to have a sweet new year. So that's the evening.

On Rosh Hashanah day we have a big dinner after services, kind of like at Thanksgiving. Some years, when we have lots of people, we have turkey. But this year mom is only having a few people because of the floors, so she is making Fez Chicken with Couscous from the Jewish Holiday Cookbook. She says she used to make it all the time when I was little but I don't remember. And there will be more round Challah and apples and honey. But Mom also makes Tayglach--which is a honey and nut candy for dessert. Last of all, we will have rimmonim, which a known as pomogranites. They remind us of Torah because they have many seeds, just like the seeds of Torah that are planted in every Jew. They also qualify as "funny" fruit--a fruit that you don't eat very often. Maybe once a year or so. That way you can say the Shehecheyanu--a blessing for special days--when you light the candles for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

I like Rosh Hashanah. There's lots of good things to eat. It's different in ten days when we come to Yom Kippur, but that's another story.

Back to you, Mom!

I think N. has done a great job of telling about our food traditions for Rosh Hashanah.

In the synagogue, Rosh Hashanah is a joyous holiday when we greet the New Year with the blowing of the Shofar. The Shofar is a ram's horn, and it is sounded after the Torah reading. There are three parts of the Shofar service, and during each part, the Shofar is sounded with three calls. Each part reminds us of an important aspect of the Eternal.

The first is Malchuyot, which means "kingship," or sovereignty. We say: "As it is written in the Torah: For the kingdom is Yours, and from eternity to eternity You will reign in glory." The Shofar is sounded. And we say: "Hayom harat olam...this is the day of the world's we are Your children show us the compassion of a father, as we are Your servants, we look to you for mercy...O Holy and Awesome G-d!"

The second aspect is Zichronot--Rememberance. We say: "This is the day of the world's beginning; now we remember creation's first day. On this day the fate of nations is in the balance...Happy is the one who does not forget You..." The Shofar is sounded. And we say: "In love and favor hear us, as we invoke Your remembrance."

The third aspect is Shofarot, which is revelation. We say: "It is written: 'The Eternal will appear; G-d's arrow will flash like lightning. The Eternal G-d will cause the Shofar to be sounded and stride forth with the storm-winds of the South.' Thus will You shield Your people completely..." This time, after the shofar is sounded with all the calls, the very last blowing is Tekiah Gedolah, the great sounding that lasts until the blower runs out of breath.

This is the high note of the morning service. When it is over, we mingle and greet each other, eat some Tayglach and then go home to the family table for eating and schmoozing. And eating some more, until, rather like hobbits, we resort to filling in the corners with honey cake and pomegranites. Then on the second day, we have services and a picnic here in the mountains. And of course there is more eating and schmoozing and playing games after.

So Rosh Hashanah is the serious time, the time that begins the ten days of t'shuvah (turning) and supplication for life. But although it is a synagogue holiday, there is also family time and time to be with one another. For what are we without family and friends?

The Days of Awe come down to this prayer:

"Remember us unto life, O King who delights in life; inscribe us in the Book of Life, O G-d of Life."

For really, that is what the whole idea of turning ourselves anew, and aiming the bows of our lives more truly. It is so that we may have the life that we were born to live and be the people we were meant to be.