תִּקְע֣וּ בַחֹ֣דֶשׁ שׁוֹפָ֑ר בַּ֝כֵּ֗סֶה לְי֣וֹם חַגֵּֽנוּ׃ – Sound the shofar on the new moon, and when the moon is covered for our festival. (Psalm 81:4)
The first of Tishri 5782…6 September 2021. If you stop for a moment you’ll feel it, change is coming. The fields are turned brown after their recent harvest, the shrubs in the garden have got that straggled look as if in their entanglement and straining out of the beds they might be noticed as their ends turn brown and the neglect I’ve shown them might be rectified. The spent energy of generating new life has flourished and flowered and now the final strains of colour and sweet fragrance perfumes the evening breeze and our fingers avoiding the thorns are stained with foraged blackberries.
The air has changed with the late summer sultry warmth letting us know that Autumn is coming. We’re not very good at stopping to notice. It’s understandable really, school is beginning again and, as we wait to see what happens to COVID-19 cases, this corner of the globe in which we live is testing out its return to what we’re told is supposed to be normal. Busy-ness is the order of the day and the rush-hour once again resumes its congested pattern. There’s no stopping us now as we check to see the direction of travel of the economy as it flashes its numbers on to the financial updates. The graphs of cases, hospitalisations and deaths have been pushed off the front pages and vaccinations now dominate. We don’t stop, who can afford to stop, we have HGV driver shortages to worry about.
לֵ֣ב אָ֭דָם יְחַשֵּׁ֣ב דַּרְכּ֑וֹ וַ֝יהֹוָ֗ה יָכִ֥ין צַעֲדֽוֹ׃ – A person may plot out their course, But it is the Eternal who directs their steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
I think I’m not very good at noticing when change is afoot, or perhaps it’s because I don’t give myself the time to breathe and recognise what’s happening to my heart and soul. If we stopped would we plan better. I doubt it, for whether you take Proverbs “A person’s heart plans his path, God directs his steps” or the Yiddish “Man Plans, God Laughs”, there are changes in life for which planning cannot prepare you. Perhaps a little compassion – rachmanut as they say in Hebrew – for yourself and time and space to stop and acknowledge the transition, but to plan a change, I don’t think so. The great transformations are, to some extent, beyond our control – bereavement, birth, aging. We can learn how to prepare for the practicalities. We can even, to an extent, manage the path and timing of it happening. But the soul changing is not controllable and sometimes it happens instantly and other times it takes many weeks, even months, even years.
כִּֽי־הִנֵּ֥ה הַסְּתָ֖יו עָבָ֑ר הַגֶּ֕שֶׁם חָלַ֖ף הָלַ֥ךְ לֽוֹ׃ – For behold the winter is passed and the rains are over and gone. (Song of Songs 2:11)
The children had this argument with me over the summer – well it wasn’t an argument, not like the real arguments that are unmentionable in a sermon. It went like this: if you finish year 3 and are entering year 4, at what point can you say you’re in year 4? First day of the holiday or first day of school. Who are you in between? Stood on the beach with the sea lapping at our feet, rushing to move our towels back as the tide washed higher up, and then slowly realising that at some point it was no longer rising to greet us but slipping further away. “It’s funny to think, where does the land end and the sea begin?” I heard ask. At one point we’re in Norfolk and the next we’re in the North Sea. The Shofar awakens us to transition, of years, of what we have achieved of growth and of decay. It asks us to pay attention.
היום הרת עולם – Today is the birthday of the world (Machzor for Rosh Hashanah)
According to tradition, today is the anniversary of the creation of the first human being. In the Babylonian Talmud from around 1500 years ago there is a moment of reflection on this first day. Can you imagine the overload of senses that first person would have experienced! As the first day came to an end the night drew in and the sages imagined that Adam thought the world was decreating before his very eyes because of his sins. The liminal moments of change and transition, even between night and day, were a moment of literal fear for one’s life. We’re told Adam sat and wept all night, with Eve beside him weeping. When day broke the next day, such was the relief that he offered a sacrifice to God for surviving. But then, three months later, he notices that the days are getting shorter and the night is closing in. Once again, fearing for his life that the world is decreating as winter draws close, he fasts until the solstice and earth’s breath of life transforms with a glance towards the spring. This is the Babylonian Talmud musing on pagan earth rituals – winter solstice and Autumnal sigh.
מנהגו של עולם הוא – The Way of the world (Bavli, Avodah Zarah 8a)
Katherine May writes about what she calls Wintering. It’s not psychology or philosophy, the book is really a paean to the rhythms of the year and of life. It’s sat with me over the last few months.
“Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”Katherine May, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times
The Gaelic folk ideas and pagan reflections along with the kind of stoicism are not my tradition, but the idea that our lives have rhythms like the seasons and that wintering of our souls is part of that rhythm which spoke powerfully to me at this Rosh Hashanah as we start to think about our re-emegence. Katherine May’s book gave me hope, that we can learn to pay attention and that in time we can “grow again”.
Attuning our senses to the world’s rhythms and to the cycles and patterns in our lives, taking time to stop, allows us to notice the first butterflies fluttering along the hedgerows and the turning of the leaves in Autumn, not just to see how beautiful these things are but to allow our souls to breathe. Recognising that the last 18 months will have left their imprint on our hearts as well as our minds in ways that may yet not show themselves. To stop and notice this moment, right now.
כִּי חֹק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא מִשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב – For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance for the God of Jacob (Psalm 81:5)
This year in the Jewish cycle of years is a Sh’mittah Year announced with the Shofar – you’ll hear much more about that tomorrow and on Yom Kippur from me. But for now a Sh’mittah Year, a Sabbatical Year, is a year of release when, however idealistic and unworkable, the Torah imagines a release to give all life pause and rest. Every seven years, at least, a chance to let life’s force take on its own power and the world turn with less intervention. I can think of no better paradigm to help us mindfully notice this moment. To explore meaning as we begin this time of difference in the manifestation of the pandemic, of beginning to be together again and respond to pressing global issues like climate change and how we treat each other. Which is why we will spend our own time at SBJC from Rosh Hashanah to Chanukah, like Adam and Eve in the first year of life, with these things as a focus.
זֶה הַיּוֹם תְּחִלַּת מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ זִכָּרוֹן לְיוֹם רִאשׁוֹן – This day is the beginning of your deeds, a remembrance of the first day (Liturgy of Rav for the Sounding of the Shofar)
Liminality, the space in the moment of transition. The lapping waves of the sea on the shore, the late summer warmth, the moment at which a shallow breath becomes the last, the point at which a lockdown begins, or ends, the point at which we enter year 4 at school, the sunset on the year 5781 and the beginning of 5782. There is something profoundly important in these moments and how we acknowledge the transitions we didn’t even know had happened. If only we would stop and let ourselves breathe and notice our soul’s gentle pulse and earth’s cycles. The Shofar says the cycle of time is not without meaning. The Sh’mittah year says one year is not just like any other. Rosh Hashanah says your deeds count and you are different. Life matters, the Source of all Life remembers and has taken note, now is the time for you to notice too.