For Those Approaching High Holidays with a Heavy Heart
The following was written by Mark Kirschbaum for many of us who are not having happy days now, who are not able to force themselves to pretend to be joyful simply because the calendar demands it. Is there a place for the heavy of heart in the Rosh Hashanah experience? Mark has a regular column on this website called “Torah Commentary.” And yes, it’s always this deep. Study of Torah gets you into very significant issues in philosophy, social theory, theology, politics and human relations. If you happen to be in the Bay Area, come to Torah study at my home almost any Saturday (admission cost: a vegetarian dish to share for our potluck Shabbat lunch!). Details on Beyt Tikkun’s website. So, take it away, Mark, and gmar chatima tovah — let everyone be sealed in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur for an uplifting, health and love-filled year!
by Mark Kirschbaum
… If all time is eternally Present, All time is unredeemable … T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
Central to, or lurking behind, if you will, any discussion appropriate to Rosh Hashana is the problem of time. For while we all talk of Rosh Hashana as a celebration of the “New Year”, the texts, biblical and talmudic, are rather ambiguous as to what the actual date of creation is. One thing is certain — Rosh Hashana is not meant to be the date of the creation of the world per se. The talmudic debate offers the following alternatives: Was the world created in Nisan, half a year away from Rosh Hashana, or was the world created a week before Rosh Hashana, that is, Rosh Hashana commemorates the sixth day of creation, and as such we celebrate the creation of humanity? Perhaps this approach to Rosh Hashana, which in the proof text of Psalm 81:4 is referred to as “bakeseh,” the hidden or mysterious day, is meant to teach a lesson about time and its unreality.
Let us ponder that verse, Ps. 81:4 for a moment, as it also contains a link to the other critical symbol of this holiday, the shofar- The verse reads:
Tik’u bahodesh shofar, Sound on the day of the new month the shofar, bakeseh, when the moon is hidden, l’yom hagenu, on the festival day.
The Talmud in BT Rosh Hashana 8. proves that the new year corresponds to Tishrei by virtue of the link in this verse between the shofar and the hidden moon, which as Rashi points out is astronomically related to this season. There is a link between the beginning of time and the shofar.
This link is compounded in BT Rosh Hashana 16. :
…and on Rosh Hashana say before me “malchuyot”, “zichronot” and “shofarot”- Malchuyot- you shall crown me King over you; Zichronot- your memory shall rise before me for the good; and how? via the Shofar!
Here, an extra association is added. The New Year links Gd, memory, and the shofar. First of all, I should like to point out, as an aside, something frequently overlooked in the approach to this set of prayers, and that is its dialogical nature. By our act of crowning Gd, via the shofar, we attenuate our relationship with Gd. The Talmud suggests that prayer is not just human lip service (contra Leibovitch), but rather defines prayer as an act which evokes a response. Our recognition of Gd’s “kingship” evokes a recognition of our sentience. Returning to the issue of temporality, note that the Talmud creates an association linking Gd, memory, and the shofar to our consciousness of time, symbolized by the new year.
Before we proceed, however, we should define a term. What does “consciousness of time” mean? Philosophy has been interested in the time, well, since time began. However, the issue of the consciousness of time, from the standpoint of human subjectivity, as opposed to a naturalistic questioning of what time is per se, is a more recent inquiry; it really has its roots at the turn of this century, with Meinong and Brentano. Without getting too technical, we can explain the question in the following manner. How is the game “Name That Tune” possible? The game is predicated on my ability to recognize an entire sequence of notes based on the first few notes. But how is recognition of a tune even possible? I hear a tone, and then another one. What allows me to keep the “past” tone in consciousness and link it to the following tone, in the “present”, and extrapolate the third tone, the “future”? When do isolated tones become, say, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, so clearly delineated in four notes? Meinong felt that perception was always only of immediate moments, but that a separate act of consciousness occurs at some point which “embraces” the previous perceptions and creates the continuum, the melody. But that isn’t really how we experience a tune, is it? We don’t have sudden explosive moments at the end of a series of tonal pulsations, and we are also able to intuit the upcoming notes, otherwise we couldn’t play Name That Tune. Hence Brentano felt that there was some kind of immediate memory in which each tone is altered, in memory, by the preceding and upcoming note; the second note reproduces the original in memory and appends the current note, creating an alteration in the perception of the first note. Husserl attacks this entire approach by pointing out how stuck in the immediate it is; how Brentano’s approach does not allow for a memory of the past (I can only understand all three notes if my brain somehow makes all three notes present and associated in the now). Thus, Husserl struggled throughout his life with attempting some sort of phenomenology of time; at the end of his life he developed an interesting system of an “absolute time constituting flow of consciousness” which cannot be perceived directly as an object (since that apprehension would also be in time, and flow cannot be fixed in time like that), which is capable of “primal impression”, which is perception of the present, “retention”, which is in memory, and “protention”, which is a way of anticipating the future. This absolute flow, it seems to me, is pretty much what we call the soul. Thus, an inquiry into the consciousness of time from a philosophical position suddenly lands us back into the world of theology.
Perhaps this is about what the Talmud is trying to enlighten us. The Sefat Emet is rather emphatic about this, in attempting to explain why all these matters are linked to the shofar. Why does the shofar bring about this dialogue between humanity and the Creator?
The Sefat Emet quotes the Talmud in Rosh Hashana 26. There, in what appears to be a halachic midrash, is recorded the following debate:
Why can we use a shofar from any animal except the cow? The Rabbis say: it is as Rav Hisda taught. Rav Hisda asks: Why does the High Priest not wear the “priestly uniform of gold’ into the Holy of Holies? Because a “prosecutor” cannot become the “defense attorney” (The gold in the outfit would recall the sin of the golden calf, thus the shofar coming from a cow, would also recollect the golden calf just on the day when we ask for forgiveness — Rashi)…
Fine, but that is true only of the moment when the Priest enters the Holy of Holies- certainly we know the High Priest can wear the gold uniform outside the Holy of Holies, and no one seems to recollect the past sin of the golden calf ! So all we can derive is that a shofar made of cow horn can’t be blown in the Holy of Holies, but should be allowed in any other place on Rosh Hashana! The reply is: since the shofar’s role is for awakening “memory”, once it is blown on Rosh Hashana, no matter where we are it is as if we are in the Holy of Holies; the shofar signifies a transcendence of place and of time.
How does that happen? How does the shofar come to symbolize that which is outside of time and space? I think the answer is suggested by the following discussion in the Talmud (BT Rosh Hashana 32.):
Mishna: we do not say less than ten verses each for “malchuyot”, “zichronot” and “shofarot”. Gemara: Why ten?…R Yohanan says: The ten verses correspond to the ten utterences with which the world was created (utterances starting with “vayomer” such as: let there be light). However, the Talmud notes, if you actually count them, there are only nine utterances listed! The Talmud answers- the word “B’reishit” (In The Beginning) is also an utterance…
What kind of utterance is this word “in the beginning’? It is a pre-utterance utterance, the sense of intention and meaning that arises deep within prior to being limited by words. As a personal example, shared by most humans, we all know the feeling of inadequacy evoked when one wants to express the deeply felt affection one has, say, for a spouse; the emotion is felt with the sum total of ones existence, and yet when one tries to express this sentiment in words, the words come out trite, commonplace, and not expressive of what one “really wants to say”. The preverbal utterance of “In the beginning” expresses Gd’s will to do Good in creating the universe. This attempt to express one’s true being, which inevitably is devalued by speech, marginalized by social pressures, or corrupted by the other issues in life that keep us from recognizing that which is most authentic about ourselves, is what is symbolised by the shofar, the non-verbal cry of true self recognition. And this undifferentiated place, prior to the atomization into words, is one that is outside of time and space. The recognition of this ur-place, whereby there are truths deeper than the flow of time, is also what allows Teshuva, repentance, to take place, as we will see in the Yom Kippur shiur.
So what does this mean, that there is a place of truth beyond time and space?
In order to actualize this metaphysical sounding phrase, let us return to the discussion of the date of Rosh Hashana. While most people think of Rosh Hashana as a day of Judgement read: a sad solemn day, the Talmud presents a list of things that happened around Rosh Hashana that suggests an entirely different mood (BT, Rosh Hashana 10:,Pesikta D’Rav Kahana):
In Tishrei the Avot (Avraham, Yitzhaq, and Yaaqov) were born, as they were the beginning of the new world after the sins of the earlier generations. On Rosh Hashana Sarah, Rachel, and Hanna were “remembered”, as they were barren and Gd remembered them so that they should conceive. On Rosh Hashana Yosef was freed from the prison where he had been imprisoned for twelve years, and his light began to shine. On Rosh Hashana the work load was lifted from our ancestors in Egypt and the start of their redemption was perceived.
It is interesting that the text the Talmud uses to prove that Joseph was freed from prison on Rosh Hashana is the same used to link the shofar and Rosh Hashana, and unlike the Talmud editor’s usual practice of quoting just a few words of a verse, the Talmud quotes all three verses almost in their entirety, starting from “sound the shofar on the day of keseh” until the proof text, “a testimony to Yehosef…” which is meant to relate the liberation of Joseph to the shofar as well as to the day of Rosh Hashana.
There is another important source in the Talmud in which the shofar and liberation are linked. BT Rosh Hashana 33: -34., derives all the laws of the shofar on Rosh Hashana from the Jubilee year, the 50th year of the Hebrew calender in which all slaves go free, all land returns to its original owners, and “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land…” This linkage might suggest, that the expression of one’s truest self as conveyed by the shofar, of our sounding the note of that truth which is beyond time and space, acts as an “auto-emancipation”, of our being freed from our own personal “prison sentence” (Ibn Ezra points out that Joseph in that verse refers to all of us, not just the historical Joseph), the prison sentence of time. Rosh Hashana as personal liberation is best expressed in the following aphorism from the Jerusalem Talmud (JT Rosh Hashana 4:8):
R. Lazer son of R Jose said in the name of R Jose bar Kussrita: In all other sacrifices the Torah states “and you shall sacrifice” but here (Rosh Hashana) the phrase “and you shall do/make” is used. Gd says- since you have entered before me for judgement on Rosh Hashana and you have left in peace, I look upon you as though you have recreated yourselves anew.
In summary, the Rosh Hashana experience, contains within it a blurring of concepts of time and place. This ability to see beyond the effects upon us of time and place may point us back to our most true self, as our “situation” is sometimes really the cause of our failures to be the individual we most truly want to be.
The shofar, that pre-verbal cry of personal authenticity, enables us, then, to listen to our deepest, truest voice, and as a result enables us to recreate ourselves in a more authentic existence, “to recreate ourselves anew”. Now we can return to the passage from the BT Rosh Hashana 16. quoted above, in which by our act of evoking Gd’s transcendence, we create a response in which we are remembered. We noted that this passage suggests that somehow a dialogical relationship between ourselves and Gd is facilitated by the shofar. In the auto-emancipatory nature of the shofar experience, through the recognition of a truth beyond the limitations of time and place, we are awakened to our own personal truth liberated from the limitations of reality as we have experienced it (or suffered from it), and recognize that there is an endless capacity for transfiguration, where we can create new worlds, new situations, and thus bring about personal and universal change. Let us greet one another this year with “shana tova”- literally, a wish for a good year, but let us read it as “shana tova”, shana sharing the root of shinui, change, transformation, and may we be the ones to bring about some positive change, now, this year, the sooner the better!
A thought for those not facing the holidays eagerly, based on the above texts…
And what if despite the social pressure, the facebook need to present a happy face, the mandatory good cheer demanded at holidays, you don’t feel joy or awe facing Rosh Hashana? What if the sheer thought of contemplating what your life is or has become, leaves you emotionally cold, now more than any other time? What if all you want now is music that hurts? Perhaps you find yourself thinking, maybe this would be a good year not to get included in the book of life? For some these days, there are obvious causes for a lack of joy at this time, but for many of us, is there not just some kind of deep sense of distress, malaise, something gnawing at our consciousness and our beliefs? What can we do, how can we feel this facing judgment when we don’t really feel that either outcome would be more favorable?
In my own personal little moment of darkness I stumbled across a teaching by the Sefat Emet that I had seen before but didn’t really catch. He is thinking about the quote from the Talmud inRosh Hashana 16. that we cited earlier:
(Say before me ) Zichronot- your memory shall rise before me for the good
And wonders (year 5639), First of all, why do we need to say anything? Do not all the texts tell us that whether we choose to participate or not, this is the universal day of judgment? Furthermore, who can guarantee that the judgment will be for the good? Does not the concept of judgment by definition imply, a brutal moment of thumbs up, thumbs down? Who can be confidant of the outcome?
The Sefat Emet offers an intriguing response. He says that the important moment we are reminded of by this text is that in order for there to be judgment there must be memory. And that by the act of stepping forward during these days to be judged,” that alone is worthwhile simply so that we shall evoke our remembrance before Gd” .
We know how often in the aftermath of tragedy we are counseled, “life goes on”, and “you’ll get over it” but we all know that of all our lives experiences a trace is left behind, even when we have consciously forgotten what has provoked our sadness or anxiety there is a trace that remains, what Lyotard in his “Heidegger and ‘the jews’” describes as:
… a past located this side of the forgotten, much closer to the present moment than any past, at the same time that it is incapable of being solicited by voluntary and conscious memory- a past Deleuze says that is not past but is always there (p. 12).
Lyotard continues that this effect is what Freud called “unconscious affect”. But what can that mean, a feeling that we have that we are not aware of, what is a feeling that is not felt?
Something, however, will make itself understood, “later”… but without the subject recognizing it. It will be represented as something that has never been presented … as a symptom, a phobia…. This will be understood as feeling, fear, anxiety, feeling of a threatening excess whose motive is obviously not in the present context.
To Freud, of course, the way to deal with these affections, these traces left upon the unconscious emotional makeup of the person is to in some way bring some aspect of this to consciousness, to discover in what way these traces impinge upon our behavior. To the Sefat Emet, we might say, it is the act of coming forward in memory. He explains that The simple act of standing forward and presenting oneself as an individual to be observed, to be heard and considered before Gd, that alone is already transformative, to make, as it were, Gd move from a position of severity (we will read for our purposes the Hebrew term “din” as anxiety) to a position of mercy, of healing. The Sefat Emet summarizes:
Being remembered by Gd as part of judgment is itself a great gift of goodness.
So perhaps for those approaching the holiday with a heavy heart, for those who know that why they are at this moment without joy and for those who don’t know why but only sense an anomic emptiness, the response offered by the text is to stand forward, as you are. Simply being present means being seen and considered. The positive concept of being remembered means that you are not alone, and that alone may sometimes be good enough.