Rabbi Lenore Bohm helps us make sense of the Jewish New Year

Buckets of red and green apples

Apples dipped in honey are common fare for Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Mike, courtesy of Flickr

By RABBI LENORE BOHM
Author of Torah Tutor

“Rosh” means “head” or “beginning.”
“Shanah” means “year” and is related to the word “change.”
So, “Rosh Hashanah” signifies the beginning of the year and the beginning of change.

So, let’s start with a couple of thoughts pertinent to Rosh Hashanah:

“When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but the town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then I knew: first, I must change myself.”
Rabbi Israel Salanter

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Viktor Frankl

Timing of Rosh Hashanah

Autumn is not the obvious season to place the new year, or to celebrate creation. Spring makes much more sense. But Jews have long recognized what the Wall Street Journal only recently deduced: the cooler temperatures and shorter days of fall combined with a return to school and business as usual, lends itself to contemplation, evaluation and goal-setting. “September is the new January,” the WSJ announced, “the time when families put routines back in place, clear out clutter and vow to plan and cook healthy meals.”

Even relatively unconnected Jews often feel drawn to attend synagogue or to create a spiritual experience in the High Holy Day season.  For many, these days are welcomed as an annual spiritually therapeutic encounter, offering respite from the distractedness and superficiality prevailing during most of the year.

Because of the complexities of the Jewish calendar, the New Year can occur anytime in September. This year, our New Year will be welcomed on September 25, at sunset. (All Jewish holidays begin in the evening.) About 900 years ago, a group of enterprising rabbis determined that God said, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:1) in the year 3761 BCE, so, according to their calculations, the upcoming New Year is 5783.

Of course, science dates creation to billions of years earlier. To some, it is important to reconcile scientific findings with Jewish tradition. For most of us, this isn’t an issue, and we’ll use the number 5783 only for religious documents.

From A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew by Rabbi Jonathan Sarna

Science, to my mind, primarily seeks to understand when and how the world came about.  Judaism asks us to take stock of the world and of our own place within it.  Science explores the age of the world, Judaism, the state of the world. The two sometimes complement one another, but their questions, methods, and assumptions could not be more different. The fact that Judaism and modern science disagree over the age of the world, therefore, bothers me not in the slightest. Scientifically speaking, science is right.  Jewishly speaking, Judaism is right.

How the Jewish New Year Differs from the Secular New Year

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated very differently from the secular New Year: January 1 is associated with partying, drinking (a way to forget and release inhibitions), purchasing and wearing new (and perhaps suggestive) clothing, spending outrageous amounts of money on food, entertainment, one-of-a-kind experiences, and being raucous with strangers or “friends of the moment.”

In contrast, the Jewish New Year, while joyful, is spiritual, thoughtful, and reflective.  We try to remember, not forget.  We visit the graves of loved ones. We look for opportunities to be especially generous and charitable. We gather with close friends and family for delicious, home-cooked meals.  We express hope that we have grown in the year gone by. There is no expression of regret at growing older; we pray that the New Year finds us wiser and truer.

Though our annual efforts at spiritual growth often meet with limited success, we continue to strive annually for renewal based on honest effort, and we try to gain strength from incremental, albeit undramatic changes.

We embrace the idea of our names being written into a “Book of Life” for the New Year—yes, each of us wants another year of life. But we  focus attention on how to spend (not what to spend on) the year just beginning.

Here, then, is the spiritual agenda of the season: find your center and (re)claim it as central, reject cynicism, embrace hope, give thanks for what is lasting.  In every way possible, commit to making your life a blessing.

Questions of the Season

What do I need to let go of from the year coming to an end?
From whom do I need to ask forgiveness?
Whom do I need to forgive?
How can I be a source of blessing to my family, workplace, community this year?
How can I be a source of blessing to myself?
What or who warrants my particular attention this year?
What or who brings out my pettiness, my pride? Can I separate from negative
people/influences?
How can I bring more wonder and joy into my life in the year ahead?
Can something good come out of my suffering, pain, loneliness?
Are there opportunities for spiritual growth resulting from my losses (aging,
deaths, etc.)?

Rosh Hashanah Teachings

We can (re) create ourselves. We become what we do.

We don’t have total control over anything; nevertheless we can choose our responses to what life sets before us. We live within natural and social boundaries, but our choices do make a difference. We can practice restraint. We can strive to master our impulses.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world, not the creation of Judaism or the Jewish people. It is a Jewish holiday that celebrates all existence, all people, and all possibility.

Leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we wish people a good and sweet year.  “Good” speaks to the desired character of our our intentions, attitudes, and aspirations. “Sweet” describes the desired outcome our our efforts.

I wish you a good and sweet year!

Krishna Janmashtami: Celebrating Lord Krishna around the world

Human pyramid reaching upward among crowd of people

A Dahi Handi pyramid for Krishna Janmashtami. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 18—Millions of Hindus worldwide revel in the spirit of Lord Krishna, fasting, chanting, indulging in sweets and celebrating for the grand festival of Krishna Janmashtami. An observance that lasts eight days in some regions, Krishna Janmashtami honors the birth of the Hindu deity Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. To devotees, Krishna is the epitome of many characteristics: according to ancient texts, he is a mischievous and fun-loving child, a romantic lover and an empathetic friend.

Did you know? According to legend, Lord Krishna reciprocates devotions in ways unique for each devotee.

On this, Krishna’s birthday, events begin before sunrise and last through midnight. Public and private prayer can include chanting, singing and more. Feasts of many dishes are often prepared, and dances and dramas depicting the life and ways of Krishna are watched with fanfare. Some devotees dress or decorate statues of Krishna, while others string garlands across temples or in their homes.

Many Hindus fast until midnight—the official birth time of Krishna. At midnight, those at the temple watch a priest pull apart curtains to reveal a fully dressed figure of Krishna.

ACROSS INDIA: KRISHNA JANMASHTAMI

Spanning the country of India, Krishna’s birthday is commemorated with regional variations. (Due to continuing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, many events will be altered in different ways, this year.)

In Mumbai, Pune and in other regions, boys traditionally form human pyramids in hopes of having the highest boy break an earthen pot (called a handi) filled with buttermilk, which is tied to a string strung high above the streets. If the pot is broken, buttermilk spills over the group and the boys win prize money. Various groups of boys compete in Dahi Handi, in impersonation of a favorite pastime of the child Krishna: stealing butter.

In several regions, it has been announced that Dahi Handi events will resume this year, and political figures, wealthy individuals and even Bollywood actors often contribute to prize money for the Dahi Handi. In some regions of India, younger boys—typically the youngest male in a family—are dressed up like Lord Krishna. Hindus across Nepal, the U.S., the Caribbean and more revel in festivities for Krishna Janmashtami, offering fruit, flowers and coins to the deity and chanting together.

Tisha B’Av: A day to remember, mourn and ‘restart the journey.’

Excavated stones from the Wall of the 2nd Temple (Jerusalem), knocked onto the street below by Roman battering rams in on the 9th of Av, 70 C.E. This first century street is located at the base of the Temple Mount where the western and southern walls meet. The property may be accessed via the Davidson Archeological Center in Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

DAY BEGINS THE EVENING of SATURDAY AUGUST 6—My introduction to Jon Stewart came on Tisha B’Av about two decades ago.  I happened upon The Daily Show just as Stewart was pointing to a Jewish star decorated with lights.  He said something like, “Today was a Jewish holiday.”  Then the lights on the star went out and he said, “Not that kind of holiday.  It was a sad holiday,” and he made that well-rehearsed doleful face, downward smile, creased forehead, puppy dog eyes.  I became a Daily Show fan that day and never looked back!

Yes, my friends: that’s Tisha B’Av—a holiday with no lights, no upbeat greeting, and no tasty morsels drenched in oil or filled with cheese.  In fact, some people choose to fast for 24 hours, in deference to the somber quality of the day.

Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month called Av) memorializes the sacking of Jerusalem, the destruction of its central Temple in 586 BCE, and again (having been rebuilt in the interval) in 70 CE, and the exile of the Jewish people from their (home)land twice.  Tradition says these events, along with other Jewish tragedies happened on this very day. The accuracy of this tradition notwithstanding, all devastating events in our people’s history are recalled on Tisha B’Av.  Observant Jews spend the day in prayer, refrain from pleasurable activities, and chant mournfully from the biblical Book of Lamentations.

In Jewish thought and experience, exile is both physical/historical and metaphysical/spiritual. With the  current reality of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland and place of return, some find greater meaning in contemplating the ahistorical themes of Tisha B’Av: what constitutes exile from God, from our truest selves, from each other.  Spending a day mourning what is lost or broken in our lives as individuals and as humanity, might we more successfully find our way back to God or to less fractured lives and relationships with each other and the earth?

It is probably not by accident that Tisha B’Av occurs seven weeks before Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.  Seven is a significant—arguably the most significant—number in Jewish life.  Shabbat is celebrated on the seventh day of the week.  Rosh HaShanah occurs in the seventh month of our calendar.  There are seven  blessings recited at a Jewish wedding.  The initial mourning period for a loved one is seven days: the number seven appears again and again in Jewish ritual and ceremony.

The passage of seven weeks between Tisha B’Av, day of intense reflection, sorrow and contemplation of loss and exile, and Rosh HaShanah, day of new beginnings, celebration and joyful prayer, indicates the life-affirming, stubbornly hopeful stance at the core of Judaism.  It suggests that we not be paralyzed by guilt or sadness or loss, but that we muster our communal and personal resources to assess what was or what is, and progress from there.

Tisha B’Av instructs: Look at the pain of the world (and personal pain) realistically, see its (and our) fractures, face those fractures…..and move forward. In the poignant words of Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson, “Claw your way back to a place where we can enter the new year, seek forgiveness and start afresh.”

It is a good thing, in my opinion, to stake out a day devoted to confronting our fractured lives on this fractured planet.

From the Book of Lamentations 1:16 “For these things I weep, my eye sheds tears…” The tears we shed literally or figuratively for people in crisis resulting from war, hunger, disease, abuse, false incarceration, violence.  For children bullied or shamed, for teens rejected for their sexuality, for couples devastated by infertility, for partners undone by broken trust, for dreams dashed by accidents and illnesses, for people who cannot forget, for people who cannot remember, for pain unassuaged. Life’s cruelty abounds.  No one escapes this life unscathed.

And yet we cannot live endlessly in a place of bitterness and despair, or in fear that catastrophe awaits us at any turn.  We are called to remember, recover, reach out and regenerate. Not to live blindly in denial, but never to stop believing that the future can redeem the past. That is the lesson of Rosh HaShanah, an affirmation of creation and possibility, following seven weeks after Tisha B’Av, with its sobering lessons.

It is surprising—one could say astounding—that Jews remain a hopeful people.  For most of our history, we have been subject to prejudice, dispersion and brutality, and  few would question if we had become a dejected, languishing people, a people estranged from laughter and joy.  But in fact, the opposite is true: Many Jews consistently look out for something to laugh about (including ourselves), something to care about (societal ills and people living on the fringe), and ways to be creative and purposeful. When we life our glasses, we toast, “L’Chayim,”  “To Life.”

This is one of the many reasons I love Judaism: it teaches us to acknowledge the pain, and it expects us  not to be overcome by it.  To wrestle a blessing out of a curse.  To believe in, and to work towards, a world of fairness and beauty and possibility.

Tisha B’Av is not a day of dread and it is not a day I dread.  It is a day to contemplate loss and exile.  It is a day to start the journey back home.

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Meet Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to TorahTutorBook.com to find more information about her ongoing work and her new book.

Order a copy of her new book from Amazon.

 

 

Lammas, Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans embrace harvest

Three rolls with wheat strands on wood board on wood table

Photo courtesy of pxhere

MONDAY, AUGUST 1: As August begins and grains turn golden in the fields, Christians, Pagans and many others from areas of England, Ireland and Scotland mark centuries-old harvest festivals. The customs once were so well known that Shakespeare could use a reference to Lammas as a symbolic date in his tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s birthday was Lammas Eve.

Today, families with cultural roots in the UK may mark either Lammas or Lughnasadh. Pagan groups maintain various customs related to these traditions, regarding this point in the year as a “feast of first fruits.”

Historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to the church for a blessing on August 1, or Lammas Day.

It is gratitude for the change in seasons—from a season of planting to a season of harvest—that marks today’s observance. Lughnasadh customs were more commonplace until the 20th century, though evidence of ongoing tradition is seen in the popular Puck Fair of County Kerry and Christian pilgrimages. Throughout Ireland’s history, significant mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh; the custom was brought into Christianity when Christian pilgrimages were undertaken near August 1. The most well-known pilgrimage of this type is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July that continues to draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year.

Family reunions are still common among the Irish diaspora near August 1, and in Ireland, several towns have recently created Lughnasadh festivals and fairs to parallel Puck Fair.

For Christians, Lammas has been a time for blessing loaves made of fresh wheat. In time, Christians also created a version of the Scottish Highland Quarter Cake for Lammas, which bore Christian symbols on the top. (Catholic Culture has a recipe.)

In the Neopagan and Wiccan faiths, Lughnasadh is one of eight sabbaths and is the first of three harvest festivals. Ancient Celtic myth describes a god of sun, of light and brightness: He is Lugh, the deity for whom Lughnasadh is named. Ever mirthful, Lugh is honored alongside his foster mother, Tailtiu, who is said to be responsible for introducing agriculture to Ireland. The story of Lughnasadh is one of the cycle of life, of the harvesting of grains and crops, and of one season’s fruits dropping seeds for the next. Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries.

Interested in making a Lammas loaf? Try this recipe, from Recipes for a Pagan Soul:

4 cups all purpose/bread flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup raisins
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Stir flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and raisins together. Separately, fork-blend eggs and buttermilk, then add to dry ingredients. Stir until sticky batter is formed. Scrape batter onto a well-floured surface and knead lightly. Shape batter into a ball, then place in a round, non-stick casserole dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake uncovered in preheated 350-degree oven for about 1-1/4 hours.

Wait 10-15 minutes before attempting to remove bread from casserole, then cool on wire rack. If desired, cut loaf into quarters and then slice thinly.

Book Birthdays: August 2022

PUBLISHERS and AUTHORS CELEBRATE “BOOK BIRTHDAYS,” the anniversaries of our books’ debuts. Among our August book birthdays are several that continue to be popular with readers—and this is a great opportunity for us to remind everyone of these valuable volumes:

With the MSU School of Journalism Bias Busters’ team, in August 2018, we published 100 Questions and Answers About Police Officers. This guide has sections on training and  certification, special assignments, police culture, use of force, community policing, police jargon and police funeral etiquette. All the guides in this series are designed to help improve relationships across communities.

Earlier, in 2016, with the Bias Busters and their professor Joe Grimm, we published To My Professor. Teaching college is difficult and this book has some potential solutions. More than 50 chapters cover situations including expectations, communication, technology, race, gender and religion, mental and physical health. This is a perfect gift for the young person in your life who is heading off to college this fall.

Then, in August 2017, we published a book that has helped readers around the world learn more about American History Made Easy. This overview of American history was developed by veteran English as a Second Language instructor Kathleen Gripman to help men and women attain this crucial educational milestone. What began as a book primarily for ESL students also has become a popular choice for anyone who quickly wants to learn about the broad sweep of American history.

 

Birthday of Haile Selassie: Celebrating the courage of the final Ethiopian emperor

Dark-skinned man in Rasta hat and sunglasses, making peace sign with fingers

A Rastafari man. Photo courtesy of Pxhere

SATURDAY, JULY 23: Rastafari around the world—estimated to number 700,000 to 1 million—hold Nyabingi drumming sessions and celebrate the birthday anniversary of their God incarnate, Haile Selassie I. (Note: The belief that Selassie is God incarnate is not universally held; some Rastas regard Selassie as a messenger of God.) Born Ras Tafari Makonnen, Haile Selassie served as Ethiopia’s regent from 1916 to 1930 and emperor from 1930 to 1974.

TAFARI MAKONNEN: FROM MUD HUT TO PALACE

Beginnings were meager for this emperor-to-be, born in a mud hut in Ethiopia in 1892. Selassie—originally named Tafari Makonnen—was a governor’s son, assuming the throne of Ethiopia in a complex struggle for succession. The nation’s leaders favored Tafari for the role of emperor—and, in 1930, he was crowned. Selassie would become Ethiopia’s last emperor.

Years prior to Haile Selassie’s enthronement, American black-nationalist leader Marcus Garvey began preaching of a coming messiah who would lead the peoples of Africa, and the African diaspora, into freedom. When news of Selassie’s coronation reached Jamaica, it became evident to some that Selassie was this foretold of messiah. Beyond the prophesies in the book of Revelation and New Testament that Rastafari point to as proof of Selassie’s status, the emperor also could trace his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rastafari pointed to Selassie as the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David and the King of Kings.

Did you know? The Rastafari receive their name from the combination of Ras—an honorific title, meaning “head”—and Tafari, part of Selassie’s birth name.

Selassie remained a lifelong Christian, but never reproached the Rastafari for their beliefs in him as the returned messiah. To this day, Rastafari rejoice on July 23, the anniversary of his birth.

TIME MAGAZINE AND THE WORLD: SELASSIE’S STORY

Magazine cover, man on front in fancy clothing of nobility

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

LEAGUE OF NATIONS—One of the most poignant chapters in Selassie’s life—and a key reason that he came to global attention—was an impassioned appeal for help that Selassie delivered to the League of Nations in 1936. In 1936, TIME magazine named him its Man of the Year.

The magazine’s “honor,” today, looks like nothing but ridicule for what TIME editors regarded as a foolish figure on the global stage. Dripping with sarcasm and openly racist, the TIME profile of Selassie included this description of him:

The astounding marvel is that Africa’s unique Museum of Peoples has produced a businessman—with high-pressure publicity, compelling sales talk, the morals of a patent medicine advertisement, a grasp of both savage and diplomatic mentality, and finally with plenty of what Hollywood calls “it.”

Selassie was in a life-and-death struggle with Italian aggression in his homeland. The TIME cover story appeared in January 1936. International opinions of Selassie changed dramatically that summer, when he made a passionate plea for help in a personal appearance before the League of Nations in Europe. His plea did not result in the help he sought, but the appeal now is considered a milestone in 20th century history. William Safire included the League address in his book, Great Speeches in American History.

 

Father’s Day, June 19: Have you ever heard (or said), ‘I’m only a father!’

Benjamin Pratt with his own father, the Little League coach in the upper right corner. Little Benjamin is sitting second from his right. (If you’d care to read Benjamin’s earlier column about his own father and their mutual love for baseball, click here.)

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EDITOR’S NOTEAmerican Father’s Day began in Spokane, Washington, in 1910, because Sonora Smart Dodd was moved by a Mother’s Day sermon in church to approach her pastor about similarly honoring fathers. Her own was a Civil War veteran and single father who raised six children. Despite support by trade groups and the Father’s Day Council, Father’s Day was rejected by both the general public and Congress until 1966. President Richard Nixon signed the holiday into law in 1972Each year, our online magazine salutes Father’s Day—this year through this inspiring story by Benjamin Pratt, author of Guide for Caregivers.

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‘I’m only a father!’

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

Benjamin Pratt today with his wife Judith.

When our younger daughter graduated from college with a degree in interior design she was hired by Pottery Barn to help design and setup stores across our country.

When she wasn’t traveling to other cities, she would spend a day or two at stores in the mid-Atlantic region working on redesign.

One morning she left in her little car before 6 am for Baltimore. About five miles from her destination, on a busy interstate, the car broke down. She called me, frantic and scared, as the 18 wheelers sped by, shaking her and her little car.

“Dad, I’m going to be late for work. I can’t get the car to start. What can I do? I need your help!”

“I’m only a father,” I gently retorted. “You will have to call a local garage or towing company.”

An hour later I got a call that she was at work. The mechanic had come, made a minor adjustment, and she was on her way.

In her humorous way, with the panic over, she told the story to all her colleagues at work. They teased her for weeks with one line from the conversation, “I’m only a father.” For all the young people at the store, that became a great line, one that broke their hope for invincible, all powerful parents.

“I’m only a father,” has become one of those touchstones in our family lore. It is raised and shared in our family gatherings.

It also is often reframed by me as I acknowledge my limitations.

“I’m only a caregiver.”

“I’m only a husband.”

“I’m only a minister.”

“I’m only human.”

The irony is that, the more I acknowledge my power and limitations, the more I discover my capacity to be present and available to others. As I shed the demands of perfection, I often experience the genuine good gifts I am capable of sharing.