My footsteps across this patch of earth's scalp release the scent of thyme.
Even in the rain the squirrels have been busy denuding the corncobs.
The wind has dangled my autumn garlands. I untangle them one last time.
Every day the sukkah becomes more a sketch of itself. The canvas walls dip
and drape, the cornstalks wither, revealing more of the variegated sky.
Today we ask God to save this ark and all that it holds. Today the penultimate taste
of honey on our bread. Today we beat willow branches until the leaves fall.
The end of this long walk through fasts and feasts: we're footsore, hearts weary
from pumping emotion. We yearn to burrow into the soil and close our eyes. We won't know
what's been planted in us until the sting of horseradish pulls us forth into freedom.
This is the poem I worked on yesterday -- Hoshanna Rabbah -- while sitting in the sukkah during a cool clouded stretch of afternoon. (What's Hoshanna Rabbah? See yesterday's post, Three more holidays at the end of Sukkot.)
The stanza about asking God to save "this ark and all that it holds" is a reference to the hoshanot, the prayers asking God to save the earth, recited on Hoshanna Rabbah. Beating willow branches until the leaves fall like rain is another of the day's practices.
One tradition holds that we eat challah drizzled with honey not only on Rosh Hashanah at the new year, but all the way through the holiday season to Shemini Atzeret, which is today.
I'm wondering whether I should cut the first three stanzas. What do you think?
There are three distinct and special celebrations at the end of Sukkot. The first of them, Hoshana Rabbah, is today.
Hoshana Rabbah -- "The Great 'Save-Us!'" -- is the seventh day of Sukkot and a minor holiday in its own right. On this day, traditionally, we make seven circuits of our sanctuaries with our lulavim and our Torah scrolls while reciting prayers called Hoshanot which ask God to bring healing and salvation. Seven is a number with spiritual significance in Judaism: seven days of the week, the seven "lower" (accessible) sefirot (aspects of God), the seven ancestral figures (some invite seven men and seven women) welcomed into the Sukkah as ushpizin (holy guests) -- and now on the seventh day of this festival we circumnambulate our sanctuaries seven times, singing and praying. There's also a very old custom of taking the willow branches from our lulavim and beating them against the ground; the falling willow leaves are an embodied prayer for rain. (For more on that: The Ritual of Beating the Willow.)
Even if you're not dancing or processing around a sanctuary with branches and Torah
scrolls, reading some hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning
is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. I like the ones written by my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, which online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Rabbi Arthur Waskow below the hoshanot themselves.) And here's a brief excerpt from a translated hoshana, provided by Rabbi David Seidenberg of NeoHasid.org.
Shemini Atzeret -- "The Pausing of the Eighth Day" -- is the eighth day of Sukkot. Yes, Sukkot is a seven-day holiday, but tradition tells us that on the eighth day, God (Who has been so enjoying spending time with us in our sukkot) says "awww, do you really have to go? Can't you linger a little longer?" So we stay in our sukkot for one more day, one more chance to engage in intimate connection with Shekhinah, the immanent and indwelling Presence of God. This is a day for spaciousness, a day of pausing, a day to celebrate the white space which cradles and contains all of the texts and teachings and observances of the holiday season now ending. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are a dense and busy time, full of obligations and sermons and teachings; Shemini Atzeret is a chance to pause, to take a breath, to receive the blessings of stillness.
This day is a hinge-point in our liturgical year between the summer season and the winter season. On Shemini Atzeret, we recite special prayers for rain, and we enter into the liturgical winter-season when our Amidah contains a one-line prayer for rain every day instead of the summertime one-line prayer for dew. I've written a contemporary prayer for rain which can be read / davened on this day, which you can find in the VR archives here; you might also enjoy my Sestina for Shemini Atzeret, which I wrote last year and which I still really like. Shemini Atzeret is the 22nd of Tishrei, which begins tonight at sundown and lasts through tomorrow (Monday).
Simchat Torah -- "Rejoicing in the Torah" -- is the culmination of all of our celebrations during this holy season. We read the very end of the Torah scroll, then read the beginning again, celebrating the neverending nature of our collective story. We dance around the room with Torah scrolls singing songs. Here's the poem I wrote some years ago for this festival, Mobius, which is also available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011.)
So when is Simchat Torah? Well, it depends on who you ask. In Israel, Sukkot lasts for seven days; the seventh day is Hoshana Rabbah; and the 8th day is both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Reform communities outside of the land of Israel also operate on this calendar. (I'm not sure about Reconstructionist communities; Jewish Renewal communities' practices vary.) In Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative Jews move from 7 days of Sukkot (the final one being Hoshana Rabbah) to two days of Shemini Atzeret, the second of which is Simchat Torah, making the whole shebang a 9-day observance insted of an 8-day one. (In my local community we'll celebrate Simchat Torah on Monday night, in conjunction with the local college Jewish student group.)
It's possible to experience a kind of holiday fatigue at this moment in the year. Tisha b'Av, then the month of Elul, then Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot...! But there's beauty and meaning in each of these three final days of this holiday season. I offer this blessing: may each of us find a point of access into the beauty and wisdom of Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. May we connect with the gift of being able to ask for help in healing our world, the gift of holy pausing and sacred rest, and the gift of Torah, the story which never ends.
Today is Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of the festival of Sukkot which is also a minor holiday of its own. The name means "The Great Hoshana" or "The Great 'Please Save Us'!" It's traditional, on each day of Sukkot, to make a circuit around the interior of the synagogue or around the Torah-reading table carrying our lulavim and reciting a hoshana (supplicatory prayer); on the seventh day, we make seven circuits and recite seven hoshanot.
R' Shlomo Carlebach singing a wordless niggun on Hoshana Rabbah.
My teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has written a set of contemporary poetic hoshanot in English. Reb Arthur Waskow notes that:
These Hoshanot in English by Reb Zalman follow the model of the traditional Hebrew Hoshanot, which are aimed at the protection and healing of the earth from locusts, drought, etc. These English versions do so not only in the line-by-line meaning, but also by celebrating, day by day, the aspects of the universe that (according to the first chapter of Genesis) were created on each of the original seven days. They also draw on the alphabetical pattern of the traditional Hebrew Hoshanot.
Here's how they begin:
Hosha'na for the sake of the Aura of life the Beams of Light the Clearness of Light the Dynamics of Light the Effulgence of Light the diFfraction of light the Glory of light the Haloes of light the Illumination of light the Joys of sight...
Even if you're not dancing around a sanctuary with lulavim and Torah scrolls, reading Reb Zalman's hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. They're online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Reb Arthur below the hoshanot themselves.) Reb Zalman has also written a separate bilingual hoshana (the Hebrew is an alphabetic acrostic; the English is a translation) which is online here, and which speaks out of contrition for how we've damaged creation.
Speaking of Reb Zalman, I'm happy to be able to report that his beautiful English-language siddur (prayerbook), Sh'ma, is once again available in print. I just ordered myself a copy; if you have any interest in Jewish prayer in English, it's $10 well-spent. You can order it online here.
Tomorrow will be Shemini Atzeret, "the pause of the 8th day" -- it's the extra day of celebration tacked on at the end of the seven days of Sukkot. It's customary to recite special prayers for rain on that day; last year I wrote a contemporary prayer for rain to be recited on Shemini Atzeret. If you're interested, you can find it here.
On Hoshanna Rabbah we beat willow branches against the ground. The willow, he says, represents speech, which connects it with prayer (prayer being, after all, a form of speech.) The willow is also associated with David, the psalmist, who said "I am my prayer before You."
Prayer is all we have for reaching God. In some sense that may seem either inadequate or chutzpahdik. On the other hand, prayer is all we need for reaching God. The leaves of the willow are shaped like lips, and our lips are the gates through which our prayers pass.
At the end of Yom Kippur we make much of how "the gates are closing." We seem to need the catharsis and the drama of dipping deep into the experience of that day as though, when that day ends, our chance to reach God were over. Though the tradition also says that the gates of repentance remain open through Hoshanna Rabbah (some say, through Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day of Sukkot)... and really, says the Sefat Emet, the gates to God are always open as long as we use our lips to pray.
Our mouths are the gates. When they are closed -- when we perceive that God is far from us -- that's because we've closed the gates ourselves. That's the heartbreaking news: our experience of God as being distant from us is our own doing! But the good news is, opening the gates is always within our power. All we have to do is open our lips.
The seventh day of the festival of Sukkot is also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, "the great supplication" or "the great 'save us'!" (That'd be today, in case you weren't keeping track.) Today is the day when, according to Jewish tradition, our relationship with water in the coming year is sealed.
What activities mark Hoshanah Rabbah? Going in circles, for one. Whereas during Sukkot it's customary to carry one's lulav and etrog around the synagogue sanctuary once during morning prayers each day, on Hoshanah Rabbah seven hakafot (circuits) are made. Another involves greenery: after the reading of a set of piyyutim (liturgical poems), willow branches are beaten against the ground until their leaves come off. I like to read this as a kind of embodied prayer for rain -- the leaves fall like raindrops, symbolizing the sustenance we hope for in the year to come. (Rabbi Bradley Artson Shavit offers a broad range of other interpretive possibilities.)
Some see Hoshanah Rabbah as the culmination of the holiday season that began with Rosh Hashanah, and regard today as the day when judgement is finally passed on who we are and who we aim to be. I just learned this fall that it's considered a mitzvah to eat one's challah with honey all through the holiday season (not just on Rosh Hashanah), and that Hoshanah Rabbah marks the last day when it's appropriate to savor the honeyed tastes of the holidays.
In an age when we strive to be conscious of our ecological footprints, when we're aware of how precious a resource water is (and how easily, and unthinkingly, we waste and pollute it), Hoshanah Rabbah may have new resonance. Today offers an opportunity to reconnect with our longing for rain, and for divine help in saving ourselves from the environmental dangers we know we don't want to bring upon ourselves, our children, and our home.
So what am I doing for Hoshanah Rabbah? Not going to shul; we're too small to have a weekday minyan, even on a minor festival day like this. But I went out to our sukkah this morning to bentsch lulav for the last time this year, my footsteps crunching on the frost-coated grass. I spent a while reading this series of Hoshanot [poetic prayers] for a Planet in Danger -- Reb Zalman's davenable English adaptations of the traditional prayers for salvation (meant to be read, one each day, during Sukkot, and then the whole cycle on Hoshannah Rabbah.) And now I am listening to an old classic tune that seemed like appropriate holiday music: "Rainmaker," by Traffic, off The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys...
And finally, I'm blogging an extemporaneous holiday prayer:
Source of all that is! Help us tap into Your sustenance in the coming year. Shower us with mayim chayyim, living waters, in all four worlds. In the world of actions and physicality, give us real water to irrigate with and to drink. In the world of emotions, let our hearts move us as mighty currents move the seas. In the world of thought, let our minds be as clean and clear as the purest waters. And in the world of essence, let us truly know ourselves as beings mostly made of water, sustained by Your ineffable wellspring in all that we do.