This week's portion: harvest blessings
Seasonal teachings from Rabbi Alan Lew

Rabbi Gendler on Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi Everett Gendler was among the first rabbis to talk seriously about ecology and its relationship to Judaism, and was (according to Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb) the first rabbi to create a solar-powered ner tamid (eternal light.) He contributed to the volumes The Greening of Faith and Ecology and the Jewish Spirit; the folks at Isabella Freedman call him "the grandfather of Jewish acriculture." He contributed to The First Jewish Catalog (and its successor volumes), and wrote many of the margin commentaries in The Jewish Holidays.

According to his bio at COEJL, "he now spends some of his time cultivating the soil at his homestead in Massachusetts, while also travelling annually with his wife, Mary, to India, where they devote two months each year to community education work among the Tibetan exiles on Strategic Nonviolent Struggle."

He's also the rebbe of my rabbi Jeff Goldwasser, which makes him one of my rabbinic zaides -- and he was the speaker at my shul last night after services.


Rabbi Gendler is a small man with copious white curls beneath, tonight, a gold-embroidered velvet pillbox-style kippah. His energy is effervescent. Before services he shook hands and chatted and schmoozed with the congregation (taking the time to meet me, and to beam at the news that I am in rabbinical school.) After davvening and the kiddush/oneg, we returned to the sanctuary to hear him talk.

He spoke to us about two features of Rosh Hashanah which the Gerer rebbe -- also known as the Sfat Emet, after his best-known work -- wrote about. One is visual; the other is aural.

"Rosh Hashanah," he read -- in Hebrew, translating on-the-fly (this is at best an approximation; any errors herein are surely mine, not his!) -- "refers to the very point of beginning, the inception of the year, before the division of the divine flow to differentiation." Rosh Hashanah invites us, he explained, to imagine time before divisions. When divine shefa (flow of energy/abundance) enters this world it assumes a temporal quality, it is subject to the laws of nature, which distinguishes it from its earlier state. Rosh Hashanah hearkens back to a time before any distinctions.

Most of our festivals fall, he noted, at the full moon. Sukkot: full moon! Pesach: full moon! Tu BiShvat, Purim: full moon! Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, is the exception to that rule -- it falls at a time when there is darkness in the heavens. And there's something we can learn from that about the sacred polarity of dark and light. Nearly all creation stories posit creation merging with the dawning of light. Think of our own story, at the beginning of Bereshit. First light arises as creation begins, so a time without light is inherently a kind of reminder of the time before creation.

He moved then to a text by the poet he calls, jokingly, "Reb Mayer Rilke" (we might know him as Rainier Maria.) The only lines of the poem that I caught were "Bright flame limits the world" and "Darkness unfolds through / all things utterly." (It's possible it was You, Darkness in a very different rendering.) The gist that I took away was that light, as valuable as it is, is limiting; it sets things in stark opposition, one to the other. Darkness has a different kind of power, "a creative potential in the blotting-out of the familiar," in Rabbi Gendler's words, and this is something on which the Gerer rebbe and the poet Rilke might agree.

Rabbi Gendler invited us to imagine a kind of sensory deprivation chamber, an immersion in total darkness in which it is no longer possible to distinguish between "I" and "you." He invited us to consider the work that we do, but imagine it without any of its routines or guidelines or expectations. And then "against this dissolution of the familiar, let in a little light." Now how might we structure our work and our world, what innovations might we make, following on the heels of this immersion in deep darkness? What new things might emerge? That's the question Rosh Hashanah can ask.

From there, we moved into another quotation from the Gerer rebbe, this time describing the call of the shofar as a kol b'li dibbur, a voice without words, sound without meaning. Once sound becomes words, he explained, it becomes chopped-up and differentiated. The potential is limited by "too-heavy a weight of ideas." But the sound of the shofar is different -- it "shatters the fixity of our ideas."

Pure sound is unique in the way it clings to its origin. The sound of the shofar connects us with pre-creation. So Rosh Hashanah, in some deep ways, invites us to get back in touch with the unimaginable. What existed before existence? What infinite potential can we access in the darkness that subsumes all light, the primeval sound which transcends our binary divisions of sense and meaning?

Then he consulted his pocketwatch, regretfully informed us that his time was up, and shepherded us through a question-and-answer period before sending us on our way. (I was especially struck by a question that compared the potential at the start of creation with the potential in each life just before birth, and the potential we can each access if we're attentive to this season.) I drove home in the mist, beneath the just-past-full moon, feeling deely glad I'd had the chance to learn even a little bit from this luminary of the Jewish world.


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