The Ari (the kabbalist Isaac Luria) teaches in the Etz
Hayyim that the worlds are comprised of two elements: soul and
world. We draw our attention to this when we pray [each Shabbat
morning] "nishmat kol chai/ the breath of all life
blesses You." This is the dimension of the soul-breath / neshama.
Later in the same prayer we conclude "min ha-olam ad ha-olam
atah el / from world to world, You are God" -- this is the
dimension of world / olam. Now Israel [all who engage
with God] is enjoined to heal the worlds [le-takken ha-olamot]
on the level of neshamah [soul-breath] and on the level of olam [space/time.] And so you find that ישראל (YiSRa'eL) in
gematria is equal to נשמה (NeShaMaH) plus עולם (OLaM) [541 = 395 + 146]...
And so on the day of Renewal [Rosh Ha-Shanah], we need two
days le-haqiqah me-khadash, to re-inscribe our
commitment, to healing both soul and world.
This is a teaching from the Bnei Yissaskhar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelekh of
Dynov), found in Ma'amarei Hodesh Tishrei 2:1 and translated by Rabbi Eliot Ginsburg. I imagine that some of you reading
this right now may be nodding your heads and going "right on!" and
others may be utterly plumb baffled. Let me unpack this a little, because it's really beautiful.
The Bnei Yissaskhar is talking here about the nature of being
Yisra'el, of being a Jew. What does it mean to be Yisra'el? He
says it means two things: to strive to heal the soul (neshamah)
and to strive to heal the world (olam.) Olam is one
of my favorite Hebrew words, because it can mean either "space" or
"time" -- it's the whole space/time continuum, in other words.
So to be a Jew, he says, means to work toward healing both
the microcosm of one's internal landscape, and the macrocosm of
all of space/time. He offers a couple of quotations from one of the
Shabbat morning prayers, nishmat kol chai, as prooftexts
for the assertion that ha-olamot, "the worlds" -- spaces
and times, the whole shebang, the multiverse -- are made up of
soul and world. With me so far?
Where this gets kind of far-out is, well, where he brings in gematria. Hebrew letters have
numerical values, so every word can be understood either as a unit
of alphabetical meaning or as a string of numbers. Add up the
numerical values of each letter in a word, and you've got that
"Now I know that gematria is sometimes hermeneutics gone
mad: in the right hands, anything can be made to mean anything else."
So writes Reb Elliot (allow me to digress: if I ever start another blog, hermeneutics gone mad
is a really tempting title) and I completely agree. But he goes
on to assert that when a gematria clicks, something powerful
happens. Suddenly mochin d'gadlut
(expanded mind) bursts through the confines of mochin d'katnut
(constricted mind) and a flash of insight can emerge.
The gematria of Yisrael turns out to be the same as the
gematria of neshamah (soul) + olam (spacetime).
"Yisrael" -- we who
dance in covenant with God; we who engage with God; we who are, in
Reb Arthur's term, God-wrestlers -- is the sum of "soul" and "world,"
the two arenas we are called to heal.
Deep down, each of us is fundamentally singular (a person, a
soul, a subjectivity) and also fundamentally part of the unity of
all things that have ever been or will ever be. And it's upon us
to bring healing to both of those levels. That's our job. That's
what we do.
This, he says, is the reason we celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah: in order
to re-inscribe on our hearts our commitment to working in both
of these ways. We need two days of prayer and reflection and song in order to process
both parts of our life-work.
There are a
number of holidays which in the Diaspora have an extra day not observed in Israel, but Rosh Hashanah isn't one
of them. Rosh Hashanah extends over
the first two days of the lunar month of Tishri regardless of where in the world one celebrates. This year, this teaching gives me a sweet new understanding of that two-day celebration.
Granted, some of us in Reform and Reconstructionist communities only celebrate one day of the holiday. So I find myself wondering, how can this sweet new year's reconsecration be carried over to the second day of the chag for those who won't be in shul next Friday morning? Because I really like the notion that in taking two days to celebrate the new year, we seal our commitment to being
Yisrael: fully engaged in the work of internal and external renewal
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