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Soul, world, and two days of Rosh Hashanah

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 word's gematria.

"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 and repair.

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