The moonlight of the new year

The moonlight of the new year

Few events, celestial or otherwise, inspired such awe in the year now fading away as did the solar eclipse, the shadows of its “totality” inching southeastward across the continent. The confluence of sun and moon comes again in the contemplation of the Jewish and secular calendars, the introspection associated with the lunar Rosh HaShanah and the solar-based festivities associated with “the holiday season,” at December’s end.

It is not simply that one of our two calendars is linked to our orbiting the sun, and the other to the moon’s orbiting of us. Rather, the solar sensibility, what is “under the sun,” say the Jewish mystics, is related to what is easily seen; what is linked to the realm of what is publicized. The lunar sensibility, tucked into the night sky, even when the moon is brightest, is linked to what is private. And so it is with our two New Years.

In December and January, the secular year’s end is associated with public parties (the crowds in Times Square being only the most obvious), with summations of public events that took place since January, the stuff of presidents, sports, and hit songs. In Elul and Tishrei, the turning of the Jewish calendar’s leaves, there is no raucous blowing of celebratory horns, only the lonely soul-surgery of a shofar, every morning in Elul, and again on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish New Year, for all the synagogue crowds, is lonely, solitary, the summations having less to do with political passages or Top Tens, and more in the realm of the individual; less in the sunlight of headlines than in the moonlight of dreams and wonder: Who will live, be murdered, drown, or wrestle with the unseen angels of disease or natural disaster? In this coming year, in this New Year of the moonlight, what baby will be born? What husbands or wives, what best friends or lovers will enter into this world as infants, with what mission to fulfill? 

Rosh HaShanah is not a time for recriminations, political scoldings, or finger-pointing; rather, it is a time of humility, both personal and congregational. The cantor says of the people in the pews, “Let them not feel humiliated [or] ashamed of me, and let me not be ashamed of them.… May You regard our omissions with love and obscure our willful sins with love.” The emphasis is less on the singular than on the interpersonal in the Days of Awe. On Rosh HaShanah, countries — for what are countries but a collective of individuals? — are inscribed for sword or peace, hunger or abundance; and yet in hundreds of pages of liturgy, there are no mentions of political party, or denominations; no mentions of divisive alliances, no room for rage or rejections, only common cause. We are in this together.

In the German movie “Wings of Desire,” angels were dispatched to the rubble of Berlin, 1945. The angels were assigned to note moments of grace, moments of inter-human kindness and holiness, for on the soulfulness of its citizens are countries judged. When Israel gives medical care to Syrians, when she extends aid to Haiti and Houston, perhaps it influences some on the ground, but let it be said, if only on Rosh HaShanah, that others are watching in higher realms than this one. 

We come to Rosh HaShanah not as prosecuting attorneys, so aware of another one’s faults, but we ourselves are “impoverished of deeds,” says the cantor, “trembling and frightened from the fear of Him.” There’ll be plenty of time come the New Year of January to discuss this politician’s weaknesses or that rival’s failings, but on Rosh HaShanah it is God who remembers our own: “You remember the deeds done in the universe, all [our] hidden things are revealed and the multitude of mysteries…for there is no forgetfulness…”

In this season of personal repentance, may you, dear Reader, please forgive whatever errors of omission or commission that surely slipped into these pages since Rosh HaShanah last. May we all be blessed, personally and communally, to have only good news to report, and may the New Year be inscribed for the best of all destinies, for us and all Israel, in 5778. n     

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