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Rabbi Michael M. Cohen

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Beginning the Jewish Year in the Aftermath of Hurricane Irene

Posted: 10/06/11 12:40 PM ET

Acting as a leitmotif, rain lightly showers the beginning of the Jewish year. The powerful song Avinu Malkeinu ("Our Father, Our King"), sung on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was written by the first and second century Rabbi Akiva as a prayer for rain during a drought (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 25b). During the holiday of Sukkot, while the ancient Temple stood in Jerusalem, the ceremony of drawing of the water, Simchat Beit HaShoeva, was performed. It was said in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkot 51b), the rabbinic discussion of Jewish law, that "One who has not seen the joy of Simchat Beit HaShoeva has never seen true joy." Finally, on Shemni Etzeret, the one-day holiday after Sukkot, Tefilat HaGeshem, the Prayer for Rain, is recited even to this day. With Judaism arising out of a parched region of the world, when it comes to rain and water, it is not surprising that such an emphasis is placed on them.

For those of us living in parts of the United States where the effects of Hurricane Irene are still an all too real reality, the thought of praying for rain can be somewhat jarring. That being the case, what can the holidays at the beginning of the Jewish year offer us in the wake of Irene?

The symbol most associated with the Jewish New Year is the shofar, the ram's horn blown during Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur. In the Torah, the five books of Moses, Rosh Hashanah is actually called Yom Teruah, the day of blowing (the shofar). There are numerous explanations why the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it is also blown every weekday during the month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. One explanation that addresses those of us who felt the wrath of Irene is taught by Rabbi Art Green. In the Machzor, a prayerbook for the Jewish holidays, of the Reconstructionist movement called Kol HaNeshamah, Rabbi Green writes:

The shofar sound represents prayer beyond words, an intensity of longing that can only be articulated in a wordless shout. But the order of the sounds, according to one old interpretation, contains the message in quite explicit terms. Each series of shofar blasts begins with tekiyah, a whole sound. It is followed by shevarim, a tri-partite broken sound whose very name means "breakings." "I started off whole," the shofar speech says, "and I became broken." Then follows teruah, a staccato series of blast fragments, saying: "I was entirely smashed to pieces." But each series has to end with a new tekiah, promising wholeness once more. The shofar cries out a hundred times on Rosh Hashanah: "I was whole, I was broken, even smashed to bits, but I shall be whole again!"

Hurricane Irene literally and figuratively broke in some cases, and smashed in others, people, their lives and their possessions. The road to wholeness for some was quick and for others longer. Some are still travelers on that journey. The message of the shofar, as taught by Rabbi Green, can help remind us not to lose hope along that path. A similar message is also taught during the Jewish High Holidays, but in a different way.

According to the traditional reading of the Bible, Moses received the Ten Commandments, called Aseret HaD'varim, literally the Ten Words (Exodus 34:28), on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. On that same day, "Moses came near the camp and saw the calf (idol) and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain" (Exodus 32: 19). One can argue that the pinnacle of his life's work was the receiving of the Ten Commandments; and there they lay shattered at his feet. Moses could have given up then, but he did not. Rather he climbed back up Mt. Sinai on the first of Elul and remained there for 40 days. Remember, according to the text he is 80 years old at the time. While up there he asked to see God face to face, but God told him that that would be impossible as he could not survive such an encounter and live.

God tells Moses, after Moses carves a second set of blank tablets that God will write the Ten Commandments on again, to go to a crack in the mountain. At that point, as God's back passes before Moses God reveals his essential attributes, "The Lord! the Lord! A God compassionate and generous, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin" (Exodus 34: 6). These attributes are sung as part of the liturgy of the Jewish holidays at the beginning of the year, as well as at other holidays during the year. At the beginning of the year they remind us when Moses was back up on Mt. Sinai and when he returned to the people with the new set of tablets 40 days later on Yom Kippur.

Moses climbing back up the mountain serves as an important model for all of us, not just those dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. We all have moments in our lives when something has been shattered. Often the easiest way to deal with that new reality is to run away from it. That is not what the actions of Moses tell us to do. When Moses finds his life's work shattered in front of him he turns back and retraces his steps up that steep mountain. The word for repentance, the main theme of the holidays at the beginning of the Jewish new year, in Hebrew is teshuvah, which means to return. Both the cycles of the shofar's notes and the model of Moses returning to get a new set of tablets provide us with a way to address what may have been shattered by Hurricane Irene.