Hoshanah Rabbah and the World Around Us
What day on the Jewish calendar is so important that the entire calendar is designed so that this one day never falls on a Shabbat?.
There is a formula that defines the Jewish calendar which says,” Lo ADU Rosh”-Rosh Hashanah never begins on a Sunday Wednesday or Friday. What does the formula mean? Well, if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Wednesday, Yom Kippur would fall on a Friday. How can you eat freshly cooked food for Shabbat when you can’t cook on Friday, and there is no refrigerator to keep food fresh? The break the fast would have to consist of some dried fruits and stale bread! If Rosh Hashanah falls on a Friday, then Yom Kippur would fall on a Sunday. Again, since you can’t cook on Shabbat how can you eat a decently cooked and satisfying meal before the fast? Again dried fruits and stale bread won’t do the job. So what about Saturday? Yom Kippur can fall on a Shabbat, as it did this year, since you can cook fresh and eat well the Friday before and the Saturday night after.
So what holiday can’t fall on Shabbat? Purim , it is true, doesn’t fall on Shabbat, but that is because of Pesach, one month later, which cannot fall on a Monday, Wednesday or Sunday—but that is a fact controlled by the timing of Rosh Hashanah. So which holiday is so important that the calendar was designed so it would never fall on Shabbat?
Go back to my formula—Lo ADU Rosh. Not Wednesday and not Friday , because of Yom Kippur, but what of Sunday? What holiday would fall on a Shabbat if Rosh Hashanah hit a Sunday?
What do we do on Hoshanah Rabbah? What is it by the way?
During Sukkoth, every day we are to march around the congregation one time, carrying our lulav and etrog, and chant “ Hoshanah”=Save us. On the seventh day, we march around seven times, hence” Hoshanah Rabbah” a great Hoshanah. We then take a bunches of “aravah” , willows,chant a piyut, a prayer, for rain beat them on the ground, and chant “ kol Mevaser’- A voice is announcing, announcing and saying”.
Later generations would ask why we beat the willow hear and interpret it as beating out our sins, as Hoshanah Rabbah represents the end of the Season of Judgement from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur until now. But Hoshanah Rabbah, as true of all Sukkoth, is no longer about sin, but about water. All of Sukkoth was accompanied by a festival of water,” Simhat Beit HaShoevah.”
Hoshanah Rabbah, with its prayer for rain, was clearly the culmination of the celebration of the beginning of the rainy season. The “ Aravah” is specifically, the “ Arvey Nahal” the Brook willow, a plant identified with flowing water; beating the leaves is figuratively, beating the Aravah, which is also a Biblical word for clouds, a physical prayer for rain.
Now, it makes sense. The calendar must be designed so that we can offer our prayers for rain with the physical beating of the willow without worrying that we violate a law of the Shabbat. The proof of the pudding comes the very next day—today- Shmini Atseret, the Eight Day of our Festival. It is marked by adding “ Mashiv haruach u’Morid Hagashem”, who causes the wind to bow and the rain to fall. If that weren’t enough, by tradition, the Cantor wears a white robe and chants the musaf with what melody? The melody of Yom Kippur Neilah.
The whole calendar is so designed as to complete the season of forgiveness—Yom Kippur expresses forgiveness in our spiritual lives, and Sukkoth-Hoshanah and Shmini Atzeret express forgiveness on a physical plain, as felt in the blessing of the first rains of the season.
All of this is intended to remind us that what we have on this planet, in its physical nature, is a great gift to be appreciated.
We might assume that is to be self-evident, but, in truth, for us , as Jews, we weren’t always so much attuned to nature.
We Jews, more so than any other ethnic group in the world, have spent some two thousand years as primarily urban, city and town-dwellers. To some extent ,we became disconnected from nature, just as the average city dweller today sees nature as a nice place to visit—but he doesn’t live there.
Take for example, my paternal grandfather. He was a pious Jew, who knew that Jewish law requires us to feed animals. He would therefore feed cats. However, a cat is tamey--an impure animal, and if the cat would jump on his lap, he would take a towel and pick it up with the towel, never with his hands.
Although there were Jewish farmers, they were the exception, and even in modern times, with the start of Jewish pioneering in Israel, Jews today—still sit in the office, not in the field.
Our traditions tried very much then, to make us consider our connection to the world. The prayers for rain and the Hoshanah willows are one example.
The other example is the idea of blessings for so many aspects of nature.
Upon sighting the first blossom in the spring, one is to say," "Blessed are you O lord our God . . .for witholding nothing from this world and for creating good creatures and good trees in order to give delight to human beings." It is said only once a year and there is yet another blessing, that's said only once in 28 years, when the sun is said to return to the same position it held in the sky at the time of creation. We have to wait till the year 2037 to try that one.
There is a blessing for everything on this earth--of course, we know of blessings for food and drink, but also blessings for lightning, shooting stars, or any other splendour of nature-- one says" Oseh maaseh bereshit"=who creates the world."-- in the present, not just the past.
There is a prayer for beautiful tress, plants, and people,--She kacha lo beolamo.”this is how it is in His world”.
One hundred and fifty years ago, before ecology was popular, and when the industrial revolution was at its peak, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explained the purpose of these blesisngs.
"It is these berakhot that have trained the Jew not to meander through the world unthinkingly and unfeelingly... Rather, the berakhot have taught the Jew to view the entire physical and material world with all of its change and its infinite variety of events and phenomena as a Temple in which to glorify his God ... Thus, as the Jew deals with the affairs of this world, he communes with his God. He perceives the voice of God not only in the bread and food which preserve and enhance his physical life, but also in all the bright and shining meteors of heaven and earth, in every great masterpiece of Creation that overawes his spirit, in every new blossom that heralds to him the return of spring, and in every form of great beauty or bizare grotesqueness which he gazes in amazement."
What was true eighteen hundred years ago, when these blessings were formulated, was true one hundred and fifty years ago, in the time of Rabbi Hirsh, and is true today as well.
So very much of Jewish tradition is intended to help us live with the world, not away from it, not against it, but with it.
That is very easy and simple idea to grasp, and we find, in Jewish law codes, starting with the Torah itself, rules of care for our resources--
There is the Sabbatical year for the land to regain its vital minerals; this year happens to be a Sabbatical or Shmittah year. Protection is given to fruit trees from devastation. There are rules in Rabbinic sources against overgrazing, and limitations against air pollution -- ancient laws dating centuries, even millenia ago.
Now, the Jewish concept of nature is not the same as the concept of pushed in popular talk, of “ mother” nature or of Planet earth as if it were “ Gea”,the goddess earth. It is very popular in modern ecology talk, to the extent that some modern ethicists can claim that there is no difference in value between a human infant and some noxious insect.
The various prayers for rain, as well as the different observances around natural events, serves to remind us that we, as human beings, are the caretakers of nature--we are to enjoy our world, and we are to protect it, but we are also not nature’s subjects .
We are focused on this life. Rabbi Abahu said that the day of rain is greater than the day of the Messiah , when the dead will came back to life. How can that be? The day of the raising of the dead will benefit only the righteous, but a rainy day is good for all-even for the wicked. Other Rabbis said a rainy day is like the giving of the Torah, yet others, like the very creation of the world. Rain is a blessing in our lives—ask anyone in California.
As to our world, it is said that when Adam was created, God took Adam on a walk through the garden of Eden. He showed him the flowers, trees, and animals, and said" Please--don't destroy my world . If you do, there will be no other world to take its place."
Let's be sure we take the very best care of our world so we can be blessed from heaven with the bounties of earth.