BY RABBI NEHEMIA POLEN AND RABBI MICHAEL SHIRE
These reflections are excerpts from the Hebrew College High Holiday Companion, published in August 2017, for study and reflection during the High Holidays. Learn more and order your copy.
RABBI NEHEMIA POLEN:
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev explores the shape of the Jewish calendar: Why does it begin in the fall? Given that the Talmud records a dispute about whether Rosh Hashanah occurs in the spring or the fall, why does our standard practice opt for the latter? Why does our year begin at harvest time, with the agricultural cycle at its fullest? Levi Yitzhak responds by invoking the kabbalistic idea of the Ayin, the divine “Nothing” that is actually plenitude, the bountiful source of all being, so bursting with possibility that nothing speciﬁc can be said of It, hence the name Ayin/Nothing. The Ayin wishes to bestow beneﬁcence, but cannot move to speciﬁcity precisely because it encompasses everything.
Drawing upon an analogy from the Great Maggid of Mezeritch, Levi Yitzhak says that this is like a master teacher who knows everything about an area of expertise, but cannot begin teaching since all the knowledge wants to burst out at once, and this would overwhelm the student. This conundrum is avoided when the ﬁrst move is made by the disciple, who expresses her/his desire to begin at a particular point. It is this reaching to the teacher on the part of the student that enables the teacher to focus, to crystallize the master’s boundless knowledge and to impart useful, helpful wisdom in a particular setting. Similarly, Levi Yitzhak says, the new year begins not with God but with us: we humans show our desire for new energy, new insights, new modes of understanding, new blessings. Our display of receptivity, our willingness to surrender the safe verities of the past, is what elicits a corresponding move on the part of the Absolute’s plenitude toward focused speciﬁcity that we can receive and absorb.
The High Holidays occur in the fall, says Levi Yitzhak, because the cycle of life has indeed reached fullness—and we must surrender, leaping with faith into the unknown of a new year, conﬁdent that we will be caught in the Everlasting Arms of divine love. Our ﬁrst move must be an act of surrender. We surrender ego, the ballast of the past, and the master Teacher moves from a wordless total vision in order to express and encounter the particular. This process is called herayon, conception. Levi Yitzhak points out that the Hebrew text of the liturgy does not say that Rosh Hashanah is the “birthday” of the world; rather it says hayom harat olam: “This day the world is conceived.” Conception here indicates the emergence of a point of speciﬁcity out of the undifferentiated plenitude. All teaching, all learning, all blessing, depends on this move to speciﬁcity. Trust is required on both sides: we leap toward the Absolute, conﬁdent that we will be met with new illumination, a burst of creative emergence that will bestow new life. Thus the new year—the moment of conception—occurs at late harvest time, when, rather than grasping the fruits of our own labors, we let go, surrendering our full selves in order to receive an even greater bounty, God’s emergent new light.
RABBI MICHAEL SHIRE:
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak continues: “The conception of the world is like the relationship between a teacher and student.” How is that so? Conception is bringing creation into being. In human relationships, conception is enacted in loving relationships that foster trust and intimacy. We are taught that the Divine-human relationship on this day of creation is no different. For what does a teacher offer a student but the potential for growth and new learning?
A teacher typically begins at the beginning and “covers” the material until the end. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak sees this process reﬂected in a potential beginning of the year in the Spring.
He demonstrates that Aviv—the Hebrew name for Spring—begins Aleph, Bet… the letters in normal alphabetical order. However, learning that is initiated from the student is a backwards design, where the teacher uncovers the material so the student can discover it him or herself. Levi Yitzhak sees this paradigm in a potential fall beginning of the year, for the month of Tishrei is spelled Tav-Shin-Resh (then Yod), the reverse order of the alphabet.
This beginning of the year in Tishrei suggests that we need to initiate our learning with the Master Teacher. It is a time for us to reﬂect on the most important learning of all, learning how to live. This High Holiday season enables us to rekindle the relationships that give us meaning in life so that we might grow in moral stature, repair our habits of the mind and heart, and seek reconciliation with those we have wronged. Our learning curriculum is identiﬁed in the process of teshuvah, tzedakah and teﬁlah. It is for us to engage with it, to effect growth and transformation.
The relationship between teacher and learner is one of a special nature. It is highly personal and needs to be attuned to the student’s needs. The teacher can mould the student, as we are taught in the Talmudic story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lekish, but that can lead to conﬂict and disappointment. Despite the fact that Rabbi Yohanan taught Resh Lakish everything from Aleph onwards, Resh Lakish fought with his teacher in order to preserve his own identity. Starting on their own path, even if it is backwards, students need to discover their own way, and so they need a teacher who echoes the rabbinic adage, “…much more have I learned from my own students.” So too, in this season of renewal, transformative learning comes from a Teacher who calls us to discover our best potential and ﬁnest attributes though our own searching and the hard work of heshbon hanefesh, taking an accounting of our selves.
As God, the Divine Teacher, opens a new book on this Rosh Hashanah, we the students are invited to rekindle our passion for new life and learning that is holistic, involving our mind, heart, and soul. To this growth, this learning, this Teacher, we dedicate a new year.
Rabbi Nehemia Polen is a leading scholar in Hasidism and Jewish thought who has taught at Hebrew College since 1988. Prior to his career in Jewish academia, Polen served for 23 years as a congregational rabbi. A widely published author, his books include The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (Jason Aronson Inc., ﬁrst ed., 1977); The Rebbe’s Daughter (Jewish Publication Society, 2002); and Filling Words With Light: Hasidic and Mystical Reﬂections on Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004), with Lawrence Kushner.
Rabbi Michael Shire is Chief Academic Ofﬁcer of Hebrew College, as well as dean of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education and dean of the graduate programs in Jewish studies. He has published widely in the ﬁeld of religious growth and development, as well as the Jewish theology of childhood. He has also published four books of creative liturgy with medieval illuminations in association with the British Library. He is a graduate of University College, London, Leo Baeck College and Hebrew Union College.