Sunset tonight begins Rosh Hashana, or ראש השנה, which is the start of the new year on the Jewish calendar (see Leviticus 23). It is not just the new year like January 1 is for us, but the Jews believe it is actually the birthday of the Earth. Happy Birthday, Earth! This year will be year 5775 on the Jewish calendar. Some would argue the science question, asking how it could possibly be only almost-6,000 years when carbon dating and other things show the Earth to be much older. Most Jews would say that the 5775 is just the number of years since creation was completed, and Adam was placed on the Earth. Or others, since the time Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden to live in the world as it is now. The years before that, the first “six” days of creation, plus the period of rest (time in the Garden, which was a temple space), are considered similar to how LDS believe, as symbolic of periods or phases of creation (rather than specific actual 24 hour periods). But since the Earth was completed and ready to be inhabited by people, it has been 5775 years since Adam and Eve came to the Earth (as it is now). In fact, in the Jewish Midrash, it is taught that the earth was static those first six periods, and that the earth did not “come to life” until Adam was placed on the Earth (tellestial world) and prayed for rain. Then it began to rain, and the Earth came to life. This is the birthday of the Earth that Rosh Hoshana celebrates. So the Jews would say that the periods before that cannot be measured in time because time did not yet exist (some say the Earth literally fell away from where it was, and thus began its current orbit as we now know). But, what they do know, is that since the time of Adam, who did mark time by days and nights as we know them now, it has been 5775 years.
Like the new year in America, it is a time of making resolutions. But instead of just feeling good and celebrating with big feats and late night revelry, the Jews takes this holiday very seriously. It is a time of looking back at the past year’s mistakes, and discerning what specific changes need to be made in one’s life. There is no work permitted on this holiday, and it is a day spent in the synagogue with liturgy and prayers. There is, however, a yummy tradition of eating apples dipped in honey on this day, representing our hopes for a good (“sweet”) new year.
There is also a tradition of the shofar being blown on this day. The shofar is a ram’s horn used as a trumpet, with notes blown in a kind of morse code style. This is done to remind the people of God’s sovereignty, and is a call to repentance. Many people fill their pockets with pieces of bread, and go to a river (symbolic of the mikveh) or lake or some body of water, and pull the bread pieces out of their pockets and throw them into the water. This “casting off” is known as Tashlikh, representing the casting off of sins, or giving our iniquities to God in exchange for His righteousness.
The Torah reading on Rosh Hoshana is the story of Abraham sending away Ishamael (the father of the twelve tribes from which the Muslims descend) because of the feud between his mother and the mother of Isaac (the father of the twelve tribes from which the Jews descend). So Rosh Hoshana is also a time to remember that the long feud between brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, was put to rest when they had to reconcile to bury their father Abraham. It is a reminder that their children, all 24 tribes (the twelve tribes of Isaac and the twelve tribes of Ishmael), are cousins, and that they can follow the example of their fathers for making peace. The promises given to Abraham were for all his children. It is a time for Abraham’s children to pray for peace between Muslims and Jews, peace between cousins, peace between brothers.
To my Israeli friends, I say: L’shanah tovah tikatevi v’taihatemi. Or, for slang, just “shana tova”, which basically means “happy new year”, while the rest implies a spiritually sealing up to that good new year. It is more than just “happy new year”, but means that the new year has been ordained by God – and that if we are repentant and turn toward Him, He will bless us.
This is actually very important, because Rosh Hoshana is what prepares us for Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hoshana, we are called to repentance with the blowing of the shofar, and “cast off” our sins as evidence of our repentance (symbolically by participating in Tashlikh). Yom Kippur comes next weekend, at sunset on the 3rd, and that Sabbath (when we will be in General Conference) is the Day of Atonement – or the day when we are held accountable for our sins. That is also the 5th anniversary of me being baptized, which I find to be significant and the double holiday helps me take it seriously.
God gives us this time symbolical of creation and representing our entire lifetime in mortality, between calling us to repentance and holding us accountable for it. In this way, Rosh Hoshana represents our mortal birth on planet earth, the week represents our lifetime given to learn by experience and choose to follow God’s plan, and Yom Kippur represents our final judgment.
Yom Kippur is a serious and somber event celebrated with fasting and prayer. There is no bathing, no marital relations, and no perfume or lotion. When there was still a Temple, a sacrifice was made to cleanse the people from their sins, which were symbolically placed on the “scapegoat” and sent out into the wilderness away from the people. The goat was actually pushed off a cliff to make sure it didn’t wander its way back into camp, and I think there are times in our lives we have things we need to just push off the cliff and let go of so they don’t re-infest us.
There is a poem-prayer that is recited, reminding the people of the Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy, by which we obtain forgiveness:
- Hashem: He (Adonai) is merciful (to one before he/she sins).
- Hashem: He (Adonai) is merciful (to the sinner who repents).
- Ayl: He (El) is powerful and able to govern righteously.
- Rachum: He is compassionate, not putting people into situations of extreme temptation, and easing the punishment of the guilty .
- Vchanun: He is gracious, granting even undeserved favors, lifting the burden of the oppressed, and consoling the afflicted.
- Erech Ah’payim: He is slow to anger, allowing the sinner time to repent by not exacting immediate punishment and providing time for reflection and improvement.
- Vrav Chesed: He abounds in lovingkindness and leniency, even toward those who lack personal merit. He gives more gifts and blessings than we deserve. He, when judging each individual, notices when we are evenly balanced between virtue and sin, and “tips the scales” in our favor.
- Vemet: He abounds in truth and keeps His promises.
- Notzer Chesed Laalafim: He maintains lovingkindness for thousands of generations, remembering the deeds of the righteous to the benefit of their descendents – even when the descendents are less virtuous). (NOTE: This is the principle of “the merit of the Patriarchs”.)
- Nosay Avon: He forgives sins that result from temptation, caused by weakness, or resulting from disposition.
- Vafesha: He forgives sins of rebellion against Him and those who willfully sin with malicious intent, specifically giving them time and opportunity to repent.
- Vchataah: He forgives sins committed carelessly, thoughtlessly, unknowingly, or by apathy.
- Vnah’kay: He completely forgives the sinner who returns to Him in sincere repentance, but does not cleanse those who do not repent.
Repentance is actually a big, important part of this holiday. The days between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur is a time to face the hard truths of the last year (this is very similar to the Hindu holiday of Diwali, if you want to read THIS BLOG from 2011 about the comparison). It is a time to take off the masks of ignorance by embracing knowledge and becoming enlightened, and a time of accountability where we all agree and know and understand that we can no longer feign ignorance. It is a time of letting go of old sins – through complete confession and sincere repentance and diligent restitution. It is a time of becoming enlightened by living up to the knowledge we have been given and cannot deny.
Jewish tradition says that on Yom Kippur, God has already decided the fate of each person for the coming year (based on repentance and good works of the year before culminating in the week between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur). Cultural tradition focuses on the timing of these holidays, that unlike our new year that begins mid-winter, the Jewish new year begins with the harvest season. It is a new year because we have harvested what last year has brought, and are preparing the earth (ourselves) for the next season in our lives. It is a time of completion that is the seed of new beginnings.
This is something common to all of us, I think, but something sorely lacking in American awareness. In today’s fast-paced, immediate-gratification society, the rhythm of working hard to glean something produced over time is often lost in our culture. But I believe, whether we are aware of it or not, the Law of the Harvest still applies, and that in some way or another, we reap what we sow, get what we give, and prominently play a role in choosing our consequences far more than we are aware – but also are blessed far more than we deserve.
While a principle from ancient times, the Law of Harvest is gaining attention in a pop culture desperate for any kind of harvest. There are several principles we glean from the Law of Harvest:
We harvest only where we have planted.
Corn doesn’t grow by my mailbox because that’s not where I planted it. I am not going to wake up one morning with a skill for writing if I have not been practicing it. I am not going to win a marathon if I have not trained for it. I am not going to suddenly be gentle if I have not been practicing being humble, meek, using a quiet voice, being careful of the spirits of others, and being kind in word, tone, and deed.
We harvest only the same kind of thing we have planted.
Corn doesn’t grow from eggplant seeds. If I do interval training at the gym, that doesn’t teach me subject-verb agreement. Practice doesn’t make perfect; it just ingrains what you have practiced (including any mistakes) – only perfect practice makes perfect. If I practice being patient, then I will get better at being patient.
We harvest in a different season than when we plant.
This is a truth lost in our I-want-it-now society that demands immediate gratification. Substantial results are not immediate, but come with diligent labor and consistent nourishment. I plant my corn in spring, and it grows all summer, and I harvest it in the autumn. I do not get to plant and harvest in the same season. I can say, “I want to be nicer to my husband”, but it takes practice and effort at trying and doing and improving before I can say “I am nice to my husband”. My paycheck today is for work I did two weeks ago, or a month ago. My blog app is because of writing practice for the last twelve years, not because this morning’s blog just happened to be awesome. I qualify to be married in the temple two years ago only because of choices made three years before that.
We harvest more than what we plant.
I plant a single seed, but I get the fruit (or vegetable!) of that plant, plus many more seeds. Doing a small thing for someone else is only a tiny effort, but may mean a great deal to them in ways we may not expect or be able to measure – which is also a caution about how much damage can be done by an ugly tone, a mean face, or small neglect. When we do something healthy for ourselves, or something good for other people, we always feel better than expected. Even global economics is shocked at the incredible way this shows up in the correlation between charity (giving money, time, or service) and financial prosperity at a global level, and why it’s mathematically true that the more you give the more you make even though it feels counter-intuitive.
We harvest in proportion to what we plant.
The harvest is exponential to what was planted, true, but it is also in proportion. A lot more will come out of a small service to a friend than what I intended, but that exponentional-ity will be in proportion to my effort. If it is a random, one time visit, my friend my appreciate it and think it is sweet – or odd, or required, or have some string attached. But if I am consistently visiting and caring for my friend, then the proportion (yield of harvest) can be much greater. Consistency and and quality and amount (of time, energy, substance) yield a greater harvest.
We harvest only what we have already planted (future harvests come from what we sow today).
I cannot go outside today, cross my backyard, and pick the corn that I will plant next year. My paycheck today is not for the work I will do next week. I cannot retire today, knowing I will put in a good career over the next forty years. I cannot assume friendship with someone whom I have not yet been friendly. My friendships today, right now, are based on how I behaved and interacted and invested yesterday.
We only harvest the full harvest if we are diligent in caring for what we planted all the way until harvest time.
I can’t just plant corn and expect to get corn. There’s more to it than that. It grows first in bright green rows, and then starts to develop the husks while it stills grows taller yet. You have to protect it from invaders that eat it before it can become the sweet vegetable you hope to pick. It has to survive tornado season bashing it down with winds and hail, and it has to survive summer droughts and Oklahoma sunshines hotter than my kitchen oven. It needs water, and caresses, and good soil.
It’s hard work to grow corn, and I think it’s because it offers its vegetable so high up on its stalk. The corn waves its husk like an offering to God, with its silks and tassels sparkling in the sun and its leaves blowing in the wind. Other vegetables can bury low, or grow enough to feed the bugs, too. Other vegetables are prolific enough you don’t notice. But corn? Corn has a sacred rustling sound you can hear as you walk past, if your cochlear implants are turned on and you are paying attention.
Character traits, testimonies, and our spiritual development – and even relationships – are all present progressive experiences that must be constant, even when they are in the life-death-life cycle that is part of being creatures of season. No matter the season, there must be nourishment. No matter the season, there must be care given to ensure a good harvest. The moment we stop caring is the moment we sacrifice the harvest.
But to be brave enough to look the past in the face and learn the lessons woven in the history is to have compassion for ourselves regarding the journey we have endured. This is the gift of the harvest, beyond the blessings gleaned, to develop the gift of discerning truth and the muscles both to seek it and defend it.
It is the dosh, the part of threshing that actually separates the natural product from its natural container. It’s the separating the wheat from the chaff. It’s the taking of nourishment out of what lays before us. It’s the discernment between the noise and distractions of the world and true spiritual food that nourishes, gives life, strengthens, and uplifts. It’s the distinction between what feels good and what is good for us. It’s the knowing the difference between truth and error (1 John 4:6).
This is our harvest, the consequences of our own choices, behaviors, and interactions.
This is our harvest, what we have given to the world.
This is our harvest, how we have treated each other.
It has been a year of harvest, dishing out what we deserved, what we grew, what we planted.
The cold days are not yet here, but coming, and it will give us time to reflect on our harvest – the quality of it, whether it is enough of the right things, and what exactly we are planting in the world.
Maybe this is mercy: a little time to pull weeds and better decide what we want to plant, a little experience to better nourish our crops as they grow, and a little wisdom to glean a healthier harvest.
Maybe this is how to welcome a God: to plant, nourish, and glean a harvest worthy of Him.
Maybe this is our question, once the masks come off: What are we planting, and what are we doing – this very day – to nourish it, to protect it, and to glean it?
I think that, regardless of religion, the Law of Harvest cannot be cheated. It makes me wonder what I am planting, what we as a community are planting, and as a nation, and as a world.
What is it we are planting, creating, and giving permission to thrive?
We will see tomorrow when it blooms and grows, but I think it would be wise of us to pause and look at the little seeds we carry in our hands.
What are we creating?