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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Psalm for Thursday: Psalm 81, verse 4

Blow the shofar (ram's horn) at the new moon, and again at full moon to call a festival!

In ancient times the shofar was used as an instrument to announce festivals, Shabbat and special occasions.  We also know that shofarot (pl.) were used in the time of Joshua to bring down the walls of Jericho.

Today, the shofar is primarily used as part of the Rosh Hashanah/New Year ritual and to announce the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It is also customary to sound the shofar every morning during Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah.  Both during Elul and on Rosh Hashanah itself, the shofar is a spiritual wake up call reminding us to do teshuvah (return/repentance).

The two times we are told to sound the shofar  in this psalm are at the time of the new moon and the full moon.  It is assumed by some that this refers to the Rosh Hashanah, which is the new moon of the month of Tishri, and Sukkot (feast of booths) that takes place on the full moon of the same month.

Rosh Hashanah takes place when the moon cannot really be seen and, according to rabbinic tradition, marks the creation of the world, as well as the time of renewal and repentance.  

Sukkot takes place when the moon is full and was a festival of Thanksgiving for the fall harvest in ancient Israel.  Today it is simply a festival of joy and thanksgiving in a more general sense.

The sukkah, or temporary dwelling, in which people eat and sometimes sleep during the festival, is also meant to remind us of the fragility and ephemeral nature of our existence.  Just as a strong storm could topple the sukkah, so too we do not know what the next moment in life is bringing.  Hence the importance of celebration.

I consider Sukkot to be the quintessential mindfulness holiday, as it focuses on celebrating the moment and being grateful for what we have right now.  Yet, it is interesting that  the moon is completely full when we are both giving thanks for what we have and also acknowledging the uncertainty of life.  Contrast this with Rosh Hashanaho when we are meant to be introspective and focuse on forgiveness and self-assessment.  At that time there is barely a sliver of the moon visible.

At both of these times the psalmist commands us to sound the shofar, which is both the sound of joy and a call to awareness.  Perhaps sounding the shofar when the moon is new is meant to awaken us precisely because there is no light in the night sky.  It calls us to do teshuvah, but it also reminds us that the work we need to do is internal.  We do not need an external light to do teshuvah, but we do need an internal wake up call.  In addition, it calls us away from sleepiness and complacency, which could be associated with the darkness of the the new moon.

On the other hand, Sukkot is a time of pure celebration.  We give thanks for the bounty that we have.  However, it is also a reminder that what we have may be gone tomorrow, so there is even more a reason to thank God and to celebrate. The full moon of Sukkot allows us to see clearly all we have even during the  night, a time which is often associated with fear and uncertainty.  The Sukkot moon  allows us to bask in the glow of the moment and truly give thanks.  Here the shofar (which today is no longer sounded on Sukkot) is not an internal wake up call, but a communal call to joy, thanksgiving and celebration.  The full moon at night literally shines on all that we have and all we should be grateful for.

As we navigate our way through life we experience many Rosh Hashanah type moments as well as many that are similar to Sukkot.  

There are times when, like at the time of the new moon, we  are in the dark, we are afraid, we do not know what is going to happen.  At those moments we need to wake us up to what   we need to do at that moment so we can let go of the habits and behaviors that keep us separated from God and humanity.  The shofar  reminds us to be conscious that we are part of the Divine one-ness of the universe and so we need not be afraid of the dark.

There are also moments when we are surrounded by plenty, as at Sukkot.  Yet, sometimes we get so caught up in ourselves and our plight that we forget about all that we have to celebrate and for which we should be grateful.  At these times we also need something to remind us of all we have and call us to thanksgiving, joy and gratitude.

Both scenarios are lessons in mindfulness.  Both remind us to be in the moment, to acknowledge what is and to celebrate the moment.  It reminds us to let go of our judgments.  We may  label a particular moment or time as difficult, painful or bad.  Yet, even, or perhaps especially, at these times we need to find the ability to acknowledge and be grateful for what we have.  This is often difficult, but it is still necessary if we want to be aware and present in the moment and avoid getting caught up in the story of our pain.

The sound at the shofar at both times call us back to our Source, to the One.  Each does this in its own unique way, but each is just as essential living a life filled not only with laws and rules, but with joy, celebration and gratitude.

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