Forty-day spiritual journeys are well known in the Bible. Almost every Jewish child knows that it rained for 40 days and nights when Noah was in the Ark and that Moses ascended Mount Sinai twice, each time for 40 days to receive the Ten Commandments. The twelve men who went into Canaan to scout out the land for the Children of Israel were on their expedition for 40 days, and because ten of those men incited fear and doubt in the people about what lay ahead, the tradition says that the Israelites had to wander for 40 years in the desert. Also, in I Kings 19, Elijah the prophet fled from King Ahav and fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, on the mountain of Horev, until he heard the "still small voice" of God.
The New Year observance of Rosh Hashanah is appropriately situated in the midst of a 40 day spiritual quest. It begins with the thirty day Hebrew month of Elul, when we begin the process of teshuvah, a time of repentance, which involves turning and returning to ourselves and to God. This time of introspection ends on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishri, which is Yom Kippur, when we fast and seek to become one with God. According to midrash (the reading-between-the-lines method of Jewish insight), this 40 day period also coincides with the second receiving of the Ten Commandments. Bearing this fact in mind, note that Moses ascended Mount Sinai for the second time on Rosh Hodesh Elul and descended on Yom Kippur. The opportunity for a second chance to receive the Ten Commandments fits perfectly with the theme of teshuva.
The entire month of Elul is dedicated to preparing for the New Year. It is said that the acrostic of the Hebrew letters, aleph, lamed, vav, lamed stands for the beautiful phrase from the Song of Songs, Ani l'dodi v'dodi li, I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. The month of Elul is also a time for opening the heart to one's beloved. This includes healing relationships with oneself, with others, with the earth, and with God. The shofar or ram's horn is sounded every morning, except the day before Rosh Hashanah, to awaken the soul to its purpose and direction. Psalm 27 is recited in the morning and the evening throughout these 40 days and even until the last day of Sukkot. It is said that the gates of heaven remain open to our heartfelt prayers until midnight on Hoshana Rabba – the seventh day of Sukkot.
Rosh Hashanah, which means the "head of the year," has several other names as well –Yom Teru'ah, the day of sounding the shofar; Yom HaDin, the day of judgment; and Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembering. Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first day of Tishri, which is called the seventh month in the Torah, counting from the month of Nisan when we left slavery in Egypt. Similar to Shabbat, which is a time of rest and reflection on the seventh day, the seventh month of Tishri, with all of its holidays, makes us stop and take notice of the patterns in our lives. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are designed to help us change what is not working for us and to set goals accordingly for the year ahead.
Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday that occurs on the first day of the Hebrew month. Thus, it is like the mother of all Rosh Hodesh or new moon celebrations. Although we address God as King throughout the day, the images of birth and compassion are also prevalent. In the prayer service of Musa -- the additional morning service -- each time after sounding the shofar we say, Hayom Harat Olam--today is the birthday of the world! It is as if the call of the shofar is the birth cry of our people. On the first day, the Torah reading from Genesis 21 is about Sarah who, at the age of 90, gave birth to Isaac, and the Haftarah or supplemental reading, from the book of I Samuel, is Hannah's beautiful prayer to conceive a child.
According to the Jewish calendar, the world will be 5766 years old this year, but we know from scientific evidence that the earth is millions of years old. How can this discrepancy be resolved? Some sources say that Rosh Hashanah is the day that humans were created. This moves us along the evolutionary ladder, but it still doesn't satisfy the questions of a precocious pre-teen. Perhaps one way to look at this birth date is to notice that it was approximately 6,000 years ago that the world's oldest religions simultaneously began to emerge, and human consciousness grappled with issues that were more subtle than survival skills. So we could say that this year it is 5766 years since the dawning of the human awareness of God.
To prepare your heart and deepen your experience, use the wisdom of the tradition and take these forty days as your time for a personal spiritual journey. Examine what is working in your life and what is not. Set goals for the coming year and dream about what you really want from life and what can change. Write letters or phone your family and friends and visit the cemetery to connect with loved ones who have passed on. Make amends with the people you have hurt and forgive those who have hurt you. Witness your own life as a story in the Book of Life and know that you are empowered to help create the life that you desire. This is a time of transformation and healing. As we say in our prayers, may we all be inscribed (and inscribe ourselves!) in the Book of Life, Blessing, Peace, and Satisfying Livelihood. Amen.