On Rosh HaShanah, on Rosh HaShanah
A cloudlet bloomed in the autumn sky
On Rosh HaShanah, like a memorial candle,
A chatzav came up in the field.
On Rosh HaShanah, on Rosh HaShanah
Our heart answered with an ancient prayer
That the year that begins now
Will be different and beautiful.
]Naomi Shemer, "On Rosh HaShanah]
Sure enough, last week I saw the first chatzav flower of the season – which was actually sort of surprising, as it's been several years since the last leap year, so the holidays are "early" in the solar year this year. One would think that the flowering of the chatzav would be determined by day length, temperature, etc., and not by the tradition that their flowers are a symbol of Rosh HaShanah. Yet here they were, starting to bloom in the heat of August. For us in the Galilee, the seasonal symbolism of the chatzav is like the turning of the maple leaves in North America - when you see it, you have a visceral reaction, a deep awareness of the passing of time, of the change of seasons. The plant (Google "sea squill") has a unique life cycle, putting up large tulip-like leaves during the rainy season; these shrivel and die away during the summer. Then suddenly, just before Rosh Hashanah (before any rain), a stalk shoots up overnight, about a meter high, and rings of tiny white flowers bloom, working their way from bottom to top. When the flowers go to seed the stalk dries out and is blown away by winter winds.
For me one of the most satisfying aspects of living in Israel – and of living in a somewhat rural setting here – is the constant awareness of the correlation of Jewish time with natural phenomena. Obviously, in Chicago and Philadelphia, there was the same moon with the same cycles, and the same seasons. But somehow, here, I'm more aware of them, and of their echoes in the customs and texts of Judaism. Is it because the Jewish calendar is more part of public consciousness here? Or because there are more physical phenomena that are reflected specifically in our classical texts? Or because there are no tall buildings and not many tall trees where I live, so the moon is very present. I'm not sure. In any case, I love the correlations:
- Noticing the moon and being able to know, to within a day or two, the Hebrew date;
- Knowing, by the Gregorian date of Rosh HaShanah, whether the new year will be a leap year;
- Really meaning it when we recite the prayer for rain at the end of Sukkot;
- Driving past fields of waving grain between Pesach and Shavuot;
- Expecting the first clouds, and chatzavim, in mid-Elul;
- Being surprised at seeing an almond tree in bloom before Tu BiSh'vat.
The Mishnah describes a famous disagreement among the rabbis over the observation of the new moon, and the setting of the date of Yom Kippur one year; and the Talmud describes the various natural markers that were taken into account in the early spring, in deciding whether to add a second month of Adar in order to postpone Pesach by a month. But already 15 centuries ago the rabbis did the astronomy and the math and locked the calendar up forever, and we no longer have to wonder when a holiday will fall or whether a year will be a leap year. Less authentic, perhaps, than direct observation – but it does make life easier. And the natural markers and the liturgical year are still aligned, and have their resonance in one's consciousness. Chatzavim/clouds – Rosh Hashanah /Yom Kippur – Sukkot – rain – greening: a dependable sequence that gives the words of our prayers roots in the landscape around us. Not Zionism, not blood and soil, not Israel Engagement, but something that predates these concepts and runs deeper and gentler - a spiritual attunement of time and place. Looking forward to a year that will be "different and beautiful."