As i write this, some twelve hours after the Equinox, it is the first day of both Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of spiritual focus.
Coming so soon after the cease-fire in the Israel-Lebanon war, this conunction seems to some people ironic, to others a special opportunity, both for Arabs and Jews to get past their violent history, and to remember their common origins. Mythologically (that is, outside historical records), both Jews and Arabs descend from the patriarch of patriarchs, Abraham. The Arab people trace their origin to Ishmael, Abraham’s older son, while the Jews see themselves as descendants of Isaac, the younger son. (The Hebrew Bible has a curious affinity for younger sons–from Abel to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses, the younger brother always seems the one closest to God).
Last night I went to the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, a place of special meaning to me, for their now legendary Rosh Hashanah service. The WJC puts up a huge tent every year and receives as many as 1500 people for a celebration of joy and spirituality.
This evening service they did two things that impressed me (along with the wonderful service I knew to expect). The first came during a reading. At various points in the service, the rabbi, Jonathan Kligler, asks members to come up and read a passage from the prayerbook in English. One of them this year included a plea for peace for “your people Israel.” The woman reading it added “and your people Ishmael.” At the end, the new assistant rabbi, Miriam Margles, gave a short talk on the conjunction of Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan, and how it gives us a chance to get past the history of violence, and the question of who has suffered the most from the other.
These moments may seem fairly mild, but in the current atmosphere I am sure it took courage to say them in a Jewish congregation.
For myself, I am always most fascinated by the spiritual meanings of sacred days, no matter what the religious tradition. Rosh Hashanah is not simply a New Year celebration. It does not even come at the beginning of the calendar year. Ttraditionally, it is not really a civic event, but rather a celebration of the supposed birthday of creation itself. Each year the earth (and the moon, since this is a lunar event) moves around to (mythologically) the same position they were in at the moment of their creation. Thus it becomes a symbol of renewal and new opportunities.
There is an even greater significance to Rosh Hashanah. It begins a ten day period known as the Days of Awe, leading up to the holiest and most solemn day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this period, we are expected to turn our attention to spirituality, but also to consider whom we may have wronged during the year and do our best to make amends. On Yom kippur, we learn, God can release us from the wrongs we have done to God, but not the wrongs done to other people.
The seriousness of Yom Kippur comes out in the fast that is expected of all Jews. For some 26 hours no food or liquid of any kind, not even water, should pass the observer’s lips. In my own experience, this can be extremely difficult if my mind is not focused on spirit, but actually not difficult at all if I give myself to devotion. And this is, of course, the point. We do not fast to punish ourselves, or to go through an ordeal, but simply to help us pay attention to what really matters. Not the satisfaction of the body, but the attention of the spirit.
Fasting is, of course, the most well-known attribute of Ramadan. For an entire month Muslims eat and drink nothing at all between sunrise and sunset. As with the Jewish fast, the purpose (as I understand it from my very limited knowledge) is not self-punishment, or what people sometimes call “mortification of the flesh,” but rather to focus all the attention on our connection to God. Of course, it is not possible to go an entire month without food or water. Therefore, people are allowed to eat and drink after sundown, and among some Muslims these evening meals take on the quality of a joyous celebration.
In a sense, then, observance of Ramadan means that we we fast in the light and feast in darkness. This idea, or image, fascinates me, though I cannot really say what it means!
A couple of years ago I found out that according to tradition, Ramadan marks the time when the archangel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to Mohammed. This makes it a season of revelation and discovery.
Readers of my book The Forest of Souls, as well as the columns I did for two years for the webzine The Meta Arts (www.themetaarts.com) will know of my practice of making Tarot spreads from sacred days. Here is one to mark both Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan. There are seven cards laid out in the following pattern:
1 2 3
5 6 7
1. W hat is renewed in my life?
2. How do I get right with other people?
3. How do I get right with myself?
4. How do I get right with God?
5. What is revealed?
6. How do I fast in the light?
7. How do I feast in darkness?