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  • Chana-Toni Whitmont

Rosh Hashanah - Paradoxical Balance


Paradoxical Balance by Chana-Toni Whitmont


This piece was created on the afternoon of 2nd day Rosh Hashanah 5782/2021.


Over the previous 36 hours I had attended three very satisfying, very different online service offerings. I had prepared my space with care in order to maximise the potential for bringing the sacredness of the Yamin Noarim into my home sound healing room. My “reader’s table” was covered with my husband’s tallit, the one which sheltered us for our wedding. On it was a lit candle and a pitcher of water, fire to transmute and water cleanse - or perhaps my own ner tamid and mikveh. There were a few crystals, chosen for their beauty and for their energy as well as a selenite star tetrahedron (3 d Magen David). And a shofar which I had purchased a week or two earlier but which I daren’t put to my lips in these times of pandemic (and which I haven’t yet attempted to blow). And my hard copy machzor, not an electronic version. I dressed in white, and settled in under my HHD tallit.


On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, day one, I re-read various books and articles about Rosh Hashanah. It is always interesting to me what I focus on, and I find that it can vary from year to year. This year I was particularly struck by Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman’s Seasons of the Soul, and in particular his essay entitled “The paradoxes of Rosh Hashanah”. I also drew on the Rosh Hashanah teachings of Rabbi Daniel Raphael Silverstein (from his monthly calendar course through Applied Jewish Spirituality). I also had Rabbi Shefa Gold’s missive in my mind - she had sent it out a couple of days before - A World of Fire and Storm, in which she asked the questions - “can I remember this gift in the midst of the storm”. And Rabbi George Mordecai’s adaptation of the “dust to dust” part of the unatanah tok’ef with that line from Leonard Cohen’s Who By Fire? - Who Shall I say is calling?


However to get there, I had to tease out the many and varied threads of the teachings. While I ended up focusing on paradox, I certainly could have done a piece on the shofar, and another one on tashlich/water (mayim = melech=90, the primordial water seemed to have been there from the beginning without being created, all the drops flowing into one). I had read some fascinating material on the maths of the shofar, its equivalence with space, the notes, vowels, crowns and letters, the sounds of the shofar, its sefirotic equivalencies and even its spatially equivalent dimensions. The shofar as a primal scream, or the sound of a woman in childbirth moving from pain constriction and judgement to elation and glory about creation. Or psalm 118:5 - from the narrow places I called out to God who answered me in wide expanse.


At one stage I thought I might do something on balance of the Magen David - tefillah, teshuvah and tzedakah being balanced by malchot, zichronot and shofarot - the three aspects of the RH ritual that make it unique. Or the 10 kavanot for the Shofar.

And of course, there was the winnowing of ideas - after all I am making a 12 x 12 visual response, not writing an essay. So I left out the Shem miShmeul quote about creation first with din and then a second time with rachmanin so it could endure. And a visual reference to scales (Libra, moving from Elohim/gevurah/din/judgement through chesed/love/ compassion to balance in tiferet). The paradox of Isaacs name/Yitzak/conceived in laughter l’tzchok - the man embodied both radical amazement at creation (Rosh Hashanah being about creation of the world/humankind) and intense gevurah that he showed at the akedah (which is read on day 2 of the festival).


I left out the idea of Elohim being our first encounter with God, Elohim with the gematria of hateva (the nature) 86, - nature being all about rules and consequence and laws and judgement. And Adam and Eve having the gematria of 64, wonderfully equivalent to din/judgement. And the gematria links between Satan, the snake (plus 1) and Moshiach (+1) all being 359 - ie the primordial energies of good and evil being somehow equivalent as if to say that Satan/snake/the evil impulse only exists for the purpose of revealing the good. Or the gematria of snake = Jacob (heel) + Israel, the name he got when dealing with Satan all night long. The snake of course condemned to forever be at our heels.


I left out the balance of the three books - wicked, good and the beoninim, forever in the balance. I left out Rabbi Jill Hammer’s beautiful quote about being a seed linked to past growth and a new beginnings.


Finally I came to what was the central issue for me this year - how do we move from being Betzelem Elohim - in the image of God - the God of judgement to Betzelem HaShem/Havayah - the God of the 13 attributes of compassion?


On Rosh Hashana we have both - all that judgement and Aveinu Malkenu - the possibility of being dealt kindly with. After all, the simple reading of our foundational story is all about compassion, although I had never recognised it before. Adam and Eve were warned that eating the fruit would lead to death, and yet, they were not punished with death. They were expelled from the garden instead. And if one imagine’s the Garden of Eden story as a Divine set-up so that we humans can learn about compassion, then this God of paradox is teaching us that there is both Divine determinism and free choice. Our job is to dance in between (beoninim again???).


I have called my piece Paradoxical Balance.


I wanted to create something that was both sombre and joyful, invoking both the seriousness of the day of judgement as well as the celebration of creation, recreation and compassion. Hence my colours of muddy browns which have equal weight and balance with the rosy pinks. The patterned papers were chosen deliberately - the mottled brown mudscape which is torn back to reveal the interlocking cogs and wheels of the laws the govern the physical (Elohim) world. The brown and slate floral pattern is itself a picture of balance and contrast. And despite the murky brown background, there are hints of lightness in the pale pink patterned strip and the rose pink stamped accents. The stand out pink inked flower burst is my reference to the 13 attributes that hover tantalisingly above us as we wrestle our way through the season.


The text underlies the Rosh Hashanah theme of paradoxical balance.


1. Adam y’sodo mei-afar.....this powerful piece on our ultimate vulnerability to our fate (sealing in the book of life etc) is from the liturgy. Inspired by Rabbi Mordecai’s example, I adapted the end with Leonard Cohen’s line from his song Who By Fire?


2. Everything is foreseen but freedom of choice is given.....Pirkei Avot 3:15. My attention was alerted to this passage through Rabbi Trugman’s discussion about the paradox between determinism and free choice and its relevance to Rosh Hashanah.


3. Through return to the right path, prayer and righteous giving..... from the Machzor, Mishkan Teshuvah. The possibility of reprieve (compassion) despite the nature of our past misdeeds (and despite the otherwise harshness of the Divine decree)


4. Adam, this shall be a sign for your descendants....Pesikta d’Rav Kahanna 23 - on the compassion that was shown to Adam and Eve - from the AJS Kabbalah through the Calendar class on Tishrei.