What is the singular essence of Rosh Hashanah?
The core meaning of Rosh Hashanah is the sovereignty of the divine. By sovereignty of the divine, I don’t mean any particular level of Jewish practice. Jewish pietistic literature is well aware that anyone can go through the motions of outward observance. By sovereignty of the divine, I mean finding a way to find a standard for the duties and habits of the inner life.
Our inner thoughts, feelings, emotions, imagination, drives, impulses, sensations, perceptions, judgments and intuitions can all be askew and can push us in various ways in life, often contradictory ways. We need some standard, some criterion by which to assess ourselves.
Saying that “God is sovereign” is just not enough. If the divine will in its moral concern is expressed through the conscience, and if the concerns of the conscience can be expressed in language, then we should be able to come up with the values that ought to guide our lives — for example, love, justice, truth and beauty.
Words such as “love, justice, truth and beauty” remain only lofty concepts until we allow them to actually shape the inner life. When I think of words that name ultimate values shaping our lives, I keep in mind the Hebrew phrase “ohl malkhut shamayim,” the “yoke of the sovereignty of the divine.” The word “yoke,” which comes from the same Sanskrit root as “yoga,” has the sense of joining together, harnessing or directing, whether it is breathing, posture or consciousness. It seems a stretch, but actually it is not much of a stretch to think of Rosh Hashanah in particular, and the Days of Awe in general, as focusing on the yoga of divine consciousness.
How does one, then, take these divine values (I call them the Garments of the Mind of God) and have them, in a practical way, shape the inner life? My most recent articulation of a response to this question has to do with my adaption of the thought of a very fine book by Thomas Sowell, “Knowledge and Decisions.” Sowell demonstrates that one can assess the world of ideas through their relationship to the process of authentication. A vision, for example, cannot be authenticated. A vision for oneself, for society, can be inspiring or foolish (or both), but cannot be rationally assessed, because visions are not arrived at through any systematic process. A vision can be assessed only when it reaches the realm of “theory,” which means at some level it can and must be authenticated by reason.
When people ask me what I mean by the “yoga of divine consciousness,” from a practical perspective, I respond: “Do you have theories about what will shape you into the person you want to be, for the way you want your life to be?” Here is what I have discovered. Most people do, indeed, have lofty values, usually having to do with some facet of love, justice, truth and beauty. They might even have a practical theory or two. These values and theories, however, often are pushed aside in moments of moral stress.
For example, when I ask a person what their vision is for their family, they may say “love, safety, respect, nurturing” and so forth. Their values are good. When there is conflict or stress, however, the behaviors don’t seem to coincide with the vision. In the language of Jewish spiritual psychology, we say that the “yetzer harah” (a shaping toward destructiveness) has taken over, and provided the inner life with bad theories.
Here is a tool: Whenever you are contemplating or assessing some mode of thought, feeling, speech or behavior, ask yourself: “What’s the theory?” and “How does this relate to the values that I hold?” Rationally speaking, does the real theory guiding my behavior line up with my values?
The problem we find is that many of the theories that rule our lives hide in the shadow of the self. Sometimes when I counsel a person, and ask them to give me a theory that accounts for their behavior, they are blank. They can’t come up with the theory. We dig deeper. Theories that often pop out of the shadows are, “If I yell at my kid/spouse enough, they will change,” “If I avoid confrontation, I will get my way,” and “If I had been more loving, it would have worked out.” And so forth. The theories don’t stand up to rational inquiry, meaning that they don’t match the facts or lead to the realization of the values we hold.
If one starts with a reasonable set of values or axioms, as they apply to given situations, and is willing to work things through rationally, we can begin to distinguish between theories that lead to misfortune and those that lead to blessing.
In years of my work and counseling others, I think that there are several theories that nearly always guide us toward restraining destructive behavior, ridding us of bad theories and helping live lives aligned with our highest values. I’ve tried to boil them down to a few essential guides, metaphorically, “The Five Theories You Meet in Heaven.” Here is one version:
Obligations have to be subjected to rational inquiry. Some people exhaust themselves serving others. Not only clergy, therapists and physicians burn out; in nearly every family there is someone fatigued by meeting the needs of others. A demanding aged parent. A struggling child. An unhappy spouse. When I counsel a person run ragged by the demands of other people, I have them assess those demands by a simple rational calculus. What exactly is the obligation? How did that precise obligation come upon you in particular? Can it actually be done (this is especially important regarding the person who says, “You must make me happy.”)? Are you the only one who can do it? Might it get done in some other way? What is the cost to you, compared to the benefit to the other? Will the other person really be better off if you do this, and for how long? What I find is that needy people often have a peculiar talent for working guilt-prone people. A good theory can help.
Love is a discipline, not an emotion. I often hear in counseling, “If he/she loved me, I would feel better.” I just turn the tables. “And how is your love for him/ her making them feel?” For some people, when they fall in love with someone, their theory is, usually unconsciously, that love will heal their deepest wounds, make them feel safe and treasured and will be a guarantor for happiness, and if this does not happen, then the other person is doing something wrong.
I offer a different theory, paraphrasing Charles Bukowski: “Love unleashes the dogs of hell.” Love fills us with often wild and unspoken needs and demands. How do we restrain the dogs from hell? See love as discipline of service, whatever the emotions may be. If I love someone, my love should bless them. My love should make their life better.
If you are hurt, this does not mean you have been wronged. It is entirely natural to experience hurt as being wronged. Any hurt or great disappointment looks for a cause, usually outside the self. If we see that another person is the proximate cause of the hurt, we blame them for having wronged us.
Not so fast. To know if we have been wronged, first we have to detail, as dispassionately as possible, what actually happened and it what order. People who like to stay hurt and believe they have been wronged typically never want to examine what actually happened. Their feelings are primary.
Those who want to live within the “yoke of divine consciousness” care about the truth; at a simple level, as much as possible, determine what transpired. I call this in counseling “the police report” — “just the facts, ma’am.”
After one has adequately determined what happened (which often means reconstructing the record with the person who you think wronged you), ask: What moral rule was broken here? For example, if I am not invited to a gathering where I thought I would have been a guest, I may feel very hurt, but I have not been wronged, unless a clear moral rule was broken. When our needs, expectations, entitlements and demands are not met, we feel hurt. It is a great leap from there to say we have been wronged. “Being wronged” has to be demonstrated, not assumed.
If I want to be a just person, I will care primarily about the truth and moral code, not about my bruised feelings.
It is very tough to get to the truth and work out the moral issues, which is why some people prefer just to stay angry. Anger fills you with arrogance. Truth and justice can humble you.
There are better and worse states of the inner life. We are obligated to create inner lives of beauty. I often hear from the angry, the resentful, from those who hate, that they are entitled to their feelings and emotions. “It’s a free country,” I am informed.
The Jewish tradition holds, however, that we should not “hate our kinsman in our hearts” and that we should not “bear a grudge.” The tradition of Jewish moral psychology (Mussar) has long lists of inner states against which the tradition warns us. Unruly feelings are inevitable; cultivating them and expressing them is quite another thing. Anger and hatred especially make us feel self-righteous, closed off to hearing the truth, from acting justly and lovingly, and from creating harmony and goodness in our lives. Feelings of fear, guilt, shame and resentment, for example, also cloud our vision and impede our well-being. Living in a free country and having inner freedom are two entirely different things. The yoga of divine consciousness requires that, in general, we cultivate inner lives free of toxicity (including whatever those demonic Democrats or reprobate Republicans say next).
Good moral judgment is not judgmentalism. I regret having to subject the English language to enhanced coercion and use the neologism “judgmentalism,” but I have to find a way to distinguish between “using good moral judgment” from “excessive condemnation.” Oftentimes in conducting rational-spiritual counseling, using, for example, the theories listed above, I will hear that I am being “judgmental.” How can one say what love is? What inner feelings are better than others? That what I am doing is wrong? “Isn’t it all subjective?”
All morality, ethics, social justice, etc., requires a judgment: some things are right and some things are wrong, or put more softly, some things are morally better than others. Often times I see in a person’s desire to be tolerant and understanding (of others or of themselves), an unwillingness to assess morally a behavior or an inner state. All concepts, such as love, justice, truth and beauty, can be rationally discussed and applied if we believe that they name real metaphysical phenomena, not just inner states.
This list of five theories is not exhaustive, but rather indicates a way of thinking toward higher consciousness. Within the admittedly wide bounds of human nature, there really are better ways to think and feel, standards of truth that can be discovered, though often with difficulty. There are better and worse ways to love. And we really can create lives of inner beauty, as beautiful as anything you have ever seen or heard.
I hope you find your way to the Jewish “yoga studio” that serves your soul the best, and that you use these Holy Days upon us to shape your inner lives toward your furthest spiritual reach.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr Ha Torah in Mar Vista and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.