Rosh Hashanah Marheshvan – In the Wake of the Floodwaters
And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die,
I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of You go I.
(Paul Simon, “Kathy’s Song”)
Marheshvan (or Heshvan) is the month of darkening days creeping towards the winter solstice, leaves ablaze on the New England trees, dank air and occasional torrential rains. Nights lengthen, the dawn is incrementally delayed, and the sun sets earlier each day. With the absence of festivals, the Rabbis grant significance to the Hebrew prefix of the name: mar, meaning bitter. Historically, too, the month is marked by dark times: Kistrallnacht (on the 16th of Heshvan, Nov. 10th, 1938); the Assassination of Yitzchak Rabin (on the 12th of Heshvan, Nov. 4th, 1995); and according to Genesis 7:11 and rabbinic legend, the onset of the Flood, God’s terrifying judgment to destroy the earth (17th of Heshvan). With creative philology, one might then reconstrue the name of the month, Marheshvan, as a portmanteau: the month of bitter reckoning (mar – heshbon).
Each year I dread winter. As the rain pours, I know snow will soon follow and wonder: how can I be sure that spring will return? That snow and ice will give way to crocus bulbs? That the days will grow long again?
The Torah records God’s promise to the Earth:
So long as all the days of Earth endure,
Sowing and reaping,
Cold and heat,
Summer and winter,
Day and night shall never end (Gen. 8:22)
And God seals that promise in a covenant (brit) with a sign (’ot). The covenant between God and the Earth is represented by the rainbow, ha-keshet, set in the clouds, for God to see:
When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Gen. 9:14-15)
Formed of suspended water droplets, sunlight is refracted through saturated air, arrayed in all the colors of the visual spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet (remember ROYGBIV?). The rainbow is a sign (’ot), neither man-made nor supernatural, indigenous to nature, that nevertheless inspires awe. It is an arc between heaven and earth, like a military bow, whose arrows are aimed not downward, in enmity, at humanity. Rather, those fictive arrows of the Almighty would scatter upward, harmlessly. As Nahmanides avers: “Similarly, it is the practice of combatants to invert their bow in an offering of peace to their adversary” (Ramban on Gen. 9:12).The rainbow thus represents a truce, a pact of peace God has made with Humankind.
The 19th century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, adds the following insight to the symbol of the rainbow:
In the midst of overcast threatening clouds, [the rainbow] announces the presence of light and is accordingly a reminder that in the midst of God’s threatening wrath His preserving grace is still there. But perhaps the sight of the colors of the rainbow…also directs our attention to the fact that, in spite of all the differences in the degree of human development, God would never again decree the downfall of the whole human race, but that its future education to its godly purpose was to be founded just on these differences and varieties of humanity.
God’s new pact, the brit between heaven and earth, is founded on plurality, the many “differences and varieties of humanity,” represented by the colors of the rainbow. Remember ROYGBIV? We continue to recall that covenant, yearly, as one of the Remembrances (zikhronot) in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah. And we may recite a blessing upon seeing a rainbow in the sky, praising God for keeping that covenant with the Earth. This month of Marheshvan (of bitter reckoning) I, too, must remember that the cold will give way to warmth again, as seedtime to harvest, and winter to spring. God reminds me of this with the rainbow and with all the colorful array of humanity.
To all the members of the Hebrew College community and beyond, I wish you the strength to display all your colors, all the plurality of Jewish expression under the arc of God’s covenant of grace. I feel blessed to be part of you.