Sacred Sites and Sacred Rites: Earth-connected Spirituality from the Jewish New Year through ‘Jewish Mother’s Day’

View from an Ecofeminist Jewess

The annual cycles in the Jewish calendar provide a constant rhythm for introspection, connectivity, and celebration and the crescendo of the Jewish New Year plays a significant part. Rituals that involve animal horns, naturally occurring water, tree parts and communal food accompany the phases of this time of year. Physical-world items are brought like anchors from adamah – the feminine earth – into our spiritual practices. When you look at it this way, it’s hard to deny that we are an Earthy people!Kever Rachel Painting

The month of Elul, the last month of the year, entails hearing the shofar blast every day, and the cry from the ram’s horn is a tool for purification as we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe. This purification carries into Rosh Hashana as we enter the month of Tishrei when we recommit ourselves to cleaving to our Creator, choosing once again the path of good, and praying for the best. While we are reviewing our behaviors and habits we are also clearing up unresolved conflicts with our family, friends and community, and making amends with HaShem to continue forward at our best.

The Fast of Gedaliah immediately following Rosh Hashana is a fast day when we recall a significant time in our people’s history where disunity led to devastation. Mikva opportunities abound during this time of year, as in our tradition women and men can access the holy water-wombs to submit to more rebirth. Shabbat Tshuva is another occasion for sitting and eating with our community together, learning Torah, reviewing our values and goals, and strengthening and nourishing ourselves physically and spiritually.

We rise above our earthly existence by refraining from food on Yom Kippur, taking a rest from eating. By the time Yom Kippur is done, the entire Jewish people has been cleansed anew. Four days later, we celebrate our personal and collective growth for an entire week, as we dwell and feast outdoors together with all types of Jews in the Sukkah under the shadow of HaShem, with visits from our ancestors, and rituals with parts from four species of trees that signify the various characteristics of Jewish personalities in unison. We construct our shade booths according to certain basic rules in order to keep them kosher, carrying on in the fashion of our ancestors. Sometime between Rosh Hashana and the end of Sukkot we have hopefully performed the custom of tashlich, casting away our negative traits and habits in the form of bread crumbs into a natural body of water like a pond, river, lake or sea. On Hashana Rabba, we learn Torah all night, the Day of the Willow.

Finally we pray for rain for the year on Shemini Atzeret the day after Sukkot, when we bid farewell to the Sukkah. But that’s not all! For those of us who live outside of Eretz HaKodesh, we follow the 8th day with another holiday, Simchat Torah, which is basically the over-the-top after-party where the holiday season culminates into a furious community celebration, when we make aliyas, rewind the Torah made of parchment and start again. Wow!

Beyond the Chaggim? Jewish Mother’s Day

So after the Jewish New Year holiday series, what next? The only holiday during the month of Cheshvan is Shabbat – but that’s the most important of all of them! During Cheshvan, the month when we are reading in the Torah from Bereshit about the beginning years of the world again, we can pay special attention to the yarzeit of Rachel Imeinu, our matriarch Mama Rachel, whose husband the patriarch Jacob laid to rest on Cheshvan 11 in the year 2208 (1553 BCE) next to the road in Beit Lechem after she died giving birth to Benjamin her second son. This year Cheshvan 11 falls on November 3-4, 2014.

Rachel’s Tomb, considered the third holiest site to the Jewish people, is visited by thousands of people every year, but particularly on her yarzeit. Rachel “Our Mother”, who lived for many years barren while her sister bore children to her husband, whose cry HaShem responds to by promising that her children the Jewish people will return home, is understood to hear the prayers of her people and to advocate for them.

While Kever Rachel has been the subject of art over the centuries, today it is enveloped in a military compound as it has been subjected to religious war and turmoil. Access to this sacred site had been obstructed at various times over the centuries and so the militarism of the site is for the purpose of maintaining access for Jewish people as well as for preserving the site’s integrity and keeping Rachel, Our Mother safe. Considering this past summer’s news of the destruction of the Tombs of Yonah and of Daniel in Iraq by Muslim extremists after they had survived all these centuries, the military protection of Rachel’s Tomb looks better than ever.Rachels Tomb Block Print

Even if you can’t make it to Kever Rachel in person to honor her during the anniversary of her tragic death, this day has been dubbed “Jewish Mother’s Day” and you can observe her yarzeit from wherever you are. Certain customs to consider include learning Torah with others, giving charity in honor of the deceased, and blessing and sharing food with others. Herein lies more possibility for raising the spirits of the Jewish people, in the merit of and with love for our precious matriarch Rachel Imeinu, the embodiment of Jewish grace.

Judaism revers women and mothers. We exercise our elevated female role throughout the Jewish calendar cycle – from special mitzvot for women relating to Shabbat, to celebrating the new month each Rosh Chodesh, to resting while the Chanukah candles are lit. Cheshvan 11 offers the Jewish people another occasion to focus on the special strengths of women while also honoring our matriarch Rachel in her sacred resting place in the Holy Land during her yarzeit. We can do this individually or in groups, and I recommend doing it in groups!

Unity is a mandate. While we may have work to do individually internally and externally, Judaism offers structures throughout the annual calendar to stay connected in community and never to isolate ourselves. Being present for a minyan, or participating in simchas can bring greater blessings. Staying engaged in earthly activities with other Jewish people in the physical world, particularly focused on Torah learnings, is our way. We convene throughout festivals, sabbaths, rituals, and even on our very special Jewish Mother’s Day.

About the Author
Wendy Kenin is a childbirth doula and mother of 5 in Berkeley, California. She produces ecofeminist Judaica, is founder of Imeinu Birth Collective, is a social media consultant, co-chair of the Green Party’s national newspaper Green Pages, and a member of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. Wendy is a member of the editorial board of Jewcology, and serves on the leadership circle of Canfei Nesharim.