Welcome to the year of the “Chai” — 2018! Even though our Jewish new year (5778) commenced several months ago, we live by a parallel calendar, which especially outside of Israel, shapes our routines and determines so many of our plans. It’s been like this for most of Jewish history. Just this morning, the subject of Daf Yomi (the Talmudic study of a page-a-day) was about how a scribe dates bills of divorce and civil contracts. They would, for example, be dated according to the Greek era (known as the Era of Contracts).
So the long, languorous days of January are for most of us about summer, switching off the world, replenishing, renewing, re-connecting to family and to ourselves. I enjoyed the large silence of a remote farm in New Zealand. In the distance the tall mountains of the Alps shrouded in snow; closer were the creased and creviced hills that changed colour with the changing day; a lake that challenged with its clarity and depth. At night the stars hung so low and plentiful you could virtually pluck them. To pray here was to newly unwrap some of the regular old tefillot, to understand in a fresh way why our wise sages selected the psalms and blessing that they did, the prayers that ring and resonate with the beauty and wonder of nature:
“Sing to the Lord in thanks… He covers the sky with clouds… swiftly run His words He spreads snow like fleece, sprinkles frost like ashes… He makes the wind blow and the water flow” (Psalm 147).
To walk along a dirt road where the only traffic was the sheep, to meander in a paddock flanked by tall trees, alongside a river that moved effortlessly without human intervention, to hear the wind as if for the first time, to listen to the water; to do all this was to waken one’s soul, to restore one’s perspective. And I understood in a different way why the rabbis chose the blessings they did to introduce that daily recitation of the majestic Shema. As we move closer into the heart of prayer in the morning and evening services we turn to the creation, how God in His goodness “continually renews the work of creation, day after day. How numerous are your works, oh Lord, you made them all in wisdom”.
The wise rabbis who penned these words were closer to nature than us, they lived in a time and society where the rhythms of the natural cycle still played in their daily lives. In our sanitised urban lives where the bleat of a sheep has been replaced by the twitter of a tweet, it’s become so much harder to connect to a God of Creation. The great romantic or nature poet William Worsdworth living at the time of the Industrial Revolution, was acutely aware of how technology creates a disconnect, not only between us and the creation, but also between us and our selves. He expressed it powerfully in one of his most famous poems The world is too much with us:
“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers – Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away”
Another poet of this time, William Blake wrote of how “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of the other only a green thing which stands in the way”
Chai (חי) is the Hebrew word for life and is both a popular symbol (and pendant) and part of a popular toast (Le-Chaim) It comprises two Hebrew letters, ח and י which numerically amount to eighteen and explain why we frequently make charitable contributions in multiples of $18.
It’s also a reflection of the Jewish reverence for life. While it shouldn’t be confused with chai tea, its also about the wonderful gift of life, it’s lovely blend of taste and scent the very essence and spice of what it is to be human.