Once again today, as on Yom Kippur, the greeting is Gmar Tov, ‘A good ending’: May we, our communities, our country and the world be sealed for a good destiny. In rabbinic tradition Hoshana Rabba is the day of the final closing of the books, when the blessings and challenges, the rainfall and drought, for the year ahead are determined. Once again, the leader wears white and for one last time we hear the deep melodies of the High Holydays.
I do not take these concepts literally, but they express the deep reverence I have for this day, and the respect and love I feel for its powerful, unusual prayers. As long as he lived, I would go to synagogue with my father on Hoshana Rabba: it was our special time together before God.
I was up early, as one has to be on Hoshana Rabba. I woke with the rabbis’ ancient question in my mind, ‘What was God doing before creating this earth?’ The answer they give is: ‘God was busy creating and destroying other worlds.’ In my head, too, was that line from the liturgy which predates astrophysics by millennia: ‘Toleh erets al blimah, – God suspends the earth over nothingness.’ A similar thought must have gripped the scientist and poet Rachel Elson, who wrote the marvellous line: ‘We astronomers honour our responsibility to awe.’
So where is our world going? Toward what destiny are we headed?
One word and one line are repeated over and again in the ancient litany of today. The word is ‘Hoshana, Save!’ It’s as plain a cry to God as language can produce. The line is only slightly longer: Ani Vaho Hoshi’ana, – I and God, let us save.’ The single word places all the burden on the divine; the line understands that responsibility as shared: What can you and I, what can God and we, do together to save our world?
There is nothing banal or generalised about the pleas which follow. They are the beseeching of people who know their vulnerability, the pleas of subsistence growers, tenant farmers, viticulturists, pilgrims all, who well understand the perils which beset them:
Save sinew, bone and skin; save the winepress and the standing corn; save with strong, healing rains that give life to forsaken lands…
The prayers are the petitions, too, of a nation which knows persecution, of communities who ‘understand the soul of the refugee,’ They are the cries of the asylum-seekers of previous centuries, small-boat people of all generations:
Save the exiled and cast out; save those scattered among those who hate them…
Though each brief prayer is punctuated by the cry Hoshana, the final line is Ani vaHo, We and God: what can we and the divine, what can each of us, inspired and chastened by the presence of God in each other and all life, achieve together? What can we do for our beautiful, joyous world, beleaguered by suffering and injustice. What can we save?
Just as Neil’ah holds the paradox that at the closing of Yom Kippur we pray for the opening of the gates, so, despite the greeting ‘a good ending’, Hoshana Rabba calls us not to a fate already sealed but to a new beginning. It tasks us with the fashioning of a different and better collective destiny, to which we, all humanity together with God, must devote our grit, determination, inspiration, body, mind and soul.