At midnight the streets in our neighborhood were quiet. There were few if any cars, just individuals, couples and families walking to the shrine. The (very) early January winter air was crisp, and despite the walkers, there was a stillness and quiet, almost a feeling of hope and expectation as the new year came in. Indeed, the silence was only broken by the occasional peal of a bell in the distance, as a local Buddhist temple rang in the New Year, with 108 peals. As I heard the ringing bell, I thought of the 100 blasts of the Shofar, with which we mark Rosh Hashanah, one of the many Jewish New Years.
Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year, is a well-observed custom across Japan, and even our small local Shrine precinct was filled with people waiting to pray during the first moments of the year. The line stretched down a long flight of steps as hundreds of people waited to pray. Though preparing for a sacred act of prayer, people didn’t stand in reverential silence. Instead, they talked quietly or called out greetings as they saw their friends and neighbours. At the giant Meiji Jingu (shrine) hundreds of thousands of strangers come to pray. At our local shrine, there was a feeling, even for a foreigner, of community and goodwill.
As in previous years, we came with our border collies Pete and Jiro. To many, this may seem strange. Animals one might think have no place in sacred space. Yet here in Japan we were not alone. There were many dogs of all sizes and shapes, joining with their families to welcome in the New Year. Perhaps in a city where they say that there are more dogs than children, this is unsurprising. Yet I like to think it is a recognition that the dichotomies and separations we create between human and animal, stem from human arrogance. All of us, human and animal are creations of the Divine, and all equally contain a spark of the vivifying Divine presence.
As we finally came close to the shrine itself, I ritually washed my hands and mouth as I prepared to approach the shrine and offer my prayer. Amidst the community, and especially amidst a group of people who wished prayer to be their first action of the New Year, I too felt comfortable offering a prayer to God for a year of peace and prosperity. As we left the shrine, we were offered a thankfully hot sweet bean drink, which seemed to me to be an additional prayer for a sweet new year.
I have often been asked if it is appropriate to pray at houses of worship of other traditions. Tendentious labels are often attached, such as idolatry or paganism. Many (of different faiths) seem to have an automatic assumption that their tradition has a monopoly on God, precluding prayer or even entry to a house of worship not their own. To me, they futilely attempt to limit access to a Divine presence, for which there are no limits or definitions. There is no place where God cannot be found, and no human search that does not reveal truths about the Divine. If and when we claim a monopoly on the truth, our apprehension of the Divine is lessened, and instead of truth, we ourselves create God in our own image.
In Parasha, Shemot, as Moses wanders in the desert he discovers the presence of God at a time when it is least expected. In the middle of the wilderness, as he cares for his father-in-law’s sheep, he happens upon a bush which is burning, and yet is unconsumed. As he experiences this sense of wonder he opens himself to the presence of the Divine. Interestingly (in light of pets in sacred space), the Midrash teaches that he was compassionately seeking after a lost lamb, and it was when he lifted the lamb to carry it back to the flock that the burning bush was revealed. Through compassion, his eyes were opened to God’s presence. God’s presence seems often to be hidden until we are ready and willing to open our eyes. Abraham (and Isaac) wandered three days as if lost, until he lifted his eyes, and found God’s presence on the top of a mountain. Similarly, as Jacob fled to Haran, he too found God’s presence unexpectedly, exclaiming, “God is in this place and I did not know it.
The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that each of us needs to open our eyes, hearts, and minds to the presence of God. He taught that if we do this then wonders can be found everywhere, even in this age where miracles seem absent. Everywhere we look bushes can be found, which burn and yet are not consumed. On one level this teaches that the truest miracles are not the plagues or the splitting of the sea, but existence itself. Miracles are everywhere, but we blind ourselves and fail to see them. On a deeper level, he taught that we walk through a world and see only materiality, created through our self-constructed definitions and limitations. We see the diversity of existence, all of which seems discrete and separate. Yet, if we open ourselves spiritually, we realize a hidden unity, and we can apprehend that unity and much beyond is the Divine.
For me, Hatsumode was an opportunity to take a pause on my spiritual journey. Like Rosh Hashanah, the New Year was an opportunity to assess my progress, and to make new beginnings, and like Rosh Hashanah, the observance of Hatsumode allowed me
to mark my new steps with prayer. Among all the people younger and older (and all the dogs) I felt the presence of the Divine. I think everyone prayed for a year of peace and health. May 2019 - the year of the hedgehog - be a good year for all of us. A year of peace and prosperity, a year of health and happiness, and a year of kindness and respect.