Havdalah. A ritual that marks the end of Shabbat.
The liturgy is simple. We bless you, God, hamavdil ben kodesh l’chol. You are the One who separates the holy, the kodesh, from the chol, the ordinary.
Shabbat, the holy day of rest, ends. Then, the challenges of ordinary life rush back in. And you, Holy One, give us tools to face them.
But havdalah just before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, seems different. This week, no ordinary week rushes in. Instead, an extraordinary week begins. The last week of preparation for a big community celebration. It’s an all staff, all volunteers on deck kind of week. All creating just the right space for teshuvah — reflection, repentance, and return.
Thus, tonight, when we chant the phrase hamavdil ben kodesh l’chol, our word chol cannot possibly mean “ordinary.”
So, here is another way to think about it.
Maybe, tonight, chol hints at God’s promise to Abraham. First, God says to Abraham, Lech-lecha. Go deep into yourself (Gen 12:1).
And then, God promises: harbah arbeh et zar’acha…kachol asher al sefat hayam. I will make your descendants as many as the chol, the sand upon the seashore (Gen. 22:17).
We Jews are some of these descendants. Alone, each of us is a tiny grain of sand. Individually, we practice teshuvah all the time. We set intentions, gain insight, develop skills.
But this week, we come together. We share our intention, insight, and skill with one another. We gather to learn how to go more deeply into ourselves. And, then, together, we co-create our Rosh Hashanah ritual.
We become the chol asher al sefat hayam — the beach where one enters a sea of possibility.
We bless you God. As you release us from Shabbat, you also give us the strength to build our seashore and enter the sea together.
Prepared for a Slichot service at Or Shalom Synagogue, Vancouver. Image: neshamalife.org