January 4th, 2019
27 Tevet 5779
As Jews, we are guided through the year by the cycle of our calendar. The language of our prayers changes to reflect the time of year in which we find ourselves. We greet each other in different ways depending on which holiday is coming next. Around Rosh Hashana we wish each other a shana tovah, a happy new year. During the days of awe, we wish each other a “g’mar tov,” a good “sealing” in the book of life. During festival weeks we wish each other a “moadim l’simcha” a happy festival week. And when in doubt, there is always the reliable option of “chag sameach”, Happy Holiday. Which acts as a catch all no matter what chag you are celebrating.
In our secular world too, our greetings change with the time of year. In this season in particular, we are inundated with holiday cheer, greetings of good wishes, and festivity upon festivity no matter what your religion or tradition.
Around the 2nd week of November, people often begin signing off their emails with “Happy Thanksgiving!” By mid-december, we are wishing each other a “happy holidays” as we leave a store. And then we reach January and the next thing you know, every single email exchange and every single person you see is wishing you a very happy new year!
As we know from our observance of Rosh Hashana, the new year is exciting. It represents possibilities, hope, the opportunity to start fresh and begin again. In the fall months, particularly when Rosh Hashana falls early as it did this year, it often coincides with the start of the academic year. Back to school sales abound. The colors of the leaves begin to change. The secular new year however, arrives in a season filled with bitter cold, shorter days, darker nights and cranky moods. And yet, the new year becomes a bright spot in our calendar that affords us an excuse to get dressed up, gather together and celebrate one more rotation around the sun.
As we know from our observance of Rosh Hashana, the new year is exciting. It represents possibilities, hope, the opportunity to start fresh and begin again.
As a Jew and as a Cantor in particular, I noticed this year that I felt a little bit funny signing my emails with a Happy New Year. I found myself thinking, do I need to say happy SECULAR new year? If I acknowledge this new year, is that somehow disrespectful of the other one? I knew I may be overthinking simple email pleasantries and etiquette but it got me thinking; how can we as Jews relate to the secular new year and still bring our uniquely Jewish perspective to it?
In many ways, our observance of the two holidays is similar. The observance of Rosh Hashana begins at sundown and is consecrated by Kiddush, the blessing over wine. The secular new year is also observed the evening before the holiday and is also, marked with the drinking of wine (among other festive beverages). The two occasions are representative of a new beginning and we mark it as such by gathering together with friends and family, eating and drinking, and celebrating the sweetness of whats to come.
Rosh Hashana, on the one hand, precedes Yom Kippur and begins the yamim noraim, the days of awe. As such, this celebratory holiday carries with it the weight of what follows it. We reflect on the year that has passed and we begin to turn our hearts toward t’shuvah, toward the act of repentance, and toward our true essence. We begin to take stock of what has transpired and examine who and how we want to be in the year to come. If there are wrongs that need to be righted, this is our time to do it. It forces us to examine with intentionality, how we have been walking through the world and what path we want to continue to chart.
We reflect on the year that has passed and we begin to turn our hearts toward t’shuvah, toward the act of repentance, and toward our true essence.
The secular new year, in its own way, gives us the illusion of a clean slate as many of us engage in the ritual of making a new years resolution. We RESOLVE to make a change in our behavior or our attitude. We RESOLVE to do more squats, to eat fewer carbs, to go to sleep earlier, to drink more water. And while I thoroughly advocate for us to all make healthier & wiser choices for ourselves in this new year, this act of RESOLUTION is, to my mind, a bit of a dangerous exercise. We make promises to ourselves and yet so often, they are promises we know we cannot keep. As you may know, I am an avid user of the platform Instagram (something I resolved to cut back on in the new year, I’ll admit) and this meme has been seemingly following me around with the message, “I already messed up. 2020 is gonna be my year!” And if we’re honest, who can say they don’t relate?
We make promises to ourselves and yet so often, they are promises we know we cannot keep.
“New year, new me” we declare but if we don’t put those intentions into action, the holiday can merely serve as a reminder of all the things we hope for ourselves but cannot or will not follow through on.
While listening to a podcast called Pod Save America, I heard the following quote from a woman named Anne Marie Cox. She says, “I hate the idea of resolutions. I feel like they are oppressive. I had a therapist that made me stop making to do lists bc they are just a weapon you use to beat yourself up. So resolutions can be that way too. So I have started thinking about intentions rather than resolutions.
For one thing, it’s not a pass fail situation.
Usually the way resolutions are formatted, there is some failure potential. But intentions you can sustain...Things that I follow through with in my life are things that are a part of the journey that I want to be on.”
(Pod Save America, Pod Lang Syne, guest Anna Marie Cox).
As soon as I heard this, a light bulb went off in my head. Of course. Making resolutions; setting ourselves up to fail or be disappointed in ourselves is guilt inducing, anxiety provoking and often, counter productive. Intention setting however, is a process and one that I would argue, has a distinctly Jewish flavor.
Kavanah, intention, is a value that we pursue diligently as Jews. Our rituals require it and in fact, our prayers call for it –
“Adonai S’fatai Tiftach u’fi yagid t’hilatecha”
God open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise.
“Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha Adonai”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God!
On Shabbat we are taught to Shamor v’zachor – observe AND remember the Sabbath, as if to remind us that it is not enough to merely observe the ritual. Our whole self must be engaged; mind, body and soul.
We have rituals to separate the holy from the profane, to mark the passage of time, to acknowledge milestones in our lives, to honor the cycle of life, and as the calendar moves forward, we go around in a circle, reading the same Torah, the same stories, week after week, year after year, for centuries; all the while, making them new again through our own interpretation and understanding of the stories therein. Through this process, we honor the past in which these stories are rooted, while simultaneously learning from them and helping them to evolve as we do. It would seem, that we Jews have an affinity for new beginnings.
Through this process, we honor the past in which these stories are rooted, while simultaneously learning from them and helping them to evolve as we do. It would seem, that we Jews have an affinity for new beginnings.
In fact, in Mishnah Rosh Hashana, one of our commentaries, it is written that the Jewish people do not in fact, observe only one new year, but rather 4. On the first of Nisan, the new year of festivals, on the first of Elul, the new year for tithing, on the 1st of Tishrei, the New Year for Years (Rosh Hashana), and on the first of Shvat, the new year for trees, tu bishvat.
While most of us here probably do not observe all 4 of these occasions, what our tradition is teaching is that we place value on the experience of renewal. We are constantly turning and turning ourselves toward what we believe is right and true; toward who we want to be and what we want the future of our world to look like. So much of our Jewish life is built around the cycle of our calendar, beginnings and endings. We read in the book of Ecclesiastes “that for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven,” (3:1-8).
We are constantly turning and turning ourselves toward what we believe is right and true; toward who we want to be and what we want the future of our world to look like.
So while this moment in time is not codified in our Jewish calendar or mandated by our Jewish law, it is an opportunity to engage in the spiritual exercise of recommitting ourselves to our intentions. The secular new year provides us an opportunity to check in with ourselves and revisit the souls we so carefully examined only a few months ago.
How are you doing?
Are you treating yourself with kindness?
Have you been affording yourself the time and space to be the version of yourself that you most admire?
How are your relationships?
Is there anyone with whom your heart is inclined to reconnect?
Are there wrongs that need to be righted?
Apologies or reparations that need to be taken?
While our Jewish calendar guides us along our path, we don’t in fact, have to wait until next Elul to do this spiritual accounting. On the contrary, this process of reflection, of cheshbon ha-nefesh, is one in which we can and should engage all year long.
So, as we begin this new calendar year of 2019, we are afforded the opportunity to turn inward once again and to recommit ourselves to the process of renewal. We can reaffirm our intentions for the year to come and carry those intentions with us as we resolve to forgive ourselves for the inevitable stumbles we may encounter along the way.
And may this year be one of renewed commitment to community, to understanding, and indeed, to peace.
(Pod Save America, Pod Lang Syne - aired December 27, 2018, guest Ana Marie Cox)