Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Do you do this too? At the start of the new year, I try very hard to remember where I was one year ago. Where was I when I rang in 2017? Do you remember? And once I can conjure the scene in my head, the year gone by fills in the space between here and there. I pause and think about all the things, all the things, that have happened; the people I have loved or lost, the challenges, the successes, the failures, the milestones, the adventures, the tears, and (thank God) the laughter.
Of course, what comes next is the natural, and socially encouraged, practice of looking to the future. We assess the past and decide, or rather resolve, to do things differently this year than we did last year. And we dive into the new year attempting to be a better version of ourselves than the year before. In some ways, it’s a secular version of the Teshuvah or repentance which happens at the Jewish High Holy Days in the fall.
There is something about the new in the new year that inspires a sense of “I can do this!” And so we go about the business of trying to change bad habits or create new good habits which we feel will make our lives better.
But there is ultimately nothing magical about the new year. I don’t just mean to deconstruct the nature of our secular celebrations, I mean, there is nothing actually objectively NEW in the new year. There is no cosmic or organic or scientific thing that makes January 1 of any given year unique in comparison to any other day on the calendar. Time is a thing. But how we cut it and mark it and divide it is not. We, human beings made that. God may have made the day, but we made the hour, the half hour and the 15-minute intervals into which we arrange our lives on these things we call calendars. God may have made the month, but we made the work week and the weekend. God may have made the year, but we picked an ostensibly random day and declared it the first of the year and named it a beginning.
A year is cyclical. It has no beginning and no end. So, choosing an endpoint of one cycle and the beginning of another is not only artificial but also, forgive me for saying so, arrogant. Who are we to so boldly make such a claim on the awesomeness of time to determine when one piece of it ends and another piece of it begins?
In the Jewish world, we sort of get around this by having four new years. Passover is the first new year and falls in the first month of the Hebrew calendar. Nissan, the month in which Passover falls, is the first month of the year because it is the month in which we first taste the sweetness of freedom from Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In Nissan, we are reborn as free people and each year at seder we are encouraged to remember what we are enslaved to, to what (or to Whom) shall we be freed? Rosh Hashanah, in Tishrei, the seventh month of the calendar year, is established as the head of the Jewish year as we know it sometime after the Torah and before the Mishnah is written. This more traditional sense of a Jewish New Year is set in the fall as one harvest season ends and a new one begins. Tu B’Shevat, in January/February, is the new year of the trees and coincides with the almond blossoms blooming in Jerusalem (or the sap beginning to run in the maple trees in the northeastern United States.) The fourth new year falls on the first of Elul, the first day of the month right before Rosh Hashanah, and is linked to the cattle tithe.
The four new years strike me as both heretical and obvious at the same time. Heretical because who has four new years? Well, apparently, we do. And obvious because each new year celebrates and marks a different cycle of time. By having four, we embrace that time is not ours to manage and control, but rather an ebb-and-flow backdrop upon which our human existence plays itself out. By having four, Jewish tradition hints at something secular society holds on too tightly with two hands-any day can be the beginning of something new.
There is a text in the Talmud about the coming of the Messiah:
A certain Rabbi Joshua learns from Elijah the prophet that the Messiah has come and is sitting at the gates of Rome. The Rabbi goes to see the Messiah and asks him when he is coming. The Messiah says, “Today.” Rabbi Joshua waits through the day but the Messiah does not come. He then returns to Elijah to unpack this interaction. ‘What did he say to you?’ Elijah asks Rabbi Joshua. ‘He spoke falsely to me,’ [Rabbi Levi] rejoined, ‘stating that he would come today, but has not.’ Elijah answered him, ‘This is what he said to you, Today if you will hear his voice. The Messiah is quoting from Psalms in order to teach us because any of us could be Rabbi Joshua in this story, that making the changes necessary to get the Messiah to come is dependent upon us and can happen at any time.
Now, I am not sure what I think about the Messiah waiting at the gates of Rome, but I do believe that there is something better out there that is just beyond our reach. And this text speaks to that hope! But it also gives us tools-we can make this world better, it is in our hands to so.
And we can do so today.
The new year, any new year can be a marker of the passage of time. While certain days are more common for embracing a new future, affect change to be a better version of ourselves, any day and every day can offer that opportunity. The choice is entirely up to us.
Pronounced: tuh-SHOO-vah, (oo as in boot) Origin: Hebrew, literally “return”, referring to the “return to God” teshuvah is often translated as “repentance.” It is one of the most significant themes and spiritual components of the High Holidays.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.