Getting a Head of the New Year (Rosh HaShanah 5775)

Tishrei, that month when we bring in the Jewish new year, brings with it a very Jewish reminder. On January 1st, you and I might wish each other “a happy new year.” But come Tishrei 1st, when we wish each other a shanah tovah umtukah (“a good, sweet year”), we do not necessarily wish each other “happiness,” and we do not wish each other that this year will be “new.” We hope that a good year will offer happiness, and we pray that the year’s sweet taste will welcome unexpected news.

As the Jewish year goes on, we know to expect happy occasions during the year (the miracles of Purim and Chanukkah; the security of Sukkot, the freedom of Passover, and the revelation on Shavu’ot). On those days we will wish each other chag same’ach (“a happy festival”). The Jewish calendar also celebrates the new arrival of the first day of a Jewish month when we wish each other chodesh tov (“a good newness”)—for the word we use for “month” (“chodesh”) is related to the Hebrew word for “new” (“chadash”). But Rosh HaShanah is not when we celebrate newness. In fact, whereas all other Jewish “newnesses” (or, months) are announced on the Shabbat immediately preceding their arrival, Tishrei is the only month Ashkenazi Jews customarily never announce (see the 15th century Rabbi Isaac of Tyrnau’s Sefer HaMinhagim, end of Selihot).

The very name of Rosh HaShanah (literally, “the Head of the Year”) beckons us to consider this a heady holiday. We call the days between (and including) Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur Aseret Yemey Teshuvah (“The Ten Days of Repentance”), and these are times of contemplating our actions. Even though we might engage the heart if we feel sorry for our actions, a true act of teshuvah (“turning” towards a holier ethic) concludes with our ability to control ourselves and never to repeat the sinful actions again (Maimonides’ Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:2). Beyond our remorse, the success of the High Holidays depends on our ability to take control of ourselves. Being commanded to repair our behavior reminds us—in bittersweet, unspoken words—that we may merit another sacred year if only we allow our bodies to vie for the goodness of the world.

The 18th century Hasidic master Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl illustrated the Jewish calendar as a human body. Rosh HaShanah, the Head, sits atop the calendar. Shavu’ot—the central embodiment of the Divine will—composes the body. At the right side, Passover juts out a strong arm that grants freedom, and, Sukkot, at the left, waves an earnest, stern left hand of justice—covering in a night sky of twinkling stars a people lost in the wilderness. At the bottom of all this, the legs attach. On the right side, the topsy-turvy holiday of Purim walks to the beat of an other-worldly universe where freedom dares to tread. Opposite it, the gutsy left leg of Chanukkah rests, lit with a Maccabean zeal (Me’or Eynayim, Parashat Ha’azinu UMo’adim). This calendar is neither linear, nor chronological. It is organic.

Entering Rosh HaShanah is about entering the headspace of the Jewish year—getting our head into what it takes to be part of the Jewish body. Through the coming year, in our Jewish body, we will taste the sweetness—the savory, and the bitter. And it will be good to be alive—to relive the history of the Jewish people. We will encounter the new, but even the newest moments might feel familiar. We will inhabit the same body we always did. First, let’s grow back into ourselves, and then we will find new happiness.

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