What is the Jewish New Year, and how does it compare to the secular new year? Are they similar? Vastly different? Isn’t the new year a happy and celebratory event? Let’s look….
We live in a society that loves any excuse for a party. We’ve become quite excessive in our celebrations, when it comes to events like weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, baby namings, childen’s birthday parties, New Year’s Eve events, and don’t even get me started on that Big Event which comes around every December. Even Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Easter have become big money events connected to being as excessive as possible. Even vacations have become Big Money events. Long gone are the simple and quiet celebrations, the fun and restorative getaway, the meaningful spiritual observances which mark key points in our lives.
Jewish religious observances are, for the most part, counter-cultural. Sadly, our cultural proclivity to be excessive in all things has crept into more and more of our Jewish special days. Chanukah, a very simple and minor Jewish observance has somehow morphed into a Jewish equivalent for Christmas, and weddings and baby namings and bar and bat mitzvah services have all become more events to indulge our excessive natures.
Personally, I much prefer simple and meaningful to the glitz and sparkle and lots of money and big party atmosphere, marking our Jewish religious days with spiritual depth and meaning rather than big external gestures that are too often shallow in depth.
Here we are, at our Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and it is natural to think of it as being similar to the secular new year, which is known for its glitz and sparkle and parties and big balls dropping from the sky as we count down the final seconds of one secular year and begin a new one. The secular new year is also connected to annual resolutions, usually related to things like weight loss, fitness goals, productivity—goals goals goals, more doing, more accomplishments, more busy, more money, more acquiring things, more “manifesting” what we want, more external accolades—and more often than not broken within days or weeks, sometimes even hours of the second hand tripping itself across the old year and stumbling forward into the new.
In other words, the secular new year is one of too many ways we are encouraged to focus on me, me, me and what *I* can accomplish and do to increase my personal happiness and success. This happiness is, for the most part, focused on the externals: what I can do, how I can manipulate outcomes and people to my will and what I want. And when the externals don’t turn out the way I wanted to manipulate them, the result is being angry and unhappy, sometimes even blaming G!d for our unhappiness or anger or in some way not coming through for us.
Or sometimes we blame ourselves and push ourselves even harder to be better, do more, bend the cosmic will to match what we think we deserve or why this ought to happen or that ought not to happen, as if we are in some way shielded from life’s bruises and setbacks because we did all the right things, and where is our reward? We “manifested” a different outcome with all the mental gymnastics we could muster, so why is this happening or that not changing? We grit our teeth to double down on our efforts or point our fingers to blame someone else, or even something Cosmic, for how it all went wrong.
Did it really go wrong? Just because that’s not how we wanted things to be, does that mean we were somehow scammed? Perhaps even scammed by G!d? Isn’t G!d supposed to bend to our will because we’ve been so good and done all the right things? Where is our happy when we’ve worked so hard for it? Why can’t we find that happy again?
And what does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah?
This notion of our inherent right to pursue an external, superficial happiness by our mental prowess and hard efforts and accomplishments is 180 degrees from the true spiritual nature of Rosh Hashanah. While Rosh Hashanah is certainly a bit more celebratory than the day which follows ten days later (Yom Kippur), it still has a somber note that comes with it. Hallmark might push “Happy New Year” and “Happy Rosh Hashanah” cards, but as Jews, we wish each other a much deeper and more meaningful Shanah Tovah, a GOOD year.
Why? Is it because we do not wish for happiness? No. It because our turning of the year is a religious occasion requiring great spiritual reflection and renewed efforts at being a better person and elevating the spiritual nature of the world by being of service to others. We aren’t setting goals and looking for ways to be more productive or how to look better or weigh less, how to make more money or be more productive, or how to pull ourselves up by the boot straps and power on.
It’s about quality and integrity. It’s not about being happy; happiness is fleeting. Rather, it’s about BEING a more godly person, being content even when bad things happen, knowing that life is a cycle in which we are an infintesimal speck. And our new year is about shoring up our relationships with people, and with G!d. It’s about looking WITHIN and finding the one person we need to change, the only person we can change, and to stop pointing our fingers outwards to blame others for the things we don’t like about ourselves or happening in our life. We work with great intensity at changing ourselves, not so we will look good in a bikini on the beach at that expensive resort, but because we are the Holy Sparks of Divinity, and our purpose here is nothing less than to release these Holy Sparks into the world.
Often, our anger and unhappiness stems from having our own behavior and thoughts being mirrored back to us by others, and we don’t like what we see and hear. It’s far easier to be blind to seeing these less-then-ideal qualities in ourselves. We want compassion, but dole it out carefully. We want understanding, but have too often lectured others about what they “should” be doing rather than listening. And when it all comes back to bite us in the touches, and it will, we do not like one bit of it, and we are miserable.
Rosh Hashanah calls us to stop and take a good long look in that mirror. And it calls us to renew our spirits in order to fulfill our real purpose of being Hoy Sparks in the world. Rosh Hashanah reminds us that we do not live for ourselves only, not only four our small circle of close family and friends. We are not here to amass things or to manipulate the “cosmic will.” We are here for a much grander purpose.
And so, as Jews, we wish one another a GOOD year, not a happy one. We embrace our gratitude for family and friends around us, and we remind ourselves that every life has an end, even the leaves on the trees, and our time to become holy this time around is lessening with each passing minute.
Our new year calls us to pray, to pray with earnestness, and to turn again to the Holy, and to our Holy tasks which are the bedrock of our lives. Our new year, unlike the secular new year, does not call us to vain resolutions and extravagant parties.
We wish one another a GOOD and sweet year ahead, not a happy one. The Jewish New Year is not filled with parties and balls dropping from the sky and countdowns. If we’ve prepared ourselves as we are called to do 6 weeks before Rosh Hashanah ever arrives, we’ve already spent more than 40 days doing an extensive self-review, taking account of where we need to shore up ourselves. We’ve looked in that mirror, and despite not liking what we see, we accept the reflection and its consequences and turn again to our tasks of being holy and releasing holy sparks into the world.
And when Yom Kippur arrives in 10 days, we pray we have done enough. We pray that our work has been turned inward rather than superficial and external, that we have stopped the mental games of blaming, and started the holy work of attending to and repairing our own souls, so that when Sukkot arrives after Yom Kippur, we can celebrate with great joy. And having been spiritually renewed, we now turn to repairing the world. We know that we cannot do the great work of repairing the world until we have spent sufficient time and effort at repairing our own souls.
This is the real Rosh Hashanah.
May you have a good year
may you know the sweetness of life
may you accept the year which has passed
may you write a book of life filled with goodness in the year ahead, one day at a time, one action and thought at a time
May 5779 grant you the ability to see with a good eye.