Tonight is Erev Rosh Hashana – the eve of the Jewish New Year. In the Jewish calendar, days begin and end at sunset, so once the sun has set over the Greater Chicagoland Area, I will be off the grid for three solid days*: Tonight, tomorrow, Friday (the holiday is actually two days long for almost everyone but some in the Reform movement), and Saturday-until-after-sunset, because that’ll be Shabbat. Try not to let the world blow up without me, ‘kay?
Truth be told, I’m not feeling very holiday-ish today. I’ve bought a ton of special food, we have plans for services and time with friends, and it’s hard for me not to love anything that results in me getting to spend concentrated time with my family — but.
But, for me, being Jewish is hopelessly entangled with being Israeli, a thing which I very loudly announced I was tired of being the other day. I have always found the American Jewish community’s attachment to the modern State of Israel as an article of religious faith to be problematic — surely when in prayer, our thoughts are to be on our relationship to the Divine, and not the latest policies of a political construct? Surely we can be good Jews, and yet oppose some of those policies, no matter our familial relationship to the people making them? — but in light of my utter exhaustion with being Israeli this year, I feel even more knee-jerk misanthropic about the notion of spending time with my own people (the people to whom, let’s not forget, I happily joined myself of my own accord. I was at Sinai! Etc, etc, and so on. Oh, bother).
So, you know, writing about the holiday hasn’t exactly felt like a thing I wanted to do. And yet here we are! And here’s the thing that I’ve been thinking about lately, re: Rosh Hashana:
We are taught that Rosh Hashana is not, as I just called it, “the Jewish New Year.” Aside from anything else, it falls on the first day of the seventh month of our calendar, meaning that calling it the Jewish New Year is a little bit like planning your New Year’s Eve bash for the Fourth of July.
The words “Rosh Hashana” do translate to “head of the year” — it’s just not our “head,” our beginning, that we’re celebrating. We’re taught that Rosh Hashana marks the very, very beginning — the world’s creation. The Holy One Blessed Be He completed His work on this day, we believe, which is why we also call the holiday Yom Harat Olam, the day of the world’s birth. Rather than drawing inward on this holiday, in a very real way, we’re meant to look out — to celebrate all of creation, and annually reconsider the role we play on the world stage.
And here’s what recently struck me: Isn’t fall kind of an odd time to celebrate the birth of the world?
This honestly never crossed my mind before. Jewish holidays are very tightly bound to the turn of the seasons, in part because we were once an agricultural society, and in part because we’re taught that our holidays sanctify the cosmic year. You really can’t celebrate Passover in the summer, for instance. It’s in the spring because it’s meant to be in the spring — the holiday depends on the calendar, but the calendar also depends on the holiday. Given that our calendar is, in fact, lunar, the ancients had to go to real trouble to tinker with it to make sure the holidays stay on course; a solar aspect was folded into things, and every third, sixth, eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth year, we have a second month of Adar to even things up. That’s a lot of trouble to go to in order to keep the holidays in their seasons — so why are we celebrating the world’s birth in the very season in which the world begins its annual slumber?
I’m guessing the more Orthodox among us would say “because we did the math and that’s when it happened,” but I’m not the kind of Jew for whom that’s a very useful answer.
I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if this doesn’t tell us something about becoming, and being. I wonder if, at the very moment that we are becoming, we might not need to withdraw into the earth, cover ourselves with mulch, and gestate. We like to believe (I like to believe) that the desire to change or become is all we need in order to effect change — from the social protests in Israel, to the revolutions in the Arab World, to the individual upheavals of the heart — but that really and truly isn’t how humans work. We trundle along, bump into the need to change, think about that for awhile, decide to change, struggle with that for awhile, achieve some newness, readjust for awhile. Like that. We cannot just burst into being — we have to lay low and allow the change to seep into blood and bones that are still enough, quiet enough, to really take it in.
So Happy New Year, world! As we all struggle forward, as we are born anew, may be also lay still and quiet enough to allow ourselves to grow straight and true, and bring a much, much better year to a very weary world. May your year be sweet, and may your blessings be as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate, amen, amen.
*In terms of this blog, that means that comments may get stuck in moderation for awhile. I generally ask my Shabbos goy (aka: the husband, a raging atheist) to fish these out now and then, because one doesn’t want to be rude, especially not for three solid days, but yeah…. If you get stuck, don’t despair! It’ll show up eventually!