Segal: New Year’s Eve
Tonight is the first of Tishrei, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. So begins the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It may seem strange that the new year begins in the seventh month instead of the first. Shouldn’t a new year start over at the beginning of the calendar?
Yes and no. Rosh Hashanah is not the only Jewish new year. Halfway around the calendar in the spring, the festival of Passover occurs in Nisan, the first month. When we retell the Exodus story around the seder table, we celebrate a new year for the Jewish people. Passover is the anniversary of our birth as a free nation out of slavery in Egypt. That’s why the Jewish calendar starts counting months in the spring: Only when the Israelites gained independence did God ordain a calendar.
If Passover celebrates the birth of the Jewish people, what kind of new year is Rosh Hashanah? In the fall, at the start of the seventh month, we mark the birthday of the world. Whereas Passover marks our particular rebirth, Rosh Hashanah hits a universal human theme. We don’t retell the Exodus or otherwise celebrate our national story. Rather, we reflect on our place in the universe and repent for our missteps. It’s not your typical new year’s eve behavior, if you’re thinking of Dec. 31. Rosh Hashanah and its companion, Yom Kippur, are less a celebration than a time to confront our mortality.
During these holy days, and the ten “Days of Awe” in between, we stand vulnerable and exposed as finite human beings in the vastness of God and the mystery of creation. We confront our shortcomings, seek forgiveness from those we have wronged and offer forgiveness to those who genuinely seek it. Many of us struggle with liturgy that depicts God as a shepherd and judge, making us pass under his staff and sealing our fate for the coming year. It helps that we share this experience with a community, where we can support each other through spiritual challenges. Still, the harsh imagery can be off-putting, especially to those who experience Judaism only at the High Holidays. If you were designing a holiday from scratch, mortality and humility would not top the list of winning marketing strategies. Yet we need to be reminded on occasion of how much is out of our control. A rich spiritual life protests the tyranny of the ego.
Last month, I raised the topic of humility with the sixth and seventh-graders in our bar/bat mitzvah preparation class. We were discussing the virtues and values that our congregation strives to cultivate in our students. Nine out of 10 students did not know the word “humility.” Maybe that’s developmentally appropriate for pre-teens; I don’t know. If it is a sign of failure, I don’t blame the students. I blame the rest of us for creating and condoning a culture in which humility is ignored or, worse, dismissed as weakness.
Who, after all, are their models of humility? There’s an old joke about a synagogue during the evening service of Yom Kippur. The rabbi kneels dramatically and says, “Before you, oh Lord, I am nothing!” The cantor, not to be outdone, kneels and puts his forehead on the floor. He chants, “Before you, oh Lord, I am nothing!” The congregation president figures he should follow their lead, so he kneels with his forehead on the floor and says, “Before you, oh Lord, I am nothing!” The rabbi nudges the cantor and mutters, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.” Sometimes a display of humility can be a narcissistic charade.
The marketplace, the political arena and even the church reward ego-driven aggression and the pretense of certainty. Naturally, this gets us into trouble. As one of my congregants likes to say, “It is healthy for human beings to be confronted regularly by our limitations.” The High Holidays take this idea to a cosmic scale.
Humility is not the only essential virtue, but it is the rarest today. On this “New Year’s Eve,” the blast of the shofar (ram’s horn) awakens us to how small, finite and limited we are. You’d be surprised at the clarity that can emerge, helping us refocus on what really matters in life and on living a life that matters.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-925-8245. His column runs the first Sunday of the month. The congregation’s Rosh Hashanah observance begins tonight at Harris Hall with a family service at 5 p.m. and main service at 7:30 p.m.
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