BY RABBI MARK GLICKMAN
Let’s start with a question: On what date does the New Year begin?
Jan. 1, right?
Well, not so fast.
Yes, the Gregorian year begins on that day, but most of us mark the beginning of other new years, too.
For most American students, the new year begins in the fall. Corporations and organizations have fiscal years, often beginning on dates other than
Jan. 1. Many accountants begin their new years on April 16. There are agricultural years for food-production, galactic years measuring the orbit of our solar system through the Milky Way, and Aztec years to predict the destruction of the universe.
And, we should add, there are Jewish years, as well.
The next Jewish year begins with a holiday called Rosh Hashanah, which commences this year on the night of Sept. 4, and, for most local Jews, continues until sundown the following night (some Jews celebrate it for two days, instead of one). The vagaries of the Jewish calendar make it so that Rosh Hashanah always occurs in the fall, but the specific date usually changes from year to year.
We call Rosh Hashanah the “Jewish New Year,” but that’s a little misleading. When Americans think of “New Year’s,” we think of hats, horns, and other such revelry. Some of us old-timers still think of Guy Lombardo, too.
Jews, however, celebrate Rosh Hashanah quite differently. Here are a few of the factors that most clearly distinguish it from its Jan. 1 counterpart:
During the opening moments of Jan. 1, when the clock chimes twelve, and the apple hits bottom, and the bandleader tells us the time has come, the world around us seems to reverberate with the sounds of cheap cardboard and plastic horns.
We Jews blow horns to proclaim the beginning of our new year, as well, only our horns, to be honest, are far grander. On Rosh Hashanah, Jewish law teaches, each Jew is commanded to hear the sound of a shofar, a ram’s horn of the same type that Joshua’s men used at Jericho. Some shofars are small – say, 10 inches, and J-shaped. Others are quite large – curlicued and 4 feet from one end to the other. Traditionally, we sound the shofar 100 times during our Rosh Hashanah morning worship service, with the final blast a long steady note held-out for as long as the blower’s lungs will allow. It can be very impressive.
The shofar does far more than mark the stroke of midnight. Instead, it recalls ancient days of Jewish glory, it proclaims God’s sovereignty, and it looks forward to the day when the blast will proclaim the messianic era – a time of universal peace and justice for us all.
Jews observe Rosh Hashanah in gatherings that are quite different from those marking the secular New Year.
To celebrate our New Year, we Jews don’t assemble at wild parties or in massive, bleary-eyed crowds. Instead, we gather at synagogues for worship, reflection and retooling. More Jews come to synagogues to observe Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement 10 days later than for any other event during the year.
Like the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah is a celebration. It, too, is joyous. But as it acknowledges the awesome events of the past year and the utter mystery of the year yet to come, Rosh Hashanah is far more solemn that its Jan. 1 equivalent.
Different kinds of resolutions
It’s easy to say that we’re going to lose weight, or spend more time with our family, or cut down on Internet ego-surfing. What’s hard, of course, is to actually do those things.
And yet, it is precisely the doing – self-reflection, making amends and changing – which constitutes the central theme of the Rosh Hashanah season.
We call it teshuvah in Hebrew – atonement. Literally, the word means “return.” It is the process by which we return to our best selves.
In Judaism, the process of atonement is far more difficult and complex than mumbling, “I’m sorry,” and going on with our lives.
Instead, it’s a five-step process of change and transformation:
1. Evaluating ourselves – brutally, if necessary.
2. Changing our behavior.
3. Apologizing (this step doesn’t work if it comes before step 2 above).
4. Compensating our victims.
5. Maintaining the change over the long haul.
Done right, of course, teshuvah can be an awful, gut-wrenching and also magnificently transformative process. It calls upon us to re-create ourselves, to transform our old flawed selves into new and better selves. It is the most profoundly human of all human acts.
Don’t worry. On New Year’s Eve, we Jews will be out tooting our horns and singing “Auld Lang Syne” along with everyone else. But starting Sept. 4 this year and on every Rosh Hashanah hence, we’ll gather to sing different songs, toot different horns and celebrate our New Year quite differently.
Now if only we can get the modern-day Guy Lombardos to play a few numbers in Hebrew.
Rabbi Mark Glickman has served as rabbi of Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island since 2004.