Reflections on a New Year
We should work to improve ourselves and help others
NOTE: Around the world, Jewish people are celebrating the new year with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. We are observing this special day with personal reflections from Elliot Kirschner.
Growing up Jewish in America, you get a sense rather early in life that your time is marked by many different calendars, with many different “new years.”
There is of course the calendar that everyone uses, the one that starts on January 1.
Then there is the school calendar, which for children (and I would hazard their parents) can feel much more real as far as the “new year” than the Gregorian one. Seeing your friends after summer vacation, buying school supplies, and the inevitable reintroduction of a concept called “bedtime” are more tangible than celebrating the countdown to midnight on December 31, which was often past your bedtime anyway.
We all have our own personal “new year” — our birthday. This day represents a major rite of passage, especially when you’re a kid. It’s also one of the first facts you learn in life. How often have you heard a proud parent prompt their toddler to show how smart they are by telling someone their age?
So yes, a lot of “new years” for children to navigate, but for Jewish children, you can add another, the one we are celebrating now — Rosh Hashanah. It occurs in the fall, so not that long after the beginning of the new school year. Which means that many Jewish kids start their academic year with an excused absence. In schools where there aren’t many Jewish children, this can generate a lot of questions about why you are different. Even if you are not a budding Talmudic scholar, you learn to have some answers at the ready.
Now the way the Jewish New Year works, there really are a pair of holidays that follow in quick succession — 10 days apart, to be exact. These are the “Days of Awe,” heady stuff when you are asked to contemplate mortality and morality. A second day off arrives for Yom Kippur, and another holiday to explain.
Growing up in San Francisco, I soon became aware that we weren’t the only ones with another new year. Many of my friends celebrated Chinese or Lunar New Year.
As I studied more history, I also became aware that almost every human society had some way to mark the yearly pattern of changing seasons. When your daily existence depends heavily on the natural world, as it does for farmers and hunters, survival itself demands close attention to the patterns of the Earth. Time was also marked by the universal human experience of the night sky, and the celestial dances of stars, planets, and the phases of the moon.
This means that over the course of the human story, there must have been countless notions of a “new year.” Most have been lost to history, as societies died out or were conquered by others who imposed their own calendars upon the vanquished. Each represents a loss of knowledge, the passing forever of a unique way to view the Earth, the heavens, the seasons, and our place in all of it.
Nevertheless, there is something heartening in the universality of our earthly journeys — both of our planet through space and our own paths through life. In the return of a new year, we have a sense of continuity. We know our time is finite, but we also know that there was something before we arrived and that something will extend beyond our departure. I find comfort in these thoughts.
During the Jewish New Year, we are particularly aware of both life and death. This is the time, we are told, when God is deciding who will live and die in the year ahead. We repent our sins and make this wish for each other: “May you be inscribed in the book of life.”
Growing up, I was lucky that the people closest to me were reupped year after year in the book of life. But I remember worrying each Rosh Hashanah that this would not be the case in the year to come, especially for my aging grandparents. They all eventually passed, and as I have grown older, more people close to me have joined the ranks of the departed. This year has been particularly difficult: a college roommate still so young; two dear neighbors I had known since my childhood, one with whom I took weekly walks (and who loved talking about our Steady newsletter); a teacher, also very young, at my daughter’s school. May they all Rest in Peace. Many others I know are gravely ill. May they be inscribed in the book of life for the year ahead.
As I reflect this year on the concepts of life and death, I am aware that they do not affect us only as individuals. I wonder this Rosh Hashanah what the year ahead will hold for our country and the world. So much is frail and ailing. What will live, and what will die? What will thrive, and what will wither? Our rights? Our democracy? Our hopes for the future?
While we are asked as Jews to engage in serious reflection during this season, we are also given the tools to understand where we might find strength and comfort in the face of pain and loss. This is a time of joy, to eat apples and honey to remember the sweetness of life and nature’s bounty. It is an occasion to gather with family, friends, and one’s larger community. It is a time to pledge to do better as a person.
We acknowledge our precariousness but do not consider it an excuse for inaction. Quite the opposite. We are called upon to reach out to those we have hurt, to speak our faults in a community of acknowledgement, not only to hope but also to work for a better year ahead. We do not sit passively awaiting God’s judgment. We have our own responsibilities to fix ourselves and our relationships with others, to build for the future, even though we can never know what the future will hold.
This year, as we face pivotal elections and many other crises and junctures of reckoning, the Jewish New Year feels all the more urgent. The Earth will continue its path around the sun. The cycles of the moon will wax and wane governed by the laws of physics. This we know for certain. Almost everything else is uncertain, to varying degrees. Some of it is beyond our control, but much of it we can shape.
We should celebrate all that is good and sweet in life. We should work to improve ourselves and help others. And we should remember, with humility, that it is our responsibility to leave this world better off in any way we can with whatever time we have.
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