Why We Each Need a New Year?

By Rabbi David Gelfand

As summer ends and schools begin, our High Holy Days are yet far away. Some say, “Rosh Hashanah is late this year.” But it’s always the first of Tishrei. In 2021, Rosh Hashanah will coincide with Labor Day. This year, it seems late. It’s not a rationalization nor an excuse. It just is. We sometimes say we’re “functioning on Jewish time” and we know that New York Jewish weddings called for 6:00pm start at 6:30pm. We have all of September (Elul on the Hebrew calendar) between us and this year’s Rosh Hashanah. So we have time to personally speculate and reflect on our lives and the world around us.

Our Jewish High Holy Days are always here to tell us that it’s not too late. We may run late and our world may be off kilter. We may be caught up in feeling that “it’s too late and it doesn’t matter anymore.” We may be late in sending notes or presents or even in paying bills. There’s a profound difference between being late and being too late. Our tradition is here to remind us that we are called upon to take our High Holy Days, our sacred moments, to do a hesbhon hanefesh, an accounting of our days. There is no harder responsibility before us, because it is human nature to resist change, even when we know it is for good. But in a highly polarized and too often troubled world, we are faced with challenges beyond our wildest expectations. And because the New Year is late this year, pessimism and cynicism may make us wonder if it’s for naught?

The year now ending has been troubled and dangerous. Our earth is challenged and rain forests are aflame, while children in our inner cities drink poisonous water. The Middle East remains a powder keg and our beloved Israel remains under siege externally and its democracy a tinder box internally. And here at home and abroad, the flames of white nationalism are ablaze, spewing the curses of religious bigotry, sexism, prejudice towards women – their dignity and their right to choose – hatred over sexual identity and rabid, even violent anti-Semitism. No historian will look back at this year and call it an age of tolerance.

Our High Holy Days, Yamim Noraim, have always been filled with universal prayers. All our other holidays include Jewish singularity and chosenness. But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we envision the loftiest of goals: human solidarity. We hear the clarion call, “Remember us for life, God who delights in life. Write us in the Book of Life for Your sake, God of Life.” We have forgotten how revolutionary an idea that was for the Egyptian Pharaohs, who were obsessed with death. The pyramids and temples were homages to death. But we are the resistance! We have always been the resistance!

The Bible, our values-based narrative, has almost nothing about death. Neither the cynicism of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet nor Job’s outcries rule our character. At the end of his life, Moses turned to the next generation and challenged them, “Choose life, so that you and your children may live!” That was a rare statement in antiquity and unfortunately, 3,300 years later, it remains elusive in too many ways. “Choose life!” is our credo. It is not optional behavior but a call to do all that we can, to care and to share, to enhance life, never to diminish it. Our loyalty may be challenged but we are neither ignorant nor disloyal. We are not props of history but a people committed to the highest life-affirming values.

Judaism is a protest against banality and immoral behavior. Judaism is an attack on the denial of the value of words, the corruption of truth and integrity, the vulgar actions and the violence against the other. Judaism is a commitment to justice and compassion, a belief in the sanctity of every human life, regardless of faith, ethnicity, color, gender or country of origin. With the breath of life, we blow the shofar announcing the anniversary of creation. Each person’s life begins with a simple breath thereby showing how vulnerable each life is, each to be protected and cherished. The shofar blast calls on us to remember that life is holy and that which leads to death – deliberately or through negligence – desecrates life and God.

Why do we each need a new year? We have seen too many defile others through exclusion while we are committed to inclusion and to recognizing the humanity and the Divine image in each person. We need to be reminded of that as individuals and as a community. We need to be reminded of King David’s insistence that faith is stronger than fear.

May God write us, our loved ones, the people and the State of Israel, Am Yisrael u’Medinat Yisrael, and Jews throughout the world, K’lal Yisrael, into the Book of Life. Together, supporting one another, may we work passionately for the sake of freedom, peace and life for all. For that we each truly need a new year: L’shanah Tova Tikateivu!

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