I love New Year’s. I love the idea of a fresh start, of imagining who and what I could be, visioning through the process of how to get there and then setting off towards that goal. I thrive on it, even when I find myself pursuing the same goals year after year. It isn’t that my past resolutions failed, but rather that I am continually spiraling towards that better person, learning from what didn’t work last time, and coming up with new, refined plans. If it weren’t for the artificial, and some would say arbitrary date markers of New Year’s, I might be tempted to always continue with what is familiar and comfortable. New Year’s invites me to think, and re-engage in that process. Why am I bringing that up now, in the middle of March? Well, New Year’s is only a month away – time to start thinking and planning.
There are four New Years’ in the Jewish calendar (plus the secular one) – so many opportunities for self-improvement! Although most would begin this list with Rosh Hashanah, I’m actually going to start with the New Year of 1 Elul because it leads into Rosh Hashanah, which is only one month later. 1 Elul is the “new year for the tithing of cattle.” Since I am not a farmer, this doesn’t hold much meaning for me. However, the date of 1 Elul does. Elul is when we begin to sound the shofar, and turn our hearts towards reflection. For me, spiritually, 1 Elul is the new year for looking backwards (strange as that may sound), a new year of reflection and cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Every psychologist will tell you, that no real change can come without an examination of the past. 1 Elul is the beginning of that process, truly the start of all potential change for the year ahead.
1 Tishrei – Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for the Jewish civil calendar and for the seasons. I begin to look forward towards the Jew that I want to be in the coming year. Having examined my shortcomings, I can begin to envision how to be a better Jew and a better me. The process is cyclical. As Yom Kippur comes, I will turn again to reflection on my past and with the closing of the gates after Yom Kippur I am responsible to myself to continue to do the work.
15 Shevat – Tu b’shvat is the new year for the trees. Sap begins to rise in the trees in Israel, and it is a sign that the winter will soon end. I reflect on environmentalism at this time of year. I remember and consider how to be a steward for G-d’s creation – small things like bringing the canvas bags in the car when grocery shopping into the store rather than using them to keep the carseats warm, bigger things like engaging politically and financially in environmental causes, and trying to be active in nature as much as I am able.
1 Nisan – Pesach is the new year for our Jewish people as we mark the celebration of our redemption from Egypt. 1 Nisan is about half way through the calendar year after the high holy days. It’s a great time to remind myself about the promises I made back in September, and to try again to be that better Jew and improved person. In the book, “Preparing your Heart for Passover,” Rabbi Kerry Orlitzky writes, “The rabbis suggest that the leaven transcends the physical world. This leaven, this hametz, also symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. Ironically, it is what prevents the individual from rising spiritually and moving closer to holiness. Thus, what hametz effectively does in the material world is exactly what it precludes in the realm of the spirit. That’s why it has to be removed.”
1 Nisan falls at the beginning of spring time. In both the secular and Jewish world, people are throwing open their windows and doing spring cleaning. Passover (15 Nisan) invites us to bring a spiritual realm into our physical labor, to think, as we clean, about the ways in which we have become puffed up, selfish, self-absorbed, or like the things that we are cleaning – the ways that we have become weighted down and inwardly cluttered. As we remove chameitz, dust, clutter, and the residue of months closed up for the winter, we can expand ourselves into our breath of fresh, clean air, look in the mirror and move forward a little lighter.
For me, it invites another question. A lot of people love Passover food. Those people obviously have very different taste buds than mine. The holiday demands that we “rejoice in it.” But I will admit that I struggle with that year after year. I don’t like the food, I don’t like the restrictions,… I don’t like cleaning. It is difficult to not have it be a real drag. I challenge myself every year to find the joy in it. This year may be easier as I am hearing my 2 year old son practice the first two of the four questions, and my heart is full. I am beginning to participate in the shalshelet, the chain of our tradition, not just as a teacher, but as a parent, and there is great joy in that. Even beyond that, though, by turning my thoughts to the spiritual cleansing, the renewal, and the fresh start that Passover brings, I hope that I will “rejoice in it.” Maybe part of my spiritual hametz is that I haven’t liked Passover and this year, it is time to remove that and start fresh, envision what Passover can be.
Four New Years. Four opportunities for a fresh start. Four chances to make the same resolutions again and again and spiral myself towards the vision of who and what I can be. Each time I get a little closer, but I will never get there. Life isn’t about arriving. I believe that life, best lived, is a constant process of becoming.