The Jewish New Year
While it’s several months away from the secular New Year, this time of year marks the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah. During this 10-day cycle, Jews, all over the world, celebrate the New Year, but also prepare for Yom Kippur, the last day of this period, which is a day for atonement. It is said that at the beginning of the New Year, God has already decided each person’s fate for the coming year—who will have good fortune and who will not. But this decree can be changed by three important actions--turning within, prayer, and performing good deeds.
During this time of year, I think about these elements in a more mundane way. I ask myself—How can I be a better husband, father, brother, colleague, and friend? What about being charitable? Do I turn away from someone panhandling or begging or do I decide to make a contribution? What if the person is a drug addict or an alcoholic? How do I know what they will use the money for? What does it mean to perform deeds of loving kindness? How do I balance my own needs with the needs of others?
During this month, I experiment with just giving, without weighing all of these considerations. I want to let go of all of the reasons why not, and just do it. I want to see how this changes my experience and my sense of self.
What does it mean to “turn within” or to “return”? I think about my values and my dreams. Am I the person that I want to be? And who is that person anyway? Modern life catapults us into constant activity, with little time to reflect. This time of year gives me an opportunity to pause, to step back, and look within. What kind of person have I been this year? Did I live up to my expectations of myself? Where did I fall short? Trust me, it isn’t hard to remember where I slipped! But it’s also important to reflect on where I made progress on my personal growth. What is required is an honest inventory of my deeds for this last year.
During this New Year cycle, it’s also customary to ask loved ones for forgiveness for any ways that we may have hurt them, ignored them, or miss-stepped in our relationship. Starting anew requires that we acknowledge where we have fallen short in our relationships. This must be done from our heart.
Yom Kippur, or the day of atonement, is an opportunity to clear last year’s slate. It’s a day of privation—fasting and abstaining from pleasurable activities. There are many aspects to this day—but the one that is most meaningful for me is the communal acknowledgement of our wrongdoing over the last year. Human beings are pack animals, with a powerful connection to our family and to our community. We need and depend on each other. Acknowledging our flaws as a community gives us the opportunity to move forward, to renew our commitments to ourselves and each other, and to grow and develop as human beings and as a society.
All religions recognize the need for spiritual and communal renewal, and each have traditions which remind us of who we can be. But all of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, can strive to be a better person and to be the person that we hope to be. We don't have to wait until the New Year to look within.
As for me, I pray that we will have a better world, with more peace and goodwill, and that all human beings will have the opportunity to live fully—physically, mentally, and spiritually.