Some might say that the new year began with Rosh Hashanah. I know the technical argument: there are actually four new years in the Jewish calendar. (I have always said that calendation is probably the most confusing aspect of Jewish religious and ritual life.) And the one we recently celebrated might best be described as the religious New Year (because it is the anniversary on which the Jewish people acclaimed Gd as Sovereign Ruler. That is why this year is 5773, not because we actually believe that the world is only 6000 years old). But many of us contend now that the fall holidays have finally concluded, we can actually begin the year. And it is already the middle of October!
Ironically, the Hebrew month that begins next week has been renamed Marcheshvan (literally, the bitter Cheshvan, the original name of the month) supposedly because we are bitter that there are no Jewish holidays in that month. I have always explained its bitterness this way: no matter how much teshuvah (repentance) work we do on Yom Kippur (and even extend it to Hoshanah Rabbah), there is still some residual bitterness in our soul that is left to deal with. That is one of the spiritual reasons that Sukkot is so filled with joy and culminates with Simchat Torah, an attempt to flush our spiritual systems of any of this residual bitterness of spirit.
Nonetheless, the holidays, for those of us who fully embrace them, are overwhelming and all-consuming. I often joke, “Whose idea was it anyway to place them all together? Couldn’t they have been spread out just a little?” And, of course, no one ever thinks that the Jewish holidays are “on time.” They are either “early” or “late.” But I actually enjoy them—if that is the right word when we include Yom Kippur in the mix. They provide me with a strong foundation for the year ahead. In some sense, they function like Shabbat—which provides me with a respite so that I can face the week ahead. But unlike Shabbat, the fall holidays begin by raising me to the heights of Sinai on Rosh Hashanah, and then the depths of Sheol on Yom Kippur and then fill me with joy and celebration—even more so—on Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
I was fortunate to share the holidays with three different synagogue communities in three different geographical locations this year. They observed the calendars somewhat differently—even if the liturgy and ritual were the same. Some of the focus was on children, some on families, and some on adults. When the holidays are allowed to be fully observed and communicate on their own, they have a lot to say. We just have to rid ourselves of the internal noises that all too often claim our attention if we want to listen.
And if we listen carefully, there is profound wisdom to be heard.