Everyone keeps saying to me, "Rabbi, the holidays come so early this year! Rosh Hashanah is September 5, and then Hanukkah comes during Thanksgiving." My hopefully witty response is, "Maybe Rosh Hashanah is on time, and September is late."
Nevertheless, for Jewish people, the summer seems short. Right after Labor Day weekend, we immediately go to synagogue to hear the ram's horn, the shofar, proclaim the Jewish New Year. But according to the Mishnah (the oldest compilation of Jewish law from approximately 200 CE), there are actually four Jewish New Years: One was for counting the reign of kings (which we adopt now as Rosh Hashanah as we proclaim God our Sovereign), one for tithing cattle, one for tithing grain, and one for counting the produce of trees. Today, if you add in the beginning of school, the secular January 1 New Year, and the tax fiscal year, we have a lot of New Years. Add in the reality of our multicultural society with the Chinese New Year and our other ethnic backgrounds, and it seems like we have a New Year every day. Why do we need so many New Years in the first place?
Perhaps the reason we have so many is because we human beings crave renewal. This is deeper than the modern fascination with things that are the latest and greatest, such as the newest car or gadget. We need to feel like we can put something behind us and begin again.
There is a blessing and a curse to starting over. The curse is that in fact every single day we start from scratch. Whatever you think you accomplished yesterday, whatever you did or tried to do, whatever happened in the past, well, it is stuck in yesterday. It is irretrievable. And it is not going to help you.
People who have gone through 12-step programs know this all too well. So you resisted having a drink or over-eating yesterday. Unfortunately, you wake up and you have to do it all over again today. Yesterday is not going to help you.
And on the more supposedly mundane level, so you said "I love you" yesterday to your spouse, children, or parents. So you acted kindly yesterday. Today is a whole new world. You cannot rest on your laurels.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk says that whatever prayers you said yesterday can't help you today. There some people who are simply imitating themselves today. But that's living with the false security of nostalgia. Today is new and demanding more.
But that is also where the blessing comes in. How many times have I said to myself, after an especially trying day, "Well, tomorrow is a new day!"? The sun is going to set, and then it is going to come up. This too shall pass. Tomorrow, I get to start again.
Rosh Hashanah, and I imagine other kinds of New Years, contain this lesson. We need a New Year because we all need a fresh start. We need to begin again and a chance to reinvent ourselves. Sometimes, we just simply need a new morning and a chance to start over.
The Jewish prayer book contains the line, "You renew creation each day in goodness." This note of optimism emphasizes each day's opportunity over the challenge.
Do I have to start all over again? For better and worse, yes.
So let's embrace the reality that we can renew ourselves for the better.