This year the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) falls around the 3rd-4th October 2016. Although it is not a festival in the Christian calendar, I’ve always found myself deeply inspired by the message it brings. This is why…
I don’t know about you but I’ve always felt the autumn is the proper time for New Year not mid-winter and January. A lot of this derives from the fact that I’ve never quite got over that September ‘new pencil’. The feeling that, with new pencils and a pristinely, un-creased exercise book, there is nothing, absolutely nothing that I cannot do. You might think that this is because I’ve spent far too long in the academic system, where the new academic year really does begin in September or October – and you’d be right – but I think there is more to it than that.
For me, autumn marks an ending. It is a season, as Keats so evocatively expressed, of mists and mellow fruitfulness. If you are a gardener then autumn marks the time when you begin ‘to put the garden to bed’. Fruit and vegetables are harvested. Flower bushes are dead headed or cut back and, most excitingly of all, you can begin to plan for the next year. Manure or compost can be dug in; flower and vegetable beds can be made ready for a new start in the spring. Autumn reminds us year after year what we all know but often forget which is that endings mark new beginnings. As we wrap up the old, we prepare for the new. The way in which we end, shapes the way in which we will begin again.
It comes as no surprise – to me at least – that this is the time of year at which Judaism marks the New Year. Rosh Hashanah (which can be translated as ‘head of the year’) marks the end and hence the new start of the agricultural year. It is mentioned in the Bible, though is not called Rosh Hashanah there, when in Leviticus 23.24-25 it states that there should be a festival ‘in the seventh month, on the first day of the month’, when God’s people should ‘observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts’.
Over time this ‘holy convocation’ became known as Rosh Hashanah and is the occasion when Jews mark the beginning of the year, a commemoration which is linked with the creation of the world — the very first beginning of the year. As a result it is often called the birthday of the world, and is, most particularly, for many, the birthday of the relationship between God and humanity. As well as being the start of the New Year, then, Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a ten day period of introspection and repentance (known as the days of awe) in which people prepare themselves for another most important festival, Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement (which is on the 10th-11th October).
Although Rosh Hashanah has not made it into the Christian calendar, there is much for Christians to learn from it. So here are just a couple of reasons why I love Rosh Hashanah and am grateful each year for the inspiration it brings:
- Rosh Hashanah starts the year with a period of rest. The Bible is punctuated with commands for rest and refreshment from the Sabbath through to whole years of jubilee. We are reminded time and time again that God, creation and ourselves need time to rest, recuperate and recharge. It is, therefore, profoundly pleasing to begin the year with a good few months of nothing. Not much can be grown between October and February but still the year begins. It is a profound reminder of the importance of beginning with nothing. Instead of rushing from one thing to the next with barely a moment to breathe (and then wondering why we struggle to do the next task) Rosh Hashanah reminds us to take a breath, to allow our own selves to lie fallow if only for a short while so that when the moment comes to begin again we are ready for the recreation it will bring.
- Another Rosh Hashanah inspiration comes, unsurprisingly, from the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was until 2013 the Chief Rabbi in the UK. His 2015 reflection has stayed with me through the whole year (you can read it here http://www.rabbisacks.org/cultivating-the-inner-life-rosh-hashanah-message-5776/). Right at the heart of Jewish celebrations of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar (see the picture above). The sound of the shofar, a rams horn, is said in the Talmud (a major collection of Jewish teaching) to represent the sound of tears – the cry of God’s people to God, pleading with him to hear their voice of repentance and sorrow.Strikingly Maimonides, who was a Rabbi living and writing in the 12th century AD, suggested that the sound of the horn was instead God’s cry to his people. God’s cry which mimics his cry in the Garden of Eden is, Maimonides said, the cry that said ‘Where are you?’ (‘But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” Genesis 3.9). Sacks observes that behind this question lurks a profound and important question ‘what have you done with the life, the freedom and the blessings I gave you?’ The sound of the shofar, then, is a reminder of God’s call to his people to live lives worthy of the people he has called them to be. At Rosh Hashanah, the shofar summons Jews to the way of reflection, to the way of deep living. This is a way that turns its back on superficial existence and quick fixes, from skimming from one experience to the next, to deep and honest reflection about who they are and how this matches up with who God wants them to be.
Those of us who are not Jewish do not have the sound of the shofar, at this time of year, to call us to reflection and prayer but this does not mean that we should not hear a similar call. Autumn – that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – is the perfect time to take stock and to ask ourselves what the fruits of our existence are. Mary Oliver in her poem The Summer Day asks poignantly and powerfully ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ Autumn is surely a great time to ask ourselves whether the plans of summer for our wild and precious lives have indeed turned into the fruits of autumn. Whatever answer we give can rest with us through the hibernation of winter and as it rests we can find strength and hope ready to begin the growing process once more.
On one level Rosh Hashanah has nothing to do with me at all – I’m Christian, not Jewish, it is not a festival I celebrate – but on another it has everything to do with me. God stands by us throughout the whole of our lives asking gently but inexorably ‘where are you?’ It is a great question and worthy of deep thought. Now is as good as any time to listen to his question; to stop, reflect, and to allow those reflections to rest a while before they grow into a full and joyful answer to the question of what, with the help of God, I hope to be and do in my one wild and precious life.