The Energy in Our Calendar
I want to talk to you about time.
The Jewish calendar year functions in two parts, and thus, we have two Rosh Hashanahs.
Our first Rosh Hashanah is the one we know as the holiday of “Rosh Hashanah.” This is the head of the calendar year: the holiday of apples, honey, lots of extra praying, introspection and personal evaluation.
Many say that this Rosh Hashanah is actually the anniversary of the world’s creation, or as the Midrash relays it, the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human personalities. These are the individuals behind what we know as the deep, personal, and sometimes flawed human experience. And our first Rosh Hashanah, with its focus on personal teshuva and repentance, celebrates this human experience, in all of its complex glory.
The other Rosh Hashanah happened one week ago, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. This Rosh Hashanah represents an entirely different beginning: the creation of community and nationhood. This Rosh Hashanah celebrates freedom and liberation, marked not by endless services but by a joyous a seder table, where we focus on our food, our wine and treating ourselves well.
This Rosh Hashanah is still happening. It’s Nissan, it’s Pesach, it’s Shabbos HaGadol. It’s the energy of what we’re preparing to do next week at our Seders. The seder gives us the freedom to be ourselves and tell our stories — whether we choose to date our stories from the Exodus, our grandparents’ immigration, or our own birthdays.
This idea of having two Rosh Hashanahs is not unique. The mishnah in Rosh Hashanah actually cites 4 separate new years. In addition to the two I just mentioned — 1 Tishrei and 1 Nissan, we also have 1 Elul — the new year for the tithing of animals — and, according to the School of Hillel, the 15th of Shevat, the new year for the trees.
The fascinating thing about this mishnah is that it shows us that all that is living, including trees and animals, must keep time. Yet for us, the Jews, the pertinent human beings in the mishnaic imagination, we must keep TWO sets of time. One part of the calendar is for ourselves, and the other part of the calendar is for our nation. One part for the birth of our personal world, one part for the birth of our culture, history, memory and heritage.
I want to give this idea some more context.
Let’s talk about Rosh Hashanah number one. Rosh Hashanah did not begin with Rosh Hashanah. It began with the month of Elul, an extended period of preparation, serious introspection, dedicated learning and self-assessment, until we know ourselves better than we ever did.
We take our self-knowledge right into the Rosh Hashanah holiday, two days of prayer, sermons, family, friends and food.
It was intense. It felt like a beginning, didn’t it?
But remember, Rosh Hashanah is not a beginning on its own. Elul shaped it. And of course, there’s Yom Kippur! That 25-hour fast sneaks up on us just 10 days later.
And, if you’ll excuse my bias, it’s the happiest, yes happiest, day on the Jewish calendar, when we each get a chance to dwell in our own visceral spiritual experiences and work to build ourselves up to real teshuva.
It’s a day when we finally acknowledge, after so much praying, that we CAN actually be forgiven, that we CAN become whole people again.
There it is: That’s our first Rosh Hashanah. Our narrative for Part One of our calendar is driven by this intense communication with G-d — on behalf of ourselves, our families, our very lives. In this part of the year, we are focused on the personal: We make our case to G-d and beseech G-d to act with love. We trust in G-d to bring us through.
This is certainly not the case for our current Rosh Hashanah.
Let’s talk about Rosh Hashanah number two: Nissan.
First, let’s see if we can find our Elul parallel. Anyone have a guess?
It’s Adar. Adar is like the opposite of introspection. Adar is like festival mode — beyond.
On Adar, we hit DRUNK. We hit so drunk that we can’t tell the difference between beloved friend and deadly enemy. It’s so crazy that we may actually start to unify the meanings of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ into one. In Adar, everyone’s just a human. Everyone was created in the image of G-d.
In Adar, we hit so drunk that maybe, what we’ve attained here is a state of clarity. Because everyone IS created in the image of G-d. And when we have this clarity, we’re able to see G-d in everyone. So basically, when we interact with any other person, we have a direct channel to G-d. In Adar, we know G-d better than we ever did.
We take our G-d knowledge right into this second Rosh Hashanah of Nissan, just like we took our Self Knowledge right into our first Rosh Hashanah of the calendar.
And now that it’s Nissan, and we have our G-d knowledge, what are we doing now?
We are getting our shit together.
We’re cleaning up. Our homes, our backpacks, our retainers, for Heaven’s sake, — we clear out every last bit of chametz. It’s no wonder our Torah readings of the past few weeks deal obsessively, neurotically with bodily discolorations and secretions — we are in a mode in which we seek physical perfection. We’re cooking with care, adjusting our recipes for Passover. We may even be sorting through our spiritual chametz, noting which habits make us flounder and which habits make us thrive. We’re preparing our stories to tell at our Seders. We’re making the changes that serve us.
We run our world now.
Unlike our last Rosh Hashanah, on this Rosh Hashanah, G-d does not drive our narrative. WE drive our narrative. We ask each other questions about our past and tell each other the stories that animate our present.
Perhaps you’re starting to notice a cycle: Rosh Hashanah of the calendar, intense introspection, communication with G-d, culminating in Adar, direct channel to G-d. Rosh Hashanah of Nissan, freedom, connecting with our people, telling our stories, culminating in Elul, direct channel to the self. Rosh Hashanah of the calendar: Do it all over again.
But our goal today is not to get caught up in the cycle. Let’s take stock for a moment, of where we are now, at this moment, in this Shabbos HaGadol.
We are in the moments of re-living the greatest liberation in Jewish history. With liberation comes a wonderful and positive opportunity to take the wheel, and steer ourselves and our community toward greater good.
The Rosh Hashanah of NOW is the birth of the nation. And our nation is poised, given the energy of this moment, to let the for great joy and growth.
Just like Rosh Hashanah wouldn’t be Rosh Hashanah without Yom Kippur, Nissan and Pesach wouldn’t be Nissan and Pesach without Sefirat Ha’Omer.
This time of year brings its own visceral moment of forgiveness and spiritual clarity. But this round is 49 days long. It’s called Sefirat Ha’Omer.
Beginning a week from tonight, we get 49 days to rebuild ourselves in the image of Divine beauty. On Sefirat Ha’Omer, we count 49 days according to kabbalastic sefirot, which are Divine elements that exist in each one of us: kindness, strength, balance, endurance, glory, foundation and majesty. We possess them all; and we get 49 days to count, each night, to meditate, and reawaken the Divine traits we already possess.
I’ll stop talking in just a minute, but I just want to pause and acknowledge the real world for a moment.
I know, you’re smack in the middle of your cleaning, cooking, planning and general Passover stress. You have ten thousand things to do, and the weather’s getting nice and it’s distracting. Perhaps things in your life are starting to makes sense, but it doesn’t all make sense yet. Or maybe you’re in the process of liberating yourself from a structure that feels oppressive, but that liberation feels just out of reach.
Wholeness — the same wholeness we reach after Sefirat Ha’Omer and its parallel Yom Kippur — is just around the bend.
I want to tell you something. You are in control of your life. And yes, that is one of those sayings that’s really easier said than done.
And to make up for that, I want to tell you something else. And that is, TAKE OUR CALENDAR SERIOUSLY. As much control as we have, we have this beautiful G-dly presence that shows up in the form of things as simple as hours, dates, months and moons.
Time is the most visible and the most natural element of our world. My charge to you today is to activate your consciousness to feel time. We never need to subjugate ourselves to “stress” or “seriousness” that are prescribed to certain periods of time, like the week before Passover. Our time — our calendar — is available to us, especially now, as a source of liberation, comfort and opening.