The Chief Rabbi’s New Year Message
Celebrate and Grow! Jewish Holidays as Signposts for Personal Development
The same holidays arrive year after year. We say the same prayers. Conduct the same rituals. Gather with the same relatives. Eat the same foods. For some it is a comfort. Our traditions provide the security that little has changed in the Jewish religion. I hear the same shofar that my ancestors heard thousands of years ago. I eat the same apple dipped in honey that my forefathers ate in Europe. I say the same prayers that my grandfathers said throughout the centuries.
But for many it is also boring, repetitious, lacking meaning, innovation or relevance. Our ears no longer understand the meaning of the prayers. Our mouths are not accustomed to saying them. Our stomachs may no longer enjoy the traditional foods. I will borrow a concept from the philosopher Descartes. If “I think therefore I am” validates the existence of man, then “I understand therefore I appreciate” must be the motto for anyone seeking greater spirituality, greater personal growth – and there is a sea full of what to understand and appreciate about our ancient, sacred, long-held and hard-fought laws, traditions and customs.
What is the inner significance of the Jewish Holidays? Besides all of the detailed rituals, besides the lengthy prayers, what is it supposed to do for me as a person? How does it speak to my soul? Why the different holidays and why are they spread out as they are throughout the year?
In Jewish tradition, and especially in more Kabalistic sources, each holiday connects to some a different aspect or need of the human condition. Pesach celebrates freedom, and based on Kabala is a most opportune time for each person to free himself from the shackles of enslavement. Shavuot, seven weeks later, the day we celebrate receiving of the Torah, is a time to rededicate ourselves to familiarity and acquisition of our ancient, world-influencing texts. Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning over the loss of the Jewish Temple and homeland, is a time to understand the reasons for our exile, how disunity doomed us and how only unity will lead to the successful gathering of the exiles.
Then we reach the festive month of Tishrei, filled with holidays. We start the year with the two-day holiday of Rosh Hashana. More perhaps than an accounting between God and ourselves, where He lays out His plans for us for the coming year, it is the ideal time for self-accounting, for introspection, for making our own plans for the coming year.
Then comes perhaps the most powerful day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur. We believe that the day itself has the power to forgive us of our many sins. But we also must forgive those around us, and perhaps most importantly we must forgive ourselves. We must let go of our failings, our mistakes, our sins, and discard them as we would old clothing. We must take on the mantle of a new persona, a better one, a cleaner one, one that will think more of the needs and sensitivities of others. One that will try to understand why they are in this world and all the good they can accomplish. One that seeks God in our lives; that seeks to be spiritually aware and morally correct. That is the power of Yom Kippur that according to tradition elevates us once a year to the level of angels.
But the cycle does not end there. After reaching the spiritual heights of Yom Kippur, God invites us to a more intimate celebration, that of Sukkot. The commandment of sitting in huts for a week reminds us of our dependency on God and of where our blessings truly come from. We feel in our very bones that God is the one that provides shelter, food, success and abundance and it changes our perspective for the coming year. It takes the stress off of many of the decisions and concerns of our lives, reminding us in a very concrete way that God is our partner and that He is with us – if we let Him in.
The weeklong celebration of Sukkot is capped off with the joy of Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah. We hold, embrace and dance with the Torah scroll, celebrating the written source of our identity, what our people brought to humanity. We start our own cycles of personal learning, of being another chain in the longest transmission of wisdom in the history of the world.
We have Hanukah, the festival of lights, which celebrates the triumph of Jewish identity over assimilationist forces. It reminds us to successfully strengthen our own identities in the face of overwhelming odds.
There is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the Trees. We remember our stewardship of this planet, our responsibility to the environment, that we are also passengers on this planet Earth and must care for the beautiful, precious home and resources that God gave us, to make the world a better place while caring for all His other creations.
To complete the year we have Purim, celebrating our salvation from utter destruction. It is the happiest month of the year. It is the month with the greatest good fortune. It is the month before Pesach, the happiness before the salvation. It is where we show friendship and unity with all of our brothers, for that is what saved us then and that is what will save us in the future. Though God was hidden during the miracle of Purim and He may be hidden to many of us today, upon further inspection it becomes obvious that He was there all along, directing events, placing people in positions of challenge, to see whether they will rise to the test, whether they will seek Him out, whether they will choose the high road, the moral path, the way of goodness and blessings.
Those are just some of the themes of the holidays of the Jewish calendar. May we celebrate them and grow!
Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,