The New Year and the Roots of Teshuva (Ideas #85)

If one thinks about it, the concept of a new year is really quite surprising. After all, what is really new about the year that will begin next Shabbat?


A new year is not like a new day. From a human perspective, it is easier to say that the day starts at a certain point – for most of us, that point being when we wake up to greet it. Not so, however with a year. True, there is a natural cycle of seasons that repeats itself every twelve months, but that cycle has no obvious beginning or end. And even if we were to decide that it starts in the fall or the spring, what does that have to do with human existence? Am I not to continue next week exactly where I left off this week? I will continue to work on projects left unfinished, pay bills that were not yet paid and continue with all the same relationships and responsibilities that were a part of my existence up until now.


So what's all the fuss about a new year and why do we work so hard to better ourselves as if we were starting our lives all over again?


In fact, the concept of a new year is not just pretense. Rosh Hashanah traditionally marks the anniversary of man's creation.  In the same way as Shabbat allows us to meditate on G-d, Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to reflect upon the nature of man.


One of the most important lessons in the first chapter of the Torah is that man is created – he is not just part of a process. This need not be in contradiction to evolution, but rather that when man became man, something completely new occurred. The mechanics of this novelty are secondary – the fact of the novelty is what the Torah wants to get across. Man's beginnings lay in innovation and so he will forever yearn for this quality so basic to his original essence. (This is paralleled by man's being born man and woman in the same body, thereby creating an essential yearning to be reunited with the other half.) Thus, creativity and innovation are at the very core of human existence. Something new is another way of saying a possibility previously ignored. The realization of such a possibility touches man to his very core. 


Rashi (Devarim 6:6), quoting the Sifri, points out that G-d commands us to always relate to the Torah as a new doctrine. He explains that people are constantly interested in the new, but as soon as a doctrine becomes old, our interest wanes. We are not told that there is something wrong in this attitude, but rather that we have to work within it, presumably because it is part of how G-d made man. Thus, the key to Torah study and the practice of mitzvot is that we always engage it with novelty. We have to come to it fresh each time. The same mitzvah, even if we perform it in the same way, has many possibilities within it. We can investigate those possibilities and reap the excitement that comes from them, or we can treat our previous experiences as if they were the only ones possible.


Sameness is a trap that men and women build for themselves. It is perfectly reasonable to build on our past experiences, but when we build routines and expectations overwhelmingly upon our past, it prevents us from seeing the rainbow of possibilities in any given situation.


In truth, Rosh Hashanah is the most miraculous of holidays - miraculous in the sense that it is a bit unreasonable. It tells us to ignore the reality that next week is no different than this week and yet to pretend that it is. The secret is that when we look at it as if it is indeed different, what has been the same up until now actually does become different. We learn from Rashi that something does not need to be outwardly new to really be new. Rather - that which appears to be the same on the outside has the potential to be truly new on the inside.


It is for this reason that we experience the teshuva process during these days. Teshuva can only be accomplished if we open ourselves up to possibilities that defy our past routines and expectations. It is the time when we have a special opportunity to go beyond what we have been and would normally continue to be. It is a time to go back to our human roots and to seek the novelty that G-d implanted within us. May we all meet this wonderful challenge.