New Year’s Eve has never been that big of a deal for me. However, it was maybe the least exciting “non-celebration,” that was in some ways the most meaningful. I can vividly remember how I spent that New Year’s Eve while a first year rabbinical student in Israel. I sat home, alone in my apartment in the Ba’aka neighborhood of Jerusalem. I can remember sitting at the worn, wooden dining room table studying for my classes bright and early the next day. My roommates and some of my classmates had invited me to join them in going out to dinner, but instead, I relished in the fact that in Israel (at least at that time) for many people it was just a “regular day.” I also had begun at that time to really change my thinking about how Rosh Hashanah was really MY New Year.
So, while in the years since then I don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve with much more than chiming in with the countdown as the “Ball Drops in Times Square,” I do still very much appreciate the “new beginning” that comes with January 1st. New beginnings are such a wonderful, powerful and yet almost common idea within Judaism. According to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) we have the tradition of four different “New Year” celebrations. Each Jewish year we have Rosh Hashanah (The “official” head of year), Tu B’shvat (the New Year – or Birthday of the trees), and the lesser “observed” the First of Nissan (the New Year for Rulers) and the First of Elul (somewhat of a New Year for animals). And if we like New Beginnings- we as Jews have one each and every month with Rosh Hodesh. Still another way to celebrate new beginnings is with the festivals that mark the seasons of harvest, an agricultural new beginning.
Another holiday which is an essential “New Beginning” is, of course, Simchat Torah which marks both an end and beginning at the same time. In some ways, this is the most appealing to me- for in almost the same moment as we end, we also begin. We could compare this to the idea that “when one door closes- another opens.” For those who observe or celebrate a secular New Year’s Celebration, I think that is what the countdown is all about…a moment of transition. A moment to move from what has happened- be it good or bad- to what yet will be. In those seconds of counting down from “ten to one,” it is an opportunity to say goodbye and hello all at the same time. This sense of time is a celebration of possibilities and hopes that come with a New Year and most new beginnings. During our religious New Year of Rosh Hashannah, sometimes I think we (rightfully) are so focused on prayers and judgement that the element of time itself- the power of quickly moving from the old to the new can get lost.
This sense of change also happens with every new beginning of a book of the Torah. Every time we end a book and shout- “Chazak, Chazak v’Nitchazek” Strength, Strength, may we be Strengthened, we are celebrating the passage of time -what was and what will be. Yes, we are celebrating our text, but we are also celebrating the strength we have gained from what we’ve studied and the excitement of what will be in the next chapter.
As we move into this new secular year of 2018, there is also the added Jewish element with the number 18, allowing this secular year to be one in which we can focus on making it a year for life. So, let this new secular year be a time for new beginnings, a time in which we will move from strength to strength and a time to live each day in a way that brings meaning to life. L’Chaim…To life… to 2018!
Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov serves Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, PA. She also blogs at www.kaddishformydad.com