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 next week? 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 is 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 the year starts in the fall or the spring, what does that really have to do with me? 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 life 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. (True, we recently pointed out that there are two Talmudic views about the date of man’s creation – nevertheless, our liturgy seems to have decided the issue in favor of man being created on Rosh Hashanah.) Hence in the same way that Shabbat prompts us to think about God, Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to reflect about 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. 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 means that creativity and innovation are at the very core of human existence.
Accordingly, Rashi (Devarim 6:6), quoting the Sifrei, points out that God commands us to always relate to the Torah as a new doctrine. He explains that people are constantly interested in the new. As soon as a doctrine becomes old, our interest wanes. Thus, the key to Torah study and the practice of mitzvot is to always imbue them with novelty – the concept of chidush. In order to this, we have to come to it fresh each time. The same mitzvah – even if we perform it in the same way – has limitless 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. While it is perfectly reasonable to build on our past experiences, when we build routines and expectations exclusively built upon our past, it prevents us from seeing the rainbow of not yet explored 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 to pretend that it is. The secret is that when we look at it as if it were 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. But that depends entirely upon us.
It is for this reason that we are best positioned to engage in teshuvah during these days. Teshuvah can only be accomplished if we open ourselves up to possibilities that defy 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 God implanted within us. May we all meet this wonderful challenge so deeply rooted in what it means to be human.
Wishing everyone a Happy New Year.