New Year's Celebration?

So we have the turn of the secular calendar, this year going from 2005 to 2006 in the Common Era (CE). The common usage has this taking place on January 1st, with the day starting precisely at midnight, local time.

The Jewish or Hebrew calendar changes years at the time of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year), the 1st of the month of Tishrei, the seventh month on the calendar. Last October we went from 5765 to 5766. As all Hebrew days do, the new day starts at sundown and runs until sundown. This is due to the biblical description of creation in Bereshit (Genesis): 'It was evening, it was morning. The first day.' This seems to confuse many, including those folks who print calendars commercially, because they can never decide when a holiday falls, since it spans two boxes and numbers on the secular calendar.

The Jewish new year at Rosh Hashanah celebrates Creation, the birthday/anniversary of the world and the universe, and recognizes the sovereignty of God the Creator over all God's works. We imagine God enthroned on high, as a king, dispensing justice and mercy with wisdom and compassion to all subjects.

I understand the basis for Rosh Hashanah, the religious motivation behind it, and the imagery and visualization we use in the liturgy. I can feel the connection of this holiday with the message and meaning it is intended to convey. It makes sense to me.

Not so with the secular new year. We note the aging, replacement, and death of one year, and the birth and installation of a new year - the images are one the one hand, an old wizened man with a long beard, in a gown or toga, dependent on a staff to move, and on the other, a baby, almost incapable of movement, certainly without much to recommend it as a controller of the fates, wearing a diaper and looking innocent.

I am not too sure what I am to take from this image, what message it is intended to convey. On a slightly cynical note, I could see it as a statement that life is inherently out of control, that each year is wasted before it is done, and that there is no hope for the future to be better than the past because the two are disconnected.

Even worse, the celebration is a rowdy bacchanalian rite, not something that will elevate us as human beings in the image of the divine, or call upon us to be more godly in our actions. It is more connected with carnival than with ritual. Don't misunderstand me - I think there is a place for celebration, fun, good times, and silliness. I am just asking if this is the right place.

I don't know anyone who still fears that the sun will not return after the shortest day of the year, nor do I know anyone who professes to worry about it. As an excuse for ancient civilizations to offer a ritual to encourage the outcome they desired it made some sense, if that was the form of offering they understood. For us to continue it as a part of our 'heritage' or as a rememberance of the past makes far less sense.

It would seem to me to make more sense for our nation (the United States) to celebrate the new year on the anniversary of our nation, July 4th, or to celebrate on the anniversary of the declaration of independence being adopted, or some similar and meaningful moment in the history of our nation. To tie our calendar to an ancient fear which was long ago overcome does not seem to make much logical or emotional sense.

In another entry, perhaps I will look at what happens in Israel on this date.


Rabbi Joe Blair

Jan. 2006