We are six days, or 144 hours, away from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Time is what is celebrated and sanctified on Rosh Hashanah. According to the iconic French commentator Rashi, sanctification of the new moon (essentially setting up a calendar) is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people in the Torah.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in “The Sabbath” that while time is the first thing that is sanctified in the Torah, the Shabbat is the first thing called kodesh, holy. The Jewish New Year and its approach to time are juxtaposed on the calendar every year with the secular American New Year celebration that follows a few months later.
We quantify time by how we think about it. Six days sounds longer than 144 hours to me. For Rosh Hashanah, we start preparation 30 days beforehand on Rosh Chodesh Elul, when we begin sounding the shofar and attempt to awaken in ourselves a spirit of teshuvah, or repentance. Rosh Hashanah is followed by the Asseret Yemei Teshuva, or 10 Days of Repentance, which culminate on Yom Kippur.
The Rosh Hashanah schedule is in sharp contradistinction to our secular American New Year’s traditions. Instead of counting up 10 days, we count down 10 seconds until the end of the year. Usually, this is the totality of the time allotted for reflection over the past 12 months, and when a thorough New Year’s resolution is created. By mid-January, most gyms are empty and diets are canceled.
Personal growth and heartfelt reflection are essential elements to mental health. These processes require time and effort. A schedule for reflection, repentance, and personal growth is built into the Jewish calendar every year via Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. The Jewish approach and significance given to personal development and reflection is evident by the amount of time dedicated to it and its prominence on the calendar.
The Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) states: “Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the Jewish holidays are a time to focus on the aspects in our life that are important but not urgent. Often, aspects that are urgent get our attention day to day. Rosh Hashanah creates a time in our yearly schedule for us to reflect and move forward. Important work that contains no immediate urgency.
Today we are overloaded. We are overloaded with thoughts, with information, with experiences. We have no time to process and reflect on our life because we are constantly checking the next message, planning the next event or vacation, or answering a call or an e-mail.
The only way we can reflect is if we make this very important activity urgent. That is what Rosh Hashanah does for the Jewish people. It forces us to consider how we spend our time.
As John Dewey said: “We do not learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on experience.”
By Rabbi Daniel Epstein