Many have asked why the High Holidays occur so early this year. I can’t remember a time when they fell so close to Labor Day. In fact the first night of Hanukkah occurs on the same evening we will be gathering with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. This will never happen again. So although the timing of our fall celebrations is very unusual there is an internal logic to our holiday cycle. The Jewish calendar is a combination of a lunar and solar calendar. Our secular calendar is solar and is 365 years long. The lunar year is 354 days. The secular calendar dictates the seasons. The Jewish holidays are tied to both history and the seasons. Sukkot for example commemorates our wandering in the wilderness as well as the fall harvest. If we only followed a lunar calendar then our year would lose 11 days relative to the solar calendar and then Sukkot would eventually occur in the summer and then winter and then spring until finally returning to its proper season.
We therefore add a leap month every two or three years in order to keep the holidays within their proper seasons. So Rosh Hashanah can occur sometime between the beginning of September and the beginning of October. We will add this month in the coming spring between Hanukkah and Purim. By the time Passover arrives we will celebrate our seders in the middle of April. And so although Rosh Hashanah feels early the rhythm of the Jewish calendar always helps to orient our lives. Rosh Hashanah always arrives in between late summer and early fall. It occurs as the seasons are shifting and turning. And that is part of its message for our lives.
The power of Rosh Hashanah is conveyed in the beautiful and haunting Unetanah Tokef prayer. “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day; it is awesome and full of dread. For on this day Your dominion is exalted, Your throne established in steadfast love; there in truth You reign.…” It concludes with the words, “Our origin is dust, and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.” The prayer’s purpose is to remind us of the power of humility and the goal of turning our thoughts inward towards repair.
We are of course not always given to humility or to bowing in awe. But that is prayer’s purpose. That is its lofty goal. We can only achieve greatness if we correct our failings. We can only reach out to others if we recognize our flaws and give voice to our mistakes. The High Holidays are where we begin. We begin this process of repentance and repair by shouting praises toward heaven.
To begin that effort I urge you to watch this brief video by Carl Sagan. In it he explores the vastness of the universe and the pale, blue dot we call earth. It is perhaps even more humbling than our prayers. That is the place we must begin—the pale, blue dot we call earth and the reorienting qualities of humility and awe in standing before heaven. Our efforts to change always begin with a shift in perspective.
Shanah tovah u’metukah—A good, sweet new year!