The holidays are late this year.” We hear that expression often, especially when Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur fall after mid-September. But what does that expression mean? What can it tell us about who we are as American Jews, and how can it help us find what we need from our tradition?
For starters, how can Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur be “late?” They always come on the same two dates — the 1st and the 10th of Tishrei. Of course, that is according to only one of the calendars on which most of us rely.
We live simultaneously connected to multiple calendars, and to the rhythms of many communities and seasons. That is why even though the Hebrew dates remain the same, the holidays can be experienced as “late,” or “early,” in any given year. They can start on steamy summer days or fall out in the damp cool of autumn. On the American calendar, they can arrive as early as the beginning of September and as late as mid-October.
The fact is that according to the rhythms of the larger culture of which we Jews are a part, the holidays are late this year. They come long after Labor Day, and many weeks after schools have re-opened and everybody from Congress on down has returned to their regular schedule of work.
Yet, rather than feeling disconcerted, we can connect to some very bold thinking on the part of sages who lived almost 2,000 years ago.
Breaking with the biblical tradition of measuring the passage of time only by reference to the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people, the sages based the turning of the calendar year, or Rosh HaShanah as we know it, on the birth of humanity, which, according to tradition, occurred “In the seventh month, on the first day.” And the sages taught that we should observe the event not only as “a sacred occasion,” (Numbers 29:1), but as the first day of the New Year. The sages situated “Jewish time” within “human time,” teaching that being Jewish is a way of being human, and that we need not necessarily choose one over the other to fully celebrate both.
The fact that Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are “late” this year doesn’t mean that they also are not right on time. It’s not a matter of being one or the other; it’s about realizing the power of it being both. More than at any time in Jewish history, and probably more comfortably than at any place in the diaspora, Jews in America can measure even our most sacred time based on a shared calendar. In an increasingly polarized world that often mistakes purity and separateness for principle and commitment, that is an especially beautiful fact.
When we say that the holidays are late, we recover the tradition that celebrates Rosh HaShanah as the birthday of the world and of humanity, while proclaiming our commitment to celebrate that birthday Jewishly. We choose integration over bifurcation, and unity over false dichotomy.
There is particularity, to be sure, because no person lives “in general,” but such particularity cannot become an excuse from connection to that which lies beyond it.
Contrary to what we often hear, issues of identity and community are not zero-sum, unless the respective competing identities are so small and offer so little that all they can do is beg for allegiance. When they are rich resources for living more meaningful, ethical, creative and engaged lives, there is little or no fear of dilution or disappearance.
This year, consider your responses to the following thought experiments and see how you will feel both more deeply connected to the traditions you love and more broadly connected to those around you, whether they share your views or not.
- Count how many communities you are a part of, how they all contribute to your life and how your participation in each of them contributes to your being part of all of them;
- Consider who could be invited to participate in any of your communities and what new ideas, perspectives and practices their participation would bring to the group;
- Commit time during the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to bridge the gaps you feel with at least one person in your life.
Reflecting on these ideas will give us increased strength and renewed relationships, and like living with many calendars, provide fresh energy for the year ahead and beyond.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to be Right.”