Ilene A. Serlin Ph.D.

Make Your Life a Blessing

Jewish New Year—Inner and Outer Housecleaning

Today is the birthday of the world.

Posted Sep 25, 2012

Today is the birthday of the world.

Rosh Hashanah means the head of the year, and is technically one of two heads of the Jewish calendar. It is symbolized by certain foods, like apples and honey, that signify a sweet year.

Rosh Hashanah starts the month of Elul (in the Jewish lunar calendar). This is the time for preparing for the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement that comes 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. During this time, Jews all over the world go inward, doing a moral inventory and reflecting on whom we may have hurt and who may have hurt us. Then the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah are the most important days of the year for teshuvah. That means "return," or return of the soul to its original oneness (some say atonement=at-oneness) with God.

Because Judaism is in many ways about action in this world, especially about what it means to be a good human being in relationship with others, atonement is not for sins, nor is there original sin. The word for sin means approximately "off the mark" and these 10 days are a time to get back on the mark again. We don't just think about making amends—we must actually contact people we've hurt, act on our good impulses and set the record straight. It means to take responsibility for our actions, not project them onto others, and do corrective action.

Then comes Yom Kippur. Much as Rosh Hashanah is joyful, Yom Kippur is somber. On the eve of Yom Kippur we listen to Kol Neidre, a haunting piece of music that symbolizes the bittersweet experience of Jews throughout history. We then begin a 24-hour fast, during which time we are back in services, praying and reflecting. We wear white and the rabbis wear their burial white shrouds to bring a confrontation with death, as we contemplate our mortality. This is the window during which God will decide who will be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year.

The service ends with a blowing of the shofar, a ram's horn that is piercing and trembling, a wake-up call to our lives. We then have communal feasts and celebrate a new year and a new life.

This time of year is both holy and horrible, sweet and bitter. We reset our moral compasses for the year to come and begin the year anew.

It is also my own birthday, so a most powerful time of the year.

Wishing you a very joyful and meaningful new year,


About the Author

Ilene Serlin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Union Street Health Associates and the Arts Medicine Program at California Pacific Medical Center.

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