Unlike secular culture with its New Year celebrated on January 1, Jewish culture has 4 New Years. Rosh Hashanah commemorates the world and its condition; the First of Nisan ushering in Passover commemorates Jewish beginnings as a people, the first of Elul is for animals (applicable in Temple times determining the age for potential offerings) and coming this month, February 7 and 8, Tu B’Shvat the fifteenth of Shevat, celebrating the New Year for trees and vegetation.
The first 2, Rosh Hashanah and Passover (14 days into the first month in the Jewish calendar year) focus on 2 possibly disparate and hopefully complementary conditions in our lives: our place in the larger world: city/town, County, State, Country and beyond…and our place within a people, culture, value system, path, way, religious identity…all the possibilities of tapping into and connecting with our Jewish roots and foundations…our particular identity through which we interface with the larger one.
Adding New Years for animals and vegetation indicate our interdependency with the physical dimension we inhabit.
Acknowledging and honoring Tu B’Shvat as part of the broader system of Jewish consciousness that puts it in the family of Years with Rosh Hashanah and Passover adds depth and complexity to these primary celebrations: that to celebrate Rosh Hashanah means commitment to the wellbeing of our world…not only how we treat people and honor our responsibilities as in the Teshuva process we go through for Yom Kippur, but to add to that equation, deeper and more dedicated reflection on the conditions of our planet and the wellbeing, or not, of the natural world.
To celebrate Passover and each of our Pilgrimage Holidays (including also Shavuot and Sukkot) is to not only focus on the message of freedom (Passover), the importance of a constitution by which to guarantee freedom (Shavuot and the Giving of Torah), and understanding that the harvest is life itself (Sukkot). These history-based holidays have their parallels in the natural cycle as well, agricultural points of the year, as if to remind us of the message of Tu B’Shvat, that God resides in all facets of the physical world.
Our sages indicate that when God told Moses in the Parsha Vaera (Exodus chapter 6) that God was not known as “Adonai” to the original ancestors, but rather as El Shaddai, God Almighty, the ancestors were in tune with God in appreciating that Presence through the natural world. It was Moses who would experience something super-natural, when he encountered a bush in nature that unnaturally did not burn up.
All these Jewish New Year’s serve to remind us of the many nuances and layers of challenge and meaning for us to glean in our world today, whether in the confines of our homes and communities or the larger condition of this little spot of the universe we call earth. As a system designed to focus on bringing holiness into the daily world, Judaism’s manifold perspectives and points of reference reflect how complex our job is today to fix this world and make it safe and secure for future generations.
New Year’s Day and the symbol of “Out with the Old and In with the New” is not an energy or orientation conducive to making 2012 a better year. The Jewish calendar provides a healthier, if more realistic orientation on the challenges and complexities for us to embrace to indeed make this year a better one.