Newsletter 216: Shanah Tova 5775
The New Year is upon us. There is no escaping the feeling of excitement that it brings. No matter how many new years I have celebrated I don’t manage to feel blasé about the arrival of yet another one. It’s always a big surprise for me. It’s like visiting the same place for the umpteenth time and instead of getting bored I’m excited anew.
As far as I can see religion is just the repetition of customs. In fact the word “Shana” means to repeat. Some people see this name as originating in the natural phenomenon of the earth repeating its cycle around the sun, but the repetitive actions performed by human beings in their worship of God seems to me to be more relevant; every day for example 3 prayer services, each prayer service saying the same prayers, every Friday night the blessing over the wine and the candles and the bread and so on. No matter how long one lives these repetitive practices are always new. A religions person will not miss a single one of them nor will he change the words or even the melody, he’ll even wear the same apparel; always putting a prayer shawl over his head, always covering his head with a kipa.
These events resemble the repetitious cycle of the earth; just as each cycle adds another year to the number of cycles so the repetitive customs are like adding links to a chain which we make by carrying out a custom.
It’s a mistake to think as many people do, that we, our physical bodies are the links in the chain. Human beings because of their physical nature break the chain. Our death brings the chain to an end. It’s the customs that we carry out that are the links in the chain. Customs are everlasting links in the chain. As one custom observing generation gives way to another the chain keeps growing.
Rosh Hashana is the celebration of the present length of the chain. The chain is much longer than 5775 years, which is only the number of cycles the earth has made around the sun; it’s actually 5775 multiplied by the number of customs performed in each year, multiplied by the number of people who have carried out those customs. So really we don’t know how long the chain is. All that we know is that by keeping a custom we are forming a new link in the chain.
A religious person hardly stops to consider why it’s important to make links in the chain because the important thing to him isn’t the chain, it’s the link he’s making at any specific moment in time which is important. The heroes of his world are the link makers not the explorers or skyscraper builders or the film stars.
Rosh Hashana is the celebration of carrying out customs, i.e. the making of links. God judges mankind today by the number of links he has made. His scales don’t weigh ordinary deeds; they weigh customs, known as “mitzvoth” in Hebrew. One might consider being kind to the poor as a good deed but really it’s only such because it is a custom. Every time a person gives charity he’s considered to be performing a custom. These customs are links in the chain and they’re just as strong as praying three times a day. Both are customs and often one doesn’t think of the one as a religious custom but just something which one does as a good person. Religion sees these good deeds as performance of customs which create links.
So when we wish each other Shana Tova (happy New Year) we mean “A good repetition” meaning that we wish each other a year of doing many customs. Each person then performs a historic deed in making the chain longer, and the longer the chain the better will be our world.
May you be inscribed in the book of life for a year of doing customs (mitzvot), because doing customs you will lengthen the chain which leads to happiness, the ultimate objective of the entire world.