New beginnings on Rosh Hodesh

New beginnings on Rosh Hodesh

Va’era | Exodus 6:2-9:35

Before electronics took over our lives, we bought paper calendars — things you hung on a wall or put in your pocket or pocketbook. They gave us pictures of time.

No one knows what time actually is; it is something we live through, grow older in, but what is it? 

Our calendars tell us through the tacit decisions behind their organization. 

Some of those calendars we bought, for example, were (still are) organized in double-page spreads, called weeks. Each spread had seven days. The pages were blank but for the dates and days — and numbers down one side corresponding to hours. 

The whole point was to fill in as many lines as you could with appointments. Such a “for-appointments-only” calendar derives from our implicit understanding of time as a commodity that can be “saved,” “lost,” “spent,” or “wasted.” By this secular calculus, “wasting time” is a sin for which we get chastised, because “time is money.”

Money, however, is fungible — funds set aside for one purpose are interchangeable with funds set aside for another. So too is time, according to this model. Every day, every hour is the same as any other. Time is empty, an arbitrary number on the page, demanding an appointment to give it value. 

Not so the Jewish calendar (which you don’t have to buy because funeral homes and kosher butchers give them out for free). Secular calendars come (mostly) empty; Jewish calendars come loaded: a changing sunset time (for lighting candles); names for each week (drawn from the weekly Torah reading), and a plethora of days that are colored to show their importance. 

The day that is always colored is Shabbat, the only day in the week with a name (the others are just numbered, “day one” “day two” and so on to lead to Shabbat). The point of this calendar is not to list appointments but to get to the colored days — when most appointments are actually prohibited! 

The Jewish calendar divides the secular from the sacred and reminds us that the fullness of life requires both.

Most interesting is another colored day that occurs each month: Rosh Hodesh, “the new moon.” When it falls mid-week, it is easily passed over. This week, however, the new month (of Shevat) coincides with Shabbat.

On the secular calendar, months are arbitrary, unattached to actual lunar phases; Jewish months are really lunar, so new moons matter.

Jewish law considers them half-holy days, not altogether days of rest (like Shabbat). But talmudic tradition in the Land of Israel recognizes that women (whose monthly cycle roughly mirrors the cosmic one) could properly refrain from work then, if they liked. 

Acknowledging the newness of the moon and month reminds us of the grand possibility of starting our own lives over again. We regularly associate that message with the New Year, but Rosh Hashana is just one new moon of many. 

I love Rosh Hashana’s message of life renewed. But some months are so bad, I’d rather not wait a whole year for a new beginning. And our calendar says I don’t have to. I just watch for the next Rosh Hodesh, bid the awful month past a “Good riddance,” and start my life all over again.

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