The term New Year is a misnomer. Years are not renewed; they are repeated. Only months are renewed. The Hebrew word for year, shanah, means "repeated". The word for month, chodesh, means "new." Every month has different holidays, they occur in different seasons. The feel and look of each month is different from the others and Rosh Chodesh is symbolized by the reappearance of a "new" moon that was not visible the day before. Each year on the other hand, resembles the ones before it. Every year contains the same holidays and includes the same seasons. There is nothing different from one year to the next except for ourselves: we are different each year. We are a little older, a little wiser and hopefully a little better. Months change whether or not we choose to change them. Years change only if we choose to change ourselves.
Our time for renewal is every month, not once a year. Each Rosh Chodesh we can to some extent de-link ourselves from the negative habits and experiences of the past and create a new and different future not rooted in the errors of the past. This is the power, thesegulah of Rosh Chodesh. Rosh Hashanah, is different. Bakesseh leyom chageinu emphasizes that there is often not a new moon visible on the night of Rosh Hashanah. We do not say Birkas hachodesh on the Shabbas before Rosh Hashanah, because the nature of Rosh Hashanah is so different from that of Rosh Chodesh.
Rosh Hashanah gives us another shot at repeating our year in a better way. Teshuva is not about de-linking from the past. Teshuvarequires a focus on the past, a reliving of the last year and identifying the opportunities for learning from the past and improving as we go forward. Teshuva is about converting the negatives of the past into positives for the future.
How do you convert a past negative experience into a positive force for the future? According to the amazing work of neuroscientist (and rock singer) Joseph E. LeDoux memories have a cognitive component and an emotional component. A memory's power is in its emotional component even when that memory can no longer be recalled. And so, the experiences we have had continue to play into our choices throughout our lives even if we have no conscious recollection of those memories any more. This is why we often see the repetition of negative behavioral patterns that we sometimes feel helpless to be able to change. These behavioral patterns can be altered by what LeDoux calls reconsolidation and what we callTeshuva. When you retrieve a memory, it becomes unstable, and new information can be incorporated into the memory which when re-imbedded retains this new information and changes your patterns of behavior in the future.
The Rosh Hashanah time of teshuva comprises three phases of reconsolidation:
- Rosh Hashanah itself.
- The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur starting with the Fast of Gedaliah
- Yom Kippur
Rosh Hashanah: During Rosh Hashanah itself we do not focus on the past, rather we create a vision of a better future; a future not only for ourselves but also for the nation and for the world. For two days we live in this creation of a glorious future, one in which all of humankind recognizes the Creator and serves Him, and we experience its heightened feeling of joy.
The days in between: This is the time that we go back over the past year. When we compare our past experiences with the joy we experienced in our blissful Rosh Hashanah vision, we feel the pain and discomfort of the gap between what was and what could be. This discomfort is an important tool of change, because we only truly change our behaviors when the old ways cause us pain or discomfort. Holding the discomfort in our minds and hearts for these few days allows us to retrieve memories we might prefer to ignore or forget, and to take accountability for them. The accountability we take can intensify the discomfort, thereby providing us with even more fuel for change. This is the process of retrieving memories and destabilizing them by re-experiencing their discomfort, or what we call viduy (acknowledgement) and charattah (remorse).
Yom Kippur: We enter Yom Kippur bearing our valuable although painful memories in our hearts. Yom Kippur itself is the time of reconsolidation or kabbalah le'habbah (accepting change for the future). On Yom Kippur we again revisit all of the painful memories of our negative behaviors, choices and experiences over the past year. This time however we insert new, positive information into these memories that became unstable through our recollection of them, and we reconsolidate them. We replay these memories using a different pattern of behavior. We imagine how differently they could have played out had we made the right choices, and we celebrate the better outcomes these right choices could have generated. Feeling the peace and happiness that accompanies right choices compared to the pain and discomfort caused by flawed ones, we commit to different behaviors and choices in the future as we are given the opportunity to replay the year.
Succos then becomes the first test of our success. We celebrateSuccos every year, We sit in the same Succos and shake the samearbah minim. Will we feel the difference this year as we get another chance to replay the Succos experience? If we do, we are set for a "new" year - a better year.
Leshanah Tova Tikaseivu.