The history of New Year’s Day is a complicated and most interesting one. The short version of it all goes essentially as follows: In ancient Rome, as the calendar was being formed and reformed, it was decided that a month should be named after the Roman God Janus who represented transitions, doors, gates, and beginnings. This month came to be known as January. Given the God that it represented, the first day of the month became the start of the new year, and was a day of festivities in celebration of new beginnings.
When one steps back for a moment, though, it becomes clear that the day is utterly arbitrary. There is nothing intrinsic about the first day of January, specifically, that sets it apart from the beginning of any other month. The fact that we, today, celebrate January 1st as the start of a “new year” is due entirely to the pagan whims and cultures of ancient Rome. The arbitrary nature of this day should be enough to give any thinking person pause. When one adds to this the full history of the day, however — on which Jews and others were murdered, forced conversion were carried out, debauchery has been encouraged, and pagan and Christian rituals have been deeply connected with — one must ask what exactly this day is all about in modern times.
Indeed, it is quite interesting to consider just how diametrically opposed the traditional Jewish celebration of the New Year is from Western Man’s. Should both the Jewish and Westerner’s New Year fall out on the same day, it would be absolutely impossible to celebrate both. They are mutually exclusive; one or the other. The way that Jewish culture deals with New Year’s is at complete and utter odds with the way it is celebrated by Western culture. The contrast between the Jewish New Year and the secular New Year is incredibly sharp. I shall draw on the ideas of Rav Moshe Benovitz as we consider why this is the case.
Fundamentally, New Year’s commemorates a change and passing of time. We recognize on New Year’s that the past year is gone, never to return, and a new year now faces us, and will be what we make of it. Time can only lead us on, and we can never recover lost time. As such, at its essence, New Year’s is a confrontation with our all-too-real mortality. Western culture, especially America, is famously bad at dealing with the passage of time and mortality. Thus, modern Western culture has evolved the day, even more than when it was first founded, into one of escapism.
In truth, no one likes what New Year’s Day represents. Nobody wants to think about it, as nobody wants to make the difficult choices in life. America’s answer to this problem is simply to escape. Don’t bother making the decisions, and instead retreat into drugs, alcohol, sex. As no one wants to ponder the true essence of a new year, all instead pretend that the day is somehow a happy, celebratory one. Such is Western culture.
(This same idea is true, by the way, when it comes to the American celebration of Memorial Day versus the Jewish/Israeli celebration of Yom HaZikaron. I will not elaborate on this too much here, but imagine if one were to propose the American forms of Memorial Day celebration to an Israeli on Yom HaZikaron. BBQ’s, ball games, and shopping sales on Yom HaZikaron would be downright offensive to Israelis in the worst of ways. This is because Yom HaZikaron, standing in stark contradistinction to Memorial Day, is actually a time of meaningful reflection.)
If there existed some device that recorded all words ever spoken on New Year’s Day, running a search through such a database for the words “Last night I was thinking…” would return nil. New Year’s Eve in America has morphed into a time during which people do things that they never otherwise would. It is a time specifically designed not to think. It is a time for foolishness, childishness, and escapism. This most serious of times has descended into nothing more than a massive party.
A confrontation with death, and the passing of time, should be a sobering experience, yet it has turned into precisely the opposite.
Even New Year’s resolutions in American culture are deeply flawed. The quickest glimpse at any polls or statistics would reveal that the most common resolutions have nothing to do with anything other than pure vanity. Americans want to work more, eat healthier, lose weight, go to the gym, stop smoking, stop drinking. When was the last time, however, someone resolved to get angry less, care more about other people, give more charity, or anything else to help better other people, and the world around them?
New Year’s resolutions are seldom about truly bettering oneself, and more typically are only about bettering one’s appearance.
Jewish culture, quite the opposite of everything described above, is famously good at dealing with the passage of time and death. Judaism embraces such things. Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish “New Year’s Day”, is designed as a time to think deeply about how we have lived our lives over the past year, and how we might make the coming year better. It is a day of meditation and self-reflection, and the deep consideration of how we can truly better ourselves, and help improve the lives of those around us. We spend the day in prayer and introspection among our families and communities.
The Jewish New Year versus the secular New Year is the epitome the way two different cultures deal with the same thing. What is important to realize, though, is that the celebration of New Year’s in each respective culture is no accident; it is by design.
If we are, as thinking people and Jews, to take part in the secular New Year, it must not be in the nonsensical manner that said secular culture preaches. Surely, an additional day of personal reflection and resolve cannot hurt — perhaps we could even use the secular New Year to address the more secular aspects of our lives — but our participation has to at least have the potential to make a real difference, a real change.
Alcohol and silliness most certainly have their place, but let us not waste the opportunity of New Year’s with these things when it could, and should, be instead a time of real reflection and betterment.
There is a great deal of a difference between “living” and “being around”. Let’s make 2016 count.