Is the Jewish New Year Actually Behind Us?

Momentum vs. moments & the springboard for work, school & life
By Tamara Rebick

The sun had set. The shofar had sounded. Hints of honey cake, orange juice and coffee could be smelled. Yom Kippur 5779 concluded and as we walked home from the synagogue, the street was filled with people wishing each other Shana Tova while rushing to break-fast meals. Perplexed by a Shana Tova greeting on Yom Kippur, my younger daughter asked me why people were wishing each other a Shana Tova when Rosh Hashanah was long over (by a whopping 10 days), and even Yom Kippur was now done. The common compartmentalization of the Yamim Noraiim, the Days of Awe and as well as the chaggim (referring to the sequential Jewish holidays from Rosh Hashana through Simchat Torah) had just been articulated as a simple question asked by an 8-year old. If the holiday is over, why would we continue with its related customs and intentions?

I realized that my daughter understood the concept of Rosh Hashanah and each subsequent Jewish holiday to be a moment in time, rather than part of her perpetual movement forward in life. It got me thinking about what Rabbi Rafi Lipner shared during our Kol Nidrei service – an idea he credited to his wife Shira: the moments of time, the repentance and reflection over the High Holy Days were more meaningful when regarded as momentum leading us into the upcoming year. This resonated, leading me to conclude that the final blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur was not the last curtain call, it was the starter gun for our upcoming marathon. Using the High Holy Days to frame, experience, reflect and posit, shifts the Yamim Noraiim from finite to enduring; from a moment to momentum for the upcoming year.

As my daughters and I continued walking, we talked about the cycle of celebration and introspection inspired by the rituals of Rosh Hashanah, the 10 days of repentance, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Raba, Shmini Atzeret and finally Simchat Torah. By the time we rounded the corner and turned onto our street, it was my older daughter who pointed out that technically, the standard expression Shana Tova is relevant for a broader period of time and frames the season of fresh starts. We experience both the calendar change and the prospect of new beginnings. Likewise, she pointed out, the Gregorian New Year provokes talk about New Year’s, and Happy New Year wishes well into January.

And so, as we quickly travelled to our own break-fast meal, I started to think about the notion of the Yamim Noraiim as congruent with a specific experiential learning theory. Dr. David Kolb’s Learning Cycle is marked by interactions between experience and abstraction, action and reflection. The following four steps reveal how Kolb and rabbinic Judaism manage to speak the same language in different eras. Both deliver an opportunity for ongoing transformative learning and encourage momentum for exploration and growth.

Concrete Experience: Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur (the Superbowl of Jewish Holidays)

Kolb writes in his 2015 book Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning Development:

“Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience. Grasping experience refers to the process of taking in information, and transforming experience is how individuals interpret and act on that information.” (p. 51)

On Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, there is palpable excitement and anticipation; it is associated with family time, obligation and the promise that comes with a new year. How Jews of all ages and stages of life experience the High Holy Days can be understood by how we are taking in and grasping the entirety of the experience; especially with family and community rituals, customs, traditions and recipes. For those who find themselves in a religious service, especially when it is the only time during the year, this is an active, intentional, concrete Jewish experience. Regardless of liturgy or venue, those who choose to gather with a community on these two or three days, solidify an opportunity to take in and grasp information. For some, it might even be sensory overload.

Reflective Observation: Sukkot

While some reflect and ponder life’s bigger questions during a Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur service, day or related meal, it is the Torah along with supporting rabbinic design to dwell in a sukkah that offers an opportunity to literally and figuratively dwell, review, observe and reflect on the experience that was the High Holy days:

What did I just do on these days? Why did I do it? Did I hear something that resonated? How does this make me feel? Was I surprised by something this particular year? Is there something that meant enough to me that I will take with me going forward?

This is the start of the momentum; building on one’s concrete experience – one’s moment during the High Holy Days, and without formal facilitation of such reflective queries, many of these questions organically materialize through conversation during a meal, over a coffee or at work. For those who do not traditionally observe the celebration of Sukkot, these matters are still likely to swirl around reflectively in the days following Yom Kippur and shared with family and friends.

Abstract Conceptualization: Hoshana Rabba & Simchat Torah

Because the information grasped during the High Holy Days invoke specific feelings that are illuminated with reflection, learning more about oneself is at first abstract. How can we interpret and apply our reflections to truly learn about ourselves? What do we do with these new realizations? Building on the momentum sparked by the experience of the Yamim Noraiim, the transformation of information into learning about oneself is next-level. The spiritual finality that comes with Hoshana Rabba is well aligned with more abstract questions about the self: as a result of what I now know, will that impact how I live my life? What do I need to do or change in order to succeed? As the final portion of the Torah is read, followed immediately by going back to the beginning on Simchat Torah, a fresh sense of personal purpose and direction is quite complimentary to the notion of momentum. What a focused way to head into the final leg of this particular set of Jewish holidays!

Active Experimentation: The return tonormal

Learning is defined by Kolb as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb & Kolb, 2013, p. 49). The learning achieved through one’s High Holy Day experience, subsequent reflection and conceptualization about desired changes to be made moving forward, clearly demonstrates learning. Furthermore, instead of regarding each holiday as a finite moment of celebration and observance, another box to tick off the calendar, or another set of meals to enjoy and look forward to the following year, each stage builds on the previous one, thereby developing momentum. This momentum for self-growth fuels us for the year ahead. We are only now positioned to actively experiment with interpreting and acting on all of the ideas, knowledge and learning achieved through this spiritual and experiential process. As the year progresses and more information is experienced and grasped alongside this self-discovery, the learning cycle can guide us towards a transformative 5780.

As I tucked my daughters into bed tonight, there was a collective sigh of relief that a reliable routine of school, work days and activities would now return with the conclusion of the beloved chaggim. But the chaggim are not in our rear-view mirror. We articulated to one another what it was that we wish to actively experiment with in the days and months going forward. As we look ahead to the month of Cheshvan, notorious for being a month with no holidays, I find myself thinking in more detail about the Kolb Learning Cycle and how this concept of momentum at this particular point in the Jewish and secular calendars is relevant for my work, my parenting and for my children’s learning goals at school. This year, I understand the information experienced, knowledge grasped, and learning interpreted over the past month to be the building blocks and momentum I need to successfully act on and experiment with transformation relative to the person I want to be, especially as we all try to balance daily details with bigger life goals.

Tamara Rebick is the Founder & CXO of CORIPHERY Holistic Consulting Solutions, dedicated to advancing social change through learning by offering education and community design consulting services to non-profit and social-sector organizations.