On that Erev Rosh Hashanah evening, Jews worldwide will gather together to usher in the new year. Much as our spiritual ancestors did for centuries before us, we'll uplift new hopes for ourselves, each other and the world – and we'll proclaim that we're in it together. While parts of the High Holy Day journey are about each of us individually, much that we'll do and aspire to become will depend vitally on being and acting together.
"Together," it turns out, is one of Judaism's superpowers. The Jewish key to both ancestral continuity and collective transformation is how the very act of gathering helps reshape us. Community is the catalyst – and scientists have come a long way in figuring out why.
So what gives... and so what?
What Gives? – The Backstory of When the Jewish New Year Was in Early Spring
Rosh Hashanah ("head of the year") begins at the new moon that starts the month of Tishrei, two weeks before autumn's harvest festival of Sukkot. But the Jewish new year didn't start out that way.
Judaism's ancient Mideast incubator – civilizations from Egypt to Babylon – timed the new year with early spring's river floods around the first day of Nisan. Two weeks later was a festival to gather first fruits of the fields. Judaism linked that spring gathering, at the full moon of Nisan, with the liberation from Egyptian bondage that became Passover.
Only 1,500 years later did Yom Zikhron Teruah become "Rosh Hashanah." Early Christianity gauged its key holiday sequence of sin, rebirth and renewal – Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter – to when Passover fell on the Jewish calendar. (This practice continued until the First Council of Nicea delinked the Christian calendar from Judaism in the year 325.) That era's rabbis, however, wanted to protect Judaism from confusion and proselytism, so they shifted Judaism's sin-rebirth-renewal sequence as far from Easter as they could.
That's how the Jewish new year got flipped six months, from Nisan (spring) to Tishrei (autumn). Thus was born Rosh Hashanah, and our modern Rosh Hashanah traditions all developed from then forward.
So What? – First Fruits, Attitude, Gratitude and Mirror Neurons
This week's Torah portion begins with that ancient spring festival of gathering first fruits. Because Nisan was Judaism's original new year, it had the "feel" of a Rosh Hashanah even though it was timed to Passover. And its words might sound familiar, because they're the source text of some of the Passover Haggadah's most famous lines.
After gathering the first fruits and bringing them to the kohen (priest) as a ritual offering, each person would speak these words of gratitude aloud (Deut. 26:5-10):
אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃ וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה׃ וַנִּצְעַ֕ק אֶל־יהו׳׳ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע יהו׳׳ה֙ אֶת־קֹלֵ֔נוּ וַיַּ֧רְא אֶת־עָנְיֵ֛נוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵ֖נוּ וְאֶֽת־לַחֲצֵֽנוּ׃ וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יהו''ה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמֹרָ֖א גָּדֹ֑ל וּבְאֹת֖וֹת וּבְמֹפְתִֽים׃ וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַיִּתֶּן־לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽשׁ׃ וְעַתָּ֗ה הִנֵּ֤ה הֵבֵ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־רֵאשִׁית֙ פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תָּה לִּ֖י יהו''ה
My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt and dwelled there, few in number. There he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid on us hard bondage. Then we cried out to YHVH, God of our ancestors. And YHVH heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. And YHVH led us out of Egypt – with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with awesome power, with signs and wonders! Then God brought us to this place and gave us this land – a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil that You, YHVH, have given me.
But what Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) most noticed about this first liturgy is that it had to be spoken aloud, for both speaker and everyone else to hear. Liturgy's words must be spoken aloud – not just felt or pondered within. The reason, Ibn Ezra wrote, is that we are shaped by what we say and what we hear. For instance, he continued, children best learn gratitude when they hear adults express gratitude, and adults best learn to keep promises when they hear others’ gratitude for promises kept.
We know that what we say matters: our words powerfully shape others' experience, and the collectivity of hearing and speaking together increases that power exponentially. The context of collectivity can be a superpower – whether negatively when it incites a mob, or positively in wholesome spiritual life. That's why doing it "together" is a core tenet of Jewish life.
But it took science until 2005 to figure out why "together" is so powerful. That year, biologists discovered that we all have mirror neurons that incline us to emulate what we see and hear. Biologically, that's one of the key ways people learn. It's how social creatures are social. It's also why yawning can be so contagious.
Thanks to mirror neurons, emotions are equally contagious. When we speak gratitude aloud, our spoken words affect us and shape others. The more we express gratitude, the more we prime the pump of a virtuous cycle of gratitude. The same goes for anything we say – whether grateful and loving, or sharp and judgmental.
This "all of us together" sense at Rosh Hashanah is potent not only because Rosh Hashanah is our great spiritual re-boot, but also because of the raw power of everyone subtly affecting everyone else. While its ritual origin is the ancient springtime new year and Passover first-harvest festival, our "together" rituals are Rosh Hashanah's power generator. The whole year, our whole lives, become our first harvest of this season of spiritual renewal – and we are called to offer it in gratitude, longing and hope.
Gratitude, love, contrition, forgiveness, hope – they’re all benevolent viruses, and at this time of year we make ourselves especially prone to them. So thank your mirror neurons, and let's get ready to invoke one of Judaism's great superpowers – ourselves, together.
And in this merit, may you and your loved ones, our precious community and our fragile planet all be inscribed for a sweet and good new year. L'shanah tovah um'tukah!