Happy New Year (for trees)!

Hashem is about to deliver one of the most important messages that He has ever given to man. Now’s the moment when He will establish an eternal covenant with Avraham’s family for all eternity. He will reveal to Avraham the sojourn of his descendants and the ensuing salvation. He will promise him the land of Canaan as an inheritance for his offspring.

He tells Avraham to prepare for the historic conversation by gathering a number of animals and birds, to be offered before God.  Avraham obeys the instructions he receives to the very last detail.

And then, all of a sudden, he is overtaken by a deep slumber.

How could Avraham fall asleep upon such a momentous occasion?

מתני׳ ארבעה ראשי שנים הם באחד בניסן ר”ה למלכים ולרגלים באחד באלול ראש השנה למעשר בהמה ר’ אלעזר ור”ש אומרים באחד בתשרי באחד בתשרי ראש השנה לשנים ולשמיטין וליובלות לנטיעה ולירקות באחד בשבט ראש השנה לאילן כדברי בית שמאי בית הלל אומרים בחמשה עשר בו:

There are four Rosh Hashanahs.  The first of Nissan is the New Year for kings and festivals.  The first of Elul is the New Year for tithing animals.  Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishrei.   The first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, sabbatical years, jubilee years, planting, and tithing vegetables.  The first of Shevat is the New Year for trees, according to Beis Shamai.  Beis Hillel says: on the fifteenth of the month.

How many people observe all these Rosh Hashanah’s?  Most of us are familiar with the big one – the first of Tishrei.  Some people might also celebrate the New Year for trees.  Most people haven’t even heard of the four New Years, let alone celebrate them.  Why do we need multiple Rosh Hashanah’s?  Why could they not simply be rolled into one?

Remember those New Year’s resolutions you made last Rosh Hashanah?  Perhaps they lasted two weeks.  For those more dedicated, maybe even a month or two.  And then it was back to our old habits.  It’s not that we forgot about them completely; they’re still lingering somewhere in the back of our minds. But, we tell ourselves that next Rosh Hashanah is only a few months away.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to try to start fresh then and get our good intentions back on track.

This Mishnah offers a powerful lesson about our New Year’s resolutions.  The next Rosh Hashanah isn’t eleven months away.  It’s right around the corner!   We don’t have just one Rosh Hashanah per year.  We have multiple opportunities to turn over a new leaf and start afresh!

Which is the first Rosh Hashanah mentioned in the Mishnah?  Not the one we’re all familiar with; that only makes it into third place.  The first one, the first of Nissan, is the day Moshe and Aharon were instructed with the very first mitzvah given to our people. “This month is for you the head of the months.  It is the first for you.”

The Sefas Emes quotes the blessing that we recite daily prior to the Shema, which says that the Almighty “renews with His goodness each day constantly the works of creation.”  The word for month in Hebrew is chodesh, which is a form of the word chadash, meaning ‘new,’ on account of the renewal of the moon each month.  The first mitzvah is to recognize that God renews us on a daily basis.  That, says the Sefas Emes, is a fundamental tenet of our belief.  That’s why Nissan is the first Rosh Hashanah.

Let’s take a closer look at the words of the prayer.  We bless God for renewing His goodness “each day constantly.”  If Hashem renews His works of creation constantly, what is the meaning of the daily renewal?

Here’s where we need Avraham’s slumber to explain things.  Sleep is one of the greatest blessings Hashem has given us.  Not only because it refreshes us and endows us with renewed energy, but due to its line-drawing nature:  yesterday was yesterday;  today is a new day with new potential.  The period of slumber draws a line between whatever happened in the past and the exciting future that lies ahead.  A reawakening is almost like a rebirth.

For Hashem, renewal occurs continuously.  But, from our limited perspective, it’s impossible to discern the difference between the present moment and two minutes earlier.  It all appears to be one long flow of interrupted time.  But then, Hashem gives us a gift to distinguish between moments in time.  It’s called the difference between yesterday and today.

Strictly speaking, just as one minute flows uninterruptedly into the next, similarly, one day flows straightforwardly into the next.  But practically, we don’t experience that smooth flow.  Because the transition is disrupted by our slumber.  And so, the clearest way to demonstrate Hashem’s constant recreation from our perspective is the concept of daily renewal.

Why did Hashem send Avraham to sleep right when He wanted to reveal the unique purpose and mission of his family?  That slumber represented a clean break with his past.  He was no longer Avram of Ur Kasdim.  Henceforth, he would be Avraham of the Promised Land.  Hashem had recreated him.

You don’t have to wait until the big Rosh Hashanah to experience the New Year. You don’t even need to wait until one of the additional Rosh Hashanah’s. Every day is a mini-Rosh Hashanah! It’s a day of renewal when you can put the past behind you and turn over a new leaf.

Why is Rosh Hashanah called the ‘head of the year,’ as opposed to the ‘new year’ or the ‘beginning of the year’?  Our Sages explain that just like the head is the control center for the body, similarly Rosh Hashanah is the control center for the entire year.  Your actions on Rosh Hashanah will determine your fate for the coming year.  And so we maximize our dedication to “teshuva, tefillah u’tzedaka” – repentance, prayer and charity, so that we are signed and sealed for a great year.

But really every day is the control center for the days that follow it.  To use an old cliché, today is the first day of the rest of your life.   The decisions you make today will affect the rest of your life.   If today, you commit to becoming a better person, your entire life going forward will be changed for the better.

Shanah means year.  But it’s also related to the word ‘shoneh’ meaning different.  Today is a new and different day to yesterday.  As of today, your entire life, should you choose, could be different.  Wishing you ‘Shanah tova’.  May today be the most important and impactful day of your life!

Excerpted from The Transformative Daf: Tractate Rosh Hashanah

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series.
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