Rain, dew, dryness, and then rain again, and then dew, and then dryness. This is the story of the cycling year, but where does the circle begin? And for that matter, where does the year start?
There are, as with many a Jewish question, several answers to this, and the fact is that most of the answers would be right. The year, whatever that means, starts at least four times.

In ancient times, there were four different New Years on the Jewish calendar. Each had a distinct significance:
• The first of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the New Year of Kings, was the date used to calculate the number of years a given king had reigned.
• The first of the Hebrew month of Elul was the new year for tithing of cattle, a time when one of every 10 cattle was marked and offered as a sacrifice to God.
• The first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei was the agricultural new year, or the New Year of the Years.
• The 15th of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat, known as Tu BiShvat, was the New Year of the Trees.

Our real interest is in two of these. Today is Rosh Hashanah, which literally means head of the year, but Rosh Hashanah does not occur in what the Bible tells us is the first month of the year. The Bible tells us that the first month of the year is Nissan, the spring month, the month in which Passover falls. Nissan is the month when God spoke to Moses and Aaron saying this month should be for you the head of months, it’ll be for you the first of the months of the year (Ex 18:2). What is more, the spring month of Nissan is when the families of Jewish slaves in Egypt are first understood to have seen themselves as a united Jewish nation. It is the month of the beginning of freedom, the month when God entered our history and reshaped our tangible political and social life. So the New Year in Nissan is a new year for learning how we as a people can reach toward freedom in the world.

But! For approximately 2000 years our people, the Jewish people, have celebrated the New Year half a year after the month of Nissan Colon Rosh Hashanah comes in the month of Tishri, and the Bible tells us that Tishri is the seventh month. This really is a month of autumn, it is a month of catching our breath and cooling down after the heat of summer. Tishri is the seventh month
And we all know that the number seven is important, the seventh month echoes the seventh day, and the Shabbat of rest and contemplation, and of catching our breath and cooling down after six full days of hard work.

Perhaps we need to see Russia Shana has a new year for renewal, much like Shabbat it is the time that we focus our attention on an ultimate spiritual truth. Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for learning how we as human beings can turn towards God. Perhaps two it is known as the head of the year because our head is raised towards heaven, away from earth, whereas at Passover we celebrate a much more earthly based liberation, the freedom of our physical bodies. Perhaps to it is the New Year because according to our tradition it is the birthday of Adam, the celebration of the beginning of the whole human race, whereas Passover celebrates the beginning of Jewish nationhood.

So for us as people the year begins twice, at least, perhaps to teach us that we can never get started with a single separated part of ourselves, not with politics alone, or spirit alone, not with the Jewish people alone, or the universal human being alone, not the body alone, or the head alone, we need both - always both - to begin.

We reach today, the beginning of the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, of trepidation, anticipation, humility, and soul-searching are immediately having been through the month of Elul. Whatever the – hotly debated – origin of the High Holy Days, they are today a celebration of the beginning of a new year, and the striving for atonement of our misdeeds in the previous year, and if we understand Jewish time in line with the natural world, Rosh HaShanah represents the planting of a new seed in preparation for a new year, and so Elul is when we harvest the fruit of that seed.

Jewish tradition understands well that the High Holy Days can be time-consuming, and at times difficult, so to make the most out of our rituals, celebrations, and prayers we need time to prepare ourselves – and it’s for that preparation that we use the entire month of Elul. Elul, a word of Akkadian origin meaning ‘harvest’, also came to have connotations of ‘searching’ in Aramaic and the sages tell us that its spelling (אלול‎) is an acronym for ani l’dodi, ve’dodi li (אני לדודי ודודי לי) – a phrase from the Song of Solomon meaning “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”. Of course in this image, we are reminded that our beloved is the Eternal, and this is a time for us to find the Eternal within ourselves once again by the time we get to Rosh Hashanah, today.

The month of Elul (plus the first 10 days of Tishri, from today to Yom Kippur) is 40 days long, and is full of opportunities for deep introspection – according to one midrash, these 40 days correspond to the length of time Moses spent on Mount Sinai after the incident with the golden calf. We are told that when he descended from Mount Sinai for the first time and saw that the people had created the Golden Calf to worship, Moses, out of frustration and anger, broke the first set of tablets on which the 10 Commandments had been written. Moses apparently later wrote new tablets himself, and the broken tablets were placed in the aron hakodesh, the Holy Ark, and remained there together with the unbroken tablets protected and safe as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. Kabbalah teaches that the Ark is a symbol of the human heart (in Reshit Chochmah) and perhaps this image of the broken and unbroken tablets residing together reminds us that brokenness and wholeness can and do exist side-by-side even in the holiest of spaces.

Remembering then that Rosh Hashanah might just be the time of our complete renewal – physical and spiritual – I am drawn to the final line of Psalm 27 which is traditionally read daily during Elul and asks us to wait for and be patient with God. I leave you with a much more broad interpretation of the original Hebrew:

Kaveh el adonai, chazak v’ye’a’metz libEcha, v’kaveh el adonai
May we take courage; may we be strong; may our hearts be so filled with love there is no room for anything else! May we see the arising and passing of all conditioned things. May we open to the Unconditioned: The Eternal