Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that fall is the time people make their most serious changes. In other words, September is the new January . September catalyzes small changes in how we live, what we buy and what goals we set. "Families put routines back in place, enforce bedtimes and pack lunches. People clear clutter out and vow to plan and cook healthy meals." The fall is apparently the most popular time to make weddings - who knew? It is also when gym memberships spike, Weight Watcher memberships jump, grocery store sales rise and skincare product sales bump.
So tell us something we didn't know. For Jews, the fall has always been our reflection time, and it wouldn't be the first time, our people have set the trend. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies'" (Lev. 23:2-3) Rashi, on 23:2, states that the verse is written this way to stress the discipline of placing oneself in such a calendar: "Regulate the festive seasons in such a manner that all of Israel becomes practiced in them." The idea of calling or proclaiming special days obligates people to make a conscious attempt to sanctify time, to be in touch with seasonal changes and to create regular occasions for celebration.
Bible scholar Baruch Levine stresses that by emphasizing all the Israelites, the verses demanding our observance of holidays, democratizes the process. Holidays are not only for priests. They are for all of us and must be proclaimed by us all. He also points to the act of partnership that is intended in this chapter: "The dates of the festivals and the regularity of a Sabbath every seventh day were set by God, and yet the Israelites are also commanded to proclaim them as sacred. These two acts are not contradictory, but, rather, complementary. The sanctity of the Sabbath and festivals is not achieved by God's act alone. It requires a combination of divine and human action."
In the same chapter, we have special verses to designate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur:
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Say to the Israelites: 'On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of Sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.' The Lord said to Moses, "The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God..." (Lev. 23:23-29).
"You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a day of Sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your Sabbath" (Lev. 23:31-32).
The baseline of both days is the Sabbath, in terms of not working and making it a day of rest. Then the special rituals that make the days unique are listed and discussed at much greater length in the Talmud. These days will always fall out in the fall, making the crisp change of air a signal to transition.
The Wall Street Journal pointed to this time of the year as a period of self-improvement (or at least the beginning of self-improvement projects) but never explained why. Maybe the weather has a lot to do with it. In the middle of winter when many resolutions are made and broken, it can be hard to have the discipline when fighting the cold to go to the gym or stay off the carbs or take on a new hobby. The summer can create the kind of lethargy and vacation mentality that also gets in the way of discipline. But in the fall, we may feel a need to improve on the failings of the hotter months, and the change of climate helps strengthen our resolve to change. It changes, and we change.
Revisiting the Jewish calendar each year gives us the anchor and stable base of time and ritual upon which to create a platform for our most important innovation project: ourselves. What will you be changing?