New Year – Old Year

When I was nine, I saved up every penny to fulfill my yearning for an electric train.  Finally, I ran to the hobby store. Arriving home, I set up the circular track.  My little engine, pulling two coaches and a caboose, circled endlessly, repeatedly passing the same wooden station and plastic trees I set up beside my track.

I dreamed of laying out one long straight run so that my train could explore new landscapes.  But one long track would quickly take the train out of my sight.  Neither straight line nor circle was ideal.

What a metaphor for life!  Making each year merely a dreary replica of last year is as dissatisfying as constantly seeking the new and novel.

When my birthday comes around again, am I just returning to the same station on the track where I found myself a year ago?  That can be depressing.

Conversely, when I sit down with my family for a Thanksgiving Dinner, am I at a station totally unrelated to the happy family dinner I was at last Thanksgiving?  That is also rather depressing.  So which is life, a circle or a straight line?

Ancient Jewish wisdom offers two powerful principles to help us answer this question.

The first principle advises that the best way to envision our lives is as a spiral.   When a birthday, Thanksgiving or anniversary comes around, we are indeed in the same station that we visited twelve months ago. However we are one floor up.  We annually travel up a spiral and so, as we look at the level below us, we may be at the same event, but we can point to achievements during the past twelve months.

The second principle advises us never to view ourselves as actually finishing the circle.

For instance, on the Jewish holyday Simchat Torah, the final portion of the Pentateuch is read.  Once the closing words of Deuteronomy “…all the great and awesome deeds which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” are read, we do not close the scroll and pat ourselves on the back.  No, we immediately roll the scroll back to the beginning and continue reading the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.”

These ideas are neatly revealed when we study the Hebrew word for conclusion – SiYUM.

ס י ו ם

Reading from right to left, the word comprises four letters: SaMeCH (סמך), YuD (יוד), VaV (וו), and MeM (ממ).

Remarkably, these are the only four letters in the Hebrew alphabet whose “hidden” name equals the numerical value of their visible names.

What do I mean? Well, if English worked like this, we might find that the letter J’s full name was Jay. The J would be the visible part and the ‘ay” would be the hidden part. In addition, each letter would have a specified numerical value.

This is exactly how Hebrew works. So, the first letter, SaMeCh, has a visible letter part, the ‘S’ sound, whose numerical value is 60.  The hidden components of that letter are M and CH. Their numerical values, respectively, are 40 and 20, which also add up to 60.  The same concept is true for each of the remaining three letters of the Hebrew word SiYUM that means conclusion, but not true for any other letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

This teaches us that just when we are sure that we have concluded something, a closer examination will reveal that there is at least an equal amount yet to learn or to do.

For instance, I might have a wonderful marriage but that is not the end.  Recognizing that I have a good marriage reminds me that I must constantly work at it.  It can never be placed in a “finished” pile.  The same holds true for my work, my relationships, and my finances.

Look back and see that you are not in exactly the same place you were a year ago.  Now look forward and see that you have much more work ahead of you.  A gift of being alive is to never be done.

18 thoughts on “New Year – Old Year”

  1. Dear Rabbi: I’m not certain exactly how, but in 2016 I ‘tripped upon’ you, perhaps surfing channels or hit an inadvertent link on YouTube. In any case, I’m so glad it happened. I have especially enjoyed your lectures on the moral case for capitalism, and your ‘pairing’ of high ethics with good business. Here is wishing you a most fruitful 2017. And, of course, thank you.

    1. Hello Wes–
      So very happy that you did indeed ‘trip’ over me. For more on the dignity and morality of business see my two books Thou Shall Prosper-The 10 Commandments for Making Money and Business Secrets from the Bible Nobody who believes that making money is evil or even morally neutral can ever really reach his full potential economically

  2. Thank you Ann,
    so kind of you. I work very hard on keeping Thought Tools solid and substantive while also short enough for a quick read. Have you ever tried my podcast? It’s also easy listening here:
    Wishing you a healthy and prosperous new year. (the ‘happy’ bit is up to us, isn’t it?)

  3. Your Thought Tools never cease to bless me and open my eyes and mind to deeper truth. Thank you for always sharing your wisdom. I wish you and your family a truly blessed and prosperous new year.

    1. Hi Ann:

      I had happened to capture the following comment by our dear Rabbi Lapin when reading the comment thread to another (fairly recent) 2016 Thought Tool and thought you might find it refreshingly insightful:

      ““Just a reminder, I wish it was my wisdom but I am nothing but a window into the transcendent wisdom of Scripture through the lens of ancient Jewish wisdom.” – Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      p.s., if you haven’t yet read Rabbi Lapins’s book titled Buried Treasure, may I suggest that you have truly wonderful treat awaiting you as you travel the ever-upward spiral of your life.

      1. Thank you Peter–
        You are always such a blessing to me. I pray you and M have a new year of health and prosperity. With your constant attention to how you might do someone a favor, the latter, prosperity, is almost guaranteed.

  4. Thank you for your blessing Kathy–
    But don’t regret missing Hebrew school. Over 99.6% of those who attended Hebrew school report horrid memories that in many cases turned them away from God for decades. It is widely accepted among most Jews that Hebrew school was a dismal disaster which is why it exists in so few communities today.
    I think you did just fine.
    Wishing you a healthy and prosperous new year

  5. i was in your first “learning Hebrew class” several years ago. i so value your lessons and wisdom. i have always said that my only regret in life was not to go with my Jewish friends to Hebrew school every Tuesday! But being a gentile, i doubt if they would have let me attend. Thank you Rabbi and may Jehovah bless you and keep you.

  6. The image of a spiral versus a straight line, inspires me! Its likened to DNA pattern, as of yesterday my husband and I celebrated our 32nd rung up the spiral of Holy Matrimony, wedded bliss and full time ministry! Thank you Rabbi and happy new spiral year!

    1. Congratulations to you both Sherry–
      and thanks for your good wishes, round and round and up and up we all go….
      Blessings for a healthy and prosperous new year

    1. Thank you, Robert, for being there to receive it. Giving, whether Christmas/Chanukah presents or love or wisdom is always a blessing. But it’s a blessing utterly dependent on the presence of a recipient and upon his or her eagerness to receive.
      Have a healthy and prosperous New Year

  7. I notice the letter shapes in SiYUM also resemble its meaning. Both first and last letters are circular. The final MeM is ‘grounded’ at bottom than the beginning letter SaMeCH. The same is true for Yud, shorter in length than Vav. I believe there to be more also. Remove the last letters of the hidden values of the two longest words, the CHeT and DaLeT, and you are left with the letters that spell SiYUM. I found CHeT and Dalet together form the word CHaD, referring to one. Is there any connection of this word to ECHaD in the SHMa ? (excuse any Hebrew misspelling please) Thank you Rabbi Lapin, you are a blessing.

    1. Dear Maria–
      You work almost as hard reading Thought Tools as I do writing them! Well done. Not sure where you found a CHeT though? Longest words? Didn’t follow. But never mind–in gaining Biblical insight the effort does count.
      Best wishes for a healthy and prosperous new year (The ‘happy’ bit is up to us, right?)
      PS: Hope you hear my regular podcast here:

    1. Dear Mary–
      With no disrespect intended to the previous letter writer, John, my father always said “thank you for everything” is the same as no thank you at all. One should detail what exactly what one appreciates just as you have done.
      Wishing you a healthy and prosperous new year

    1. Appreciate your appreciation John, it’s a blessing to be valued. You’ve inspired me to go and express my appreciation to my family who value me.
      Healthy and prosperous new year

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