I always bring a complicated set of emotions to the end of the secular year. On the one hand, it's not our reckoning. Try as we may to hope that the use of C.E. instead of A.D. catches on (and it actually has caught on in many different settings,) the bottom line is that the system, no matter what we call it, is based on the putative year of Jesus' birth and nothing else. So there's a weird sense that comes from buying too heavily into the whole concept of celebrating the new year on the first of January for many of us. On the other, the practice of counting the years according to the Christian era is so widespread that it is almost impossible to imagine any alternative ever catching on....and, in the end, we too use those years in the same way everybody else does. Indeed, although some of us can say what the Jewish year of our birth was and some of us can't, none of us doesn't know the specific secular year in which we were born. (I heard that! But, regretfully, denying it isn't the same as not knowing it.) And the end of the secular year, coming, as it does, when the days are the shortest and the landscape the most barren, brings its own complex set of emotions to bear.
I'm personally way past thinking about Christmas one way or the other. It's weird that it's a federal holiday in a republic that prides itself on separating church and state, but, in the end, it's just what it is and no more: someone else's yontif to nod to without embracing, and, at least for most of us, a day off from work. But as the end of the year approaches, New Year's Day is more than someone else's holiday to me.
As the year grows to an end, I find myself thinking about my life, and about my career and my family, in a way that is similar to, but also different from, the way Rosh Hashanah awakens a similar, but not precisely identical, set of emotions in me. On the High Holidays, I find myself wrapped up in considering my life from the vantage point of morality, ethics and personal piety. I ask myself the hard questions about my faith, about my fidelity to the laws of the Torah, about the degree to which I have embraced internally the values I spend so much of my public time preaching to other people. I know that many of you ask yourselves the same or analogous questions. But as the end of December approaches, I find a different set of emotions coming over me, and, concomitantly, a different set of questions. How could I be this age? How could it be this year? Is it really more than forty years since my bar-mitzvah? That would be just shy of 500 months...but how can so many of them be basically unaccounted for, unrecalled, unrecorded. How can it be all the old clichés are true: that time really does fly, that your children really do grow up in an instant, that the same years that seem endless when stretched out in front of you feel, once they're behind you, as though they passed by in the twinkling of an eye?
I don't feel chagrinned to have these thoughts as the year draws to a close. Perhaps it's the short days and the long nights, or perhaps it’s the foul weather that makes even the simplest chores taxing and irritating. Or maybe it's simply the experience of watching from the outside as our countrymen engage in their annual frenzy of gift-buying and -giving that prompts these feelings of mortality and ill ease. Whatever...I know it will all pass. And I think that, on some level, I'll be the better for having encountered these thoughts, for having worked through them as best I can, for having laid them to rest for at least another year. I wonder if I'm alone in feeling this way at this time of the year. I doubt it...but I'm not entirely sure. I suppose you could tell me if you know just what I mean!
In the meantime, I don't write to depress, and I really don't wish to sound morose. Just the opposite, really: I wish you all very happy, productive, creative and healthy new years. May the coming year bring all of us a deep sense of purposefulness and renewed commitment to our ideals, and to the ideals of our faith. And, as the days now begin to lengthen and the world prepares to be reborn, may we all be possessed of a deep sense of gratitude for all we have...and for the insight to learn something even in unlikely contexts, in the contemplation of other people's holidays, and in the numbering of years that both is and isn't part of who we are and how we see the world. (December 28, 2007)