Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's Day

It’s always interesting to me how completely different the secular New Year’s holiday and Rosh Hashanah feel.

Rosh Hashanah, for one thing, is so much more about the inner self, about regretting the indiscretions and misdeeds of the past and resolving to do better in the future, about the conflict between being self-guided individuals who are—I just saw and enjoyed immensely Invictus with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon—the masters of their fates and the captains of their souls and owning up to the sometimes grim, always sobering, implications of that same thought.

New Year’s Day, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that way at all. It’s not about the inner self as much as about accomplishments yet unaccomplished, about goals as yet unattained, about failing to live up to one’s own self-expectations. In our American culture, New Year’s resolutions are generally about lamenting all those things still left undone in our lives. They’re about weight not yet lost (or, to speak personally, re-lost), about novels not yet written, about foreign languages not yet mastered. New Year’s Day is about promotions at work still unearned, about great cities still unvisited, about dreams that languish unrealized, about golf or bowling scores still real only in the realm of self-flattering fantasy.

Rosh Hashanah is “how could I be my age and still so flawed, still so enslaved to my own baser inclinations, so little able to chart my own destiny?” New Year’s Day is “how can I still not have started those piano lessons, still have not found the time for that crucial second appointment with the trainer at the gym, still not have told my boss how I really feel about him or her and about this job?” Rosh Hashanah is about the heart within. New Year’s Day is about the world without. I actually find both experiences productive in terms of thinking about my life and about my future, just in slightly different ways.

Is it strange for a rabbi to admit to finding meaning, even pleasurable meaning, in the advent of a new secular year? The beginning of January, after all, doesn’t mean anything in our tradition. And even the alternate opinion voiced in the Talmud regarding the date on which the universe was created supports a date in early spring not in mid-winter. (The debate itself pits the first of Tishrei—the date of Rosh Hashanah—against the first of Nisan, the day the Bible itself calls the first day of the first month.) Still, our tradition does indeed nod to the concept of there being a government-sponsored new year that isn’t Rosh Hashanah: the Mishnah specifically makes reference to the “royal new year,” a date something like what moderns would call the secular new year. (It’s also interesting to note that it falls on the first of Nisan, the “alternate” creation date mentioned above.) So why shouldn’t I find some meaning where meaning seems to me to be findable? And, speaking honestly, don’t most of us take note of the passing years of our lives far more meaningfully in terms of the secular calendar than in terms of the Jewish one? Before answering, ask yourself what the Jewish year of your birth was and try to answer without running for a calendar or figuring it out with a pencil and paper. I thought so! (Even I had to think for a second before concluding that I was born in 5713.)

I find myself approaching the coming year wearing all my hats at once and looking forward to lots of different things. As a husband, I’m looking forward, please God, to celebrating my 30thwedding anniversary next December. As a dad, I’m looking forward to watching Emil, my younger son, march in his college graduation in May. As a rabbi, I’m looking forward to completing my eighth year of service to my congregation and embarking on a ninth. And as an author I’m looking forward to putting the finishing touches on The Observant Life, a behemoth of a book by myself and thirty-two other rabbis that’s been in the works now for more years than I care to admit to in public. As a reader, I’m looking forward to finishing the last of Kenzaburo Oe’s novels and telling you all about what I’ve found there and want to share—some other time—with my own readers.

But there’s also the larger picture that New Year’s Day inspires me for some reason to consider differently than does Rosh Hashanah. Do things change? It sounds like a bit of a klutz-kasha, the kind of thing undergraduates debate after a few beers. But it’s also the kind of question that actually does bear some occasional consideration even from the non-inebriated and long since graduated…and New Year’s Day is the perfect moment to have at it. Again.

The honest answer is that they do and they don’t. A few weeks ago, I quoted the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus to my readers and specifically the passage in which he famously summed up his worldview in two Greek words, panta rei, meaning that everything is in a constant state of flux, that nothing stays, nothing remains, that you can’t step into the same river twice because the water is constantly flowing, constantly moving towards you and away from you…and never returns and therefore cannot pass again between your feet even if you think that you are stepping into that “same” stream you stepped into a day or a week (or a lifetime) ago. I’ve always liked that thought. If I remember correctly (and, of course, I do) I quoted it from the bimah of the Park Avenue Synagogue on the day of my rabbinical ordination during a torrential downpour which added, if not profundity, then at least a lot of flowing water to the larger picture for the assembled to contemplate as they headed back out into the street with the philosopher’s words still ringing in their ears.

And yet…you can’t step into the same stream twice? Can’t you? With all due respect to the Greek, if the same you goes hiking along the same mountain trail you wandered a year earlier and that same you finds the same stream flowing in the same place, then why exactly is it that you can’t step into it a second time? So the water is different water…so what? Doesn’t context count for anything? If I were to sneak into your home tonight while you’re asleep, find your wallet, remove twelve one-dollar bills and replace them with twelve different one-dollar bills, wouldn’t you still have twelve dollars? The water is new water, but your feet are still going to be just as wet. The bills are different bills, but you haven't really been robbed. Content and context are different things…and that’s why New Year’s Day has some meaning in my life. Because although you can’t live the same day twice, you can still lose twenty pounds and keep them off. Because although you can’t be seventeen again, you can still learn Italian well enough to ask for directions in Rome or Milan. Because although you can’t now have gone to a different college from the one you actually did go to, you can still find the time for that third trip to the gym each week instead of constantly whining about being too busy to go. In other words, Heraclitus was right and he was also wrong. Right, obviously, because you clearly cannot get your feet wet a second time with the same water even if you are standing in the same place in the same stream at the same time of day. But also wrong…because, speaking honestly, why in the world would anyone care if the water cooling his or her feet on an unbearably hot summer’s day was the same water that cooled them a year earlier or different water? How could you even tell? And even if you could somehow tell…why would it possibly matter? Your feet, no less wet and no less cool than they would be even if you somehow could step in the same stream twice, your feet certainly would not care. And, speaking honestly, if your feet wouldn’t care, so why should you?

Somewhere in the warp and woof of those ideas is the part about New Year’s Day that I like. Rosh Hashanah is about the moral underpinnings that must be set right if we are to evolve into ever-finer iterations of ourselves as we grow older. But New Year’s Day is about doing more than being, about remembering that we inhabit the world of dust and mud just as really as we do the world of ideas, about understanding that for all our lives are characterized by the endless struggle between the appeal of doing good and the allure of corruption and sin, we can still will ourselves to keep our New Year’s resolutions. We don’t have to smoke. We don’t have to overeat. We don’t have to succumb to every bad idea that pops into our heads as though it would be an act of hypocrisy and moral self-betrayal not to do so. We can understand the cosmic value of teshuvah and the truly unending struggle it represents between the finer and baser elements of the human soul…and still go to the gym more often.

2010 doesn’t mean much to me as a number and whatever it does mean is rooted in the mythological understructure of someone else’s religion. So what? 5770 isn’t that much better, although it does have the advantage of being rooted in our own mythology as opposed to someone else’s. Still, what’s in a number? The bottom line is that whatever prompts us to notice the passage of time…and to respond to the inexorable flow of moments that characterizes our lives from cradle to grave not by wallowing in introspective dithering but simply by resolving to do some specific thing differently and better…whatever prompts us to act in such a productive, positive way with respect to our own lives and futures does not deserve to be condemned merely because it arrived on our calendars from beyond the outer reaches of our private Jewish zodiac. Sometimes, the best things come from outside our own cultural sphere, after all. Think egg rolls. And baseball. And opera. And, yes, New Year’s Day.

I wish you all a very happy New Year. May it bring us all the resolve to do better, to reach higher, and to strive to weave the values we already hold dear into the fabric of our fragile, brief lives. That’s an idea I can endorse, wherever the origin of the stream that brought it to us.

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