Over the High Holy Days, we pass through the threshold of the new year, not only in fact but in focus. During the month of Elul, last of the old year, we focus on the year past, examining our own behavior and character during the year coming to an end, and asking forgiveness of our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, et cetera, for any witting or unwitting offense we may have committed on them during the year. Over the Ten Days of Repentance themselves, we stand in the doorway, continuing (in fact, reaching the apex of) looking back at behaviors, habits, and attitudes we hope to change, but also explicitly looking forward in our hopes for a sweet, happy, and healthy new year of personal growth built on our month-plus of introspection.
The holiday season closes with Sukkot (with its bedfellows Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah), which does have a somewhat vague historical connection (to the temporary dwellings of our ancestors between the Exodus and the conquest of the Holy Land – but did they really live in Sukkot? The Torah itself speaks of tents!). But the focus of Sukkot is forward-looking, with the prayer for rain in the new year, the beginning of a new year of Torah reading cycle, and a thick layer of messianic anticipation buried just under the surface. Sukkot is also the holiday of joy (זמן שמחתינו), which is suggestive of the optimism we should always have toward our future.
The outgoing year, 5781, has been a difficult one for all of us as it has been a year swallowed whole by pandemic and isolation. For some in our community, the year has included loss of loved ones – some to COVID-19, some to other causes. My family has suffered both: my brother-in-law’s father to COVID, my father to effects of his Parkinson’s Disease. Many of the long-foretold consequences of climate change appear to have struck home during the past year, with floods, droughts, and wildfires among the natural disasters in the United States and around the world which can be reasonably attributed to the impact of global warming and climate change. Together with a war in Israel over the summer, an unflattering end to two decades of American involvement in Afghanistan, America’s first failure at peaceful transfer of power in its history, and COVID itself, the climatic disasters assure that 5781 will be remembered as a plague year in most every sense.
Nevertheless, this terrible year has presented us with opportunities to learn and grow as individuals, communities, and nations. I think that for many of us, the isolation of the COVID pandemic has helped sharpen our understanding of what we truly value in life. Hopefully, on a larger scale, the pandemic teaches everyone the very Jewish lesson that we are not only responsible for ourselves, but for our impact on all those around us. To quote one of many Jewish sources on the subject: אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו אימתי? – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14; a saying of the great sage Hillel the Elder).
Climate disasters teach the same lesson in a more distant lens, but also teach us more directly that if we, as a species, don’t respect the Earth, then the Earth will show us no respect either. תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי, שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך – “Give care that you not spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it, no one will afterward repair it for you.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13; God speaking to Adam, the first human.)
Unsatisfying wars teach us not that war and military force are not sometimes necessary, but that there are limits to what war and military force can accomplish, especially if we hope to conduct military operations while remaining a civilized society. One could say this lesson is a running theme of the entire Book of Judges, but to express it at a quotable length: ויאמר יעקב אל שמעון ואל לוי עכרתם אתי להבאישני
בישב הארץ… ואני מתי מספר ונאספו עלי והכוני ונשמדתי אני וביתי – “Jacob said to Simeon and Levi [regarding their sacking the town of Shechem], ‘You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land… I am few in number, so if they unite to attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.’” (Gen. 34:30)
Regarding the (U.S.) election and its aftermath, I quote Midrash Ruth Rabbah 3:2 – אמר ליה אוסיף לי חד יומא, אמר ליה לא. אמר ליה למה? אמר ליה ארכי של בנך דוחקת, דאמר רבי שמעון בר אבא בשם רבי יוחנן ארכיות ארכיות הן, ואין אחד מהן נכנס לתוך ארכי של חבירו אפילו כמלא נימא. – “[King David] said to [God], ‘Add one day to my life.’ [God] answered him, ‘No.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because your son’s time in office presses.’ It is as Rabbi Shimon said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, the terms of office are the terms of office (i.e., as decreed by God) and one term may not intrude on another’s term by even so much as a hair.” (Don’t feel bad if you struggled to follow the Hebrew. It’s not Hebrew; it’s Aramaic.)
To paraphrase Paul McCartney and John Lennon, I hope the next year will get better… (Couldn’t get much worse!) More specifically, I hope that not only we as individual Jews and Jewish communities, but also the nations of the world and our various leaders will take the lessons of this annus horribilis to heart, using the unfortunately harsh lessons of the outgoing year to make ourselves and our world better in the new year and for the years to come.
לשנה טובה נכתב ונחתם כלנו!
May each of us, and all of us together, be inscribed and sealed for a good year!