Before I post it, with only a few hours left in 2013, here's hoping for a sweet (secular) New Year filled with wonder, hope, the promise of new beginnings, blessings, health and joy. Or, to quote Counting Crows, maybe this year will be better than the last.
So I’m glad to see that we all made it through the end of the world. That Mayan calendar, grist for so many apocalyptic and humorous mills, has turned out to be, in fact, nothing to worry about. We’re still here, the aliens didn’t show up, and I still have to pay off my college loans. I wish I could say it was all one big joke, but between survivalists in Russia going bonkers, a school district in Michigan closing, and both NASA and NOAA having to post online guides about how the world was not, in fact, going to be hit by a rogue planet or asteroid, self-destruct, be swallowed by the sun, or slip off its axis, and at least one online dating company using it as fodder for an ad seemingly to encourage their users to have one last meaningless hook-up, well, it seems like quite a few people went a little nuts.
This is not, of course, the first time we’ve seen such apocalyptic nuttiness. We survived Y2K, the Heaven’s Gate cult committing suicide to ride the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997, various fundamentalists’ predictions of self-destruction, and more than a few Christian ‘scholars’ talking about the book of Revelations or some other silliness on the History Channel.
Where does all this come from? Some of it is the anxiety of our age: much like Godzilla gave voice to the fear of an Atomic War in the 1950s and zombie movies reflected in the ecological and political crises of the 1970s, these brushes with Eschatology—the collapse of civilization—all reflect the angst of the moment. Books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or many of the current slate of television shows, or the films Melancholia and 2012, imagine a world self-immolating, and that speaks as much about our fears of real environmental and societal upheaval as a real belief that some big rock that looks like an Oreo may predict our doom.
But some of it is also a very non-Jewish notion of how we experience the world. We heard it in the words President Obama used at the memorial service in Newtown CT: God has called his children home . For so many religious people—this world is a place of pain to be schlepped through, then escaped. The goal is to leave this world and achieve the peace and happiness that only comes to us when we shuffle off our mortal coil. If we achieve anything in this world or do anything just or kind, it is in the hopes of earning eternal reward of some variety. Judaism is unique among all the religions in that our goal is not the world to come. Or rather, it’s not our priority. Our priority is this world. Any given day may be our last day on this world; nevertheless we are obligated to live each life responsive to our sacred obligations and to those created in the divine image. Or, to paraphrase Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, we are not trying to escape this world to reach God, we’re trying to bring God to our world, to infuse our world with holiness. This idea is best summed up by the words of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, Hillel’s student: “If you are planting a tree and you hear that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.”
I can’t think of two more radically different ways of seeing the world. One as a place filled with pain and those barely capable of doing the right thing without the prospect of eternal reward or punishment over the horizon. The other a place described by God as “tov”, good, and filled with those who might be partners in creation and revelation, if we would just heed God’s voice.
This week in the parasha, Jacob, having come at last to Egypt to see his lost son Joseph, is introduced by his son to Pharaoh. It is a strange scene: Pharaoh asks “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, “It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning. A really true human being does not live years, but days…. Thus Pharaoh, too, says here: "How many are the days of the years of your life?" And in putting the question "How old are you?" in these words, he reveals the deep impression the dignified behavior of Jacob has made on him.” There is no doubt that our world is troubled, but if we saw each day as full of importance and meaning, if we planted more trees, and spent our time accordingly, l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai, repairing the world for God’s sovereignty, perhaps we’d be less worried about zombies, or monsters, or aliens or asteroids or calendars that look like cookies. Kein Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.