How is Judaisma’s Relationship with Time Unique?
As we enter 2019, it is notable that, Jewishly, we continue with the year 5779 in the Jewish calendar, which marked the change in years on Rosh Hashanah. We celebrate a New Year very differently, Jewishly, than we do with the Gregorian calendar, given the secular tendency to leave the old behind and welcome the new, while with Rosh Hashanah, we embark on the New Year with a close study of and reflection on the year that was.
Beyond this vivid difference between forgetting the old vs. remembering it, and studying it closely, as lessons to absorb for making the coming year better, Judaism focuses on time and our relationship to it in a unique way. While western society moves in a linear fashion from year to year into the unknown as we set goals or resolutions and strive to meet them, Jewishly, we are grounded in time as a mystery; we do not presume to know or anticipate outcomes as we schedule goals to achieve them. Instead, we live with uncertainty accompanied by an acceptance of Covenant with HaShem.
It all began with promises of greatness to the Ancestors, particularly assurances to Abraham that he and his people would settle in the land that God showed him, Canaan…Israel. What is paradoxical is that despite God’s promises and assurances of our future in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, we have found ourselves throughout Jewish history more outside the land than dwelling in it. The fact that the restoration of Israel in our own time is in its 70th year is beyond remarkable; it is miraculous…a reminder that David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister was guided by the principle that in Israel, to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles!
Jewish relationship with time is paradoxical in that from the moment God showed Moses the night sky on the eve of the first of Nisan marking Jewish liberation from Egypt and an exchange of calendars, from one generated by Pharaoh’s schedule to one presented by God, we have been dedicated to making each moment of time Holy, i.e. Kadosh. We have been tasked with focusing our efforts on partnering with God to make the world Kadosh in pursuit of the day and era when all humankind lives in the state of Shalom, where all parts and groups fit respectfully into the transcendent whole.
In our Covenantal system we have been taught to live with uncertainty and an inability to predict outcomes. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches in his drash observing the close of the story of the family of the Ancestors as presented in the book of Genesis, we enter a transition from the safety of an Egypt that honored Joseph to a change in circumstances generated by the rise of a Pharaoh who did not “know”, i.e. remember or feel any special relationship with, Joseph. Our fate was turned from being treated as honored guests to becoming considerable threats to be handled cleverly. Accordingly we entered hundreds of years of enslavement.
So, our Covenant, which has been our framework for understanding time and living our journeys, did not bring certainty or security in terms of predicting the outcome God promised our Ancestors. As Rabbi Sacks indicated in his teaching, when a prediction comes true it is considered to be a success; when prophesy comes true it is considered to be a failure. Prophetic warnings of a dire future were efforts to induce us to change our ways and thereby our presumed destiny. Our security does not reside in predicting the outcome; it is grounded in the assurance that no matter how difficult conditions may be or become, we still have our partnership with God; it reminds us in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, that while we are not obliged to finish the task, neither are we free to abandon it.
Entering 2019 it is tempting to throw out the calendar and start over with hopes that this year we might get “it” right and lead our world back to the safe haven of calm, wellbeing and prospects of world peace. Jewishly, we are taught to keep studying the lessons of the past and see what we can do to strengthen the partnership with HaShem, i.e. with each other, in continuing to learn how to work with one another in pursuing goals that will make the world safer than it is at this time, whether in terms of how nations are behaving or how it is going with the weather that continues to stir concerns about our planet’s hospitality for human life and for all of life.
Throughout the Torah we have moments shared by HaShem with promises of a good, healthy and blessed future, amidst stories of ongoing obstacles, challenges and overwhelming conditions that seem to keep that era of Shalom far in the future. Regardless, we are to be unflagging in our commitment to partnership with God and our understanding that with such light shining the way, we will remain steadfast in the partnership and the possibilities it offers for all of us participating in redeeming our world.
May the promise of 2019 be vouchsafed by the work we continue to dedicate ourselves to doing, in the continuation of 5779, to bring our world closer to the Age of Shalom for which we all yearn.