Sermon Parshat Vayigash, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
Tonight is the very first Shabbat service in the new sanctuary of our third temporary home for Congregation Beit Simcha, a time for another Shehecheyanu: Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam—shehecheyanu v’kiyimanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh, blessed are you, God, Ruler of the universe, who gives us life, sustains us and brings us to wonderful new beginnings.
Of course, it’s also the first Shabbat of the year, a bright shining beginning to one of my 12 favorite months of the American calendar. Actually, January is particularly high up there since it has the dubious merit of being the month when I celebrate my birthday; not that I particularly like to be reminded of the dubious progress of my advancing years any more, but a special thank you to Harriet Moses for reminding everyone of that fact anyway…
This is also the first Shabbat of the 2020s, a new decade, of course, which I am told people are already calling the Roaring Twenties, after its ancestor decade of a century ago. This seems quite premature and very artificial, since we know nothing about the next ten years ahead of us except that they will begin with the digits 202. Which is the area code for Washington, DC. I have no idea what that means.
It’s all very artificial. That’s appropriate, because all calendaring is quite artificial, in truth. January 1st was no different in any intrinsic way from December 31st or January 2nd, so making January 1st into New Year’s instead of, say, February 1st is simply an arbitrary choice. But Happy Arbitrary New Year doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?
Here’s another odd New Year’s fact. We are not really sure that Jesus was a historical figure at all, but even if he was a historical figure, he very likely wasn’t really born on December 25th. Now, if Jesus had been born on December 25th then January 1st would have been the date of his bris, his ritual circumcision. Perhaps we should have been wishing each other “Happy Jesus’ Bris Day” instead of Happy New Year.
An unusual way to think about New Year’s, no?
Of course, that’s not really the way we think about New Year’s. In fact, the American celebration of New Year’s is odd enough all by itself: dress up in fancy clothes, go out to an expensive dinner or a party, stay up until midnight, drink a lot of booze, especially champagne, watch a large ball descend into Times Square on TV—and then nurse your hangover the next morning watching parades and college bowl games while you think about making new year’s resolutions—such as not to drink as much as you did the night before. A strange start to a new year.
I must note that even the years we mark are established in a similarly arbitrary way. This year is not actually 2020 years from any notable date at all, including the date it supposedly reflects, the year of Jesus’ birth. According to scholars, based on the events in the New Testament itself, if Jesus was a historical figure, he was likely born in the year 6 BC; that is, he was born 6 years before himself. Now that would truly be miraculous! By the way, there is no year zero the way we calculate years. That is, we go from 1 BC to 1 AD with no zero year in our history books and timelines. That’s like going from 1999 to 2001 without the intervening year 2000. So 2020 is actually 2019 years from a non-existent point in time.
There is more oddity. Speaking historically, the people who lived in the first century, 2000 years ago, had no idea they were living in the first century of anything. In those days the calendar was usually dated from the beginning of the current royal house. In Israel, for example, they dated official years from the formal beginning of the Seleucid Empire around 250 BCE, which if it were still true would make this year 2270, instead of 2020. Alternatively, back then in Israel, they used Roman dates, which were based on the Julian calendar, established arbitrarily by Julius Caesar in the year 46 BCE. He made New Year’s January 1st because the month of January was named for Janus, the two-faced Roman pagan god, and Caesar figured that a new years’ day should therefore be two-faced as well—one looking backward and one looking forward. At his orders on Caesar’s Roman legal calendar the consuls, the top Roman officials, changed on January 1st. That became New Year’s for the government, which, then as now, everybody distrusted and more or less hated. And so, for this weird 2000-year-old reason, not the other weird 2000-year-old reason, Jesus’s supposed bris, today we celebrate New Year’s January 1st.
There are other weird New Year’s notes for Jews: the Israeli term for New Year’s night celebrations, “Sylvester,” was the name of the “Saint” and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 C.E. The year before the Council of Nicaea, it was this Sylvester who convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester also thoughtfully arranged for the passage of a host of viciously anti-Semitic legislation. All Catholic “Saints” are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory. December 31st is Saint Sylvester Day - hence celebrations on the night of December 31st are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory, not a guy you would think that Jews would ever celebrate. Especially in a year when the Anti-Semitism he helped promote 1700 years ago is on the rise yet again.
Now as to the randomness of the counting of years, frankly, we Jews aren’t any better. Back in the 1st century we used a calendar that calculated the creation of the world as having taken place 3700 years before that 1st century—that’s why we are in the Jewish year 5780 now. Which means we missed the date of the actual creation of the world by only about 4½ billion years, give or take a hundred million years or so.
I’m reminded of the theme song from the show The Big Bang Theory, sung by the rock group The Barenaked Ladies—that’s their name. It begins, “Our whole universe was in a hot dense state, then 14 billion years ago expansion started; the earth began to cool…” and so on. Perhaps we should be counting our years from the real beginning of everything, the true Breisheet moment of the creation of the universe some 14 billion years ago when God really began everything in that ultimate moment of singularity. That would be the true birthday of the world, Rosh HaShanah, as Jews believe. I’m afraid that writing 14 billion and 20 years the dateline of a check would be a little difficult; you probably couldn’t even include it in a Google or iphone calendar.
In any case, the ikkar, the essential meaning of all this is that this New Year isn’t really the beginning of anything unique, and we are counting 2020 years from, well, nothing real at all. But no matter how arbitrary or strange, what any New Year’s provides is an opportunity to gain perspective, that most elusive and most important quality. For in the dailiness of our lives we become enmeshed in the details of making our own years functional and livable. And taking the opportunity to look backward and ahead, however artificial or forced, can be a very good thing.
So looking backward at 2019, as wonderful a year as it was for our own congregation, a true year of great growth, accomplishment and simcha, real joy, we must note that it was far from the happiest year for Jews overall in recent memory. It was a year in which Israel showed that it’s entirely possible for a democracy to fail to elect a government twice, and we are now watching Israelis prepare to fail again in a couple of months. It was a year when the Prime Minister of Israel was indicted on three different cases of corruption. And, most tellingly and painfully, it was the year in which we Jews realized that violent attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions here in America are not only possible but even likely.
In fact, Jews have lived in and had synagogues in the United States since well before the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The first shul in America was founded in the mid-1600s, and until the fall of 2018 no attack on a temple in the US had ever resulted in a fatality. For all the Anti-Semitism in the world, and the many violent attacks and fatalities that have occurred in places around the globe, from Germany to France to Turkey to India to Israel to Argentina, there had never been a single death from an attack on an American synagogue, ever, in nearly 400 years.
And then, over the past 14 months, we’ve seen multiple attacks on shuls in America, and Jews at prayer have been murdered right here in our own land. This year has witnessed a frightening and rather insane rise in Anti-Semitism in our own nation, fueled on both the right and the left of American politics by irresponsible and hateful people. We have reason to be concerned, and to act with decision and care to counteract this developing disease. And we must do so now, with determination.
And so, particularly for American Jews, 2019 was a difficult, challenging, turbulent year. I am reminded of the Rosh haShanah piyut, the liturgical poetic prayer we sing on the High Holy Days: let the old year and its curses end; let the new year and its blessings begin.
And yet, it was only one year. And the great gift perspective provides is to know that nothing, no matter how challenging, is permanent; that no situation, good or bad, is forever; that there is an arc, a path, a progression to life that goes well beyond the immediate changes and trends. It is the gift of knowing that there are, no matter what the vicissitudes and vagaries of events and fashions, greater values and purposes than the hard things that happen today.
It is knowing that we have, in our hands at any and every moment, the ability to make our lives more beautiful and more sacred, and that those efforts ultimately will mean more than the events that gather all the attention.
Perhaps in this arbitrary New Year period we can all learn a bit from the Jewish way of observing New Year’s, as we did back in September during our wonderful first Rosh HaShanah for Beit Simcha. That is, we can and probably should take the time to examine our past year and look forward to finding ways to atone for our mistakes and to seek greater closeness with those we love and care about. It is a time to dedicate ourselves to those causes that have most meaning to us, to improving our lives and our relationships, to supporting our synagogue, to making our society better and more just. That’s the Jewish way to celebrate a new year, even an arbitrary one like 2020.
If we can do that, then this year and this decade, however artificial, can be a blessing to all of us. And if our congregation continues to do that in this, our new home, we too will bring blessing to the world.
May you be blessed with a pseudo-New Years’ of joy, family, and love. And may you find in your hearts and in your homes shalom v’shalvah, peace and tranquility.