September 12, 2012
What a year, right?
The Jewish year 5772 started with a sense that a military confrontation with Iran is avoidable. Now it seems — all merits aside — imminent.
The fragile economy, meanwhile, is barely able to handle the turmoil in Greece — imagine how it will react to Armageddon.
Syrians struggle to depose an unelected serial killer, but as with the rest of the Arab world, there is no guarantee the struggle will not end in chaos, more slaughter or a fundamentalist takeover.
What is, perhaps, one of the biggest stories of the year — the record droughts — is bound to drag suffering and turmoil into the next year, or decade, or century. But hey, maybe those folks who don’t believe in climate change can figure out a way to water wheat with belief.
Meanwhile, an endless presidential campaign sucks up every shred of energy, money and focus.
In recent days, we have been pummeled with the political back-and-forth over one question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
The Republicans turned it into their rallying cry. The Democrats first stammered, faltered, came up with a no, a maybe, and then, when Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention, a hoarse-throated yes.
The Republicans thought they had a winner. The Democrats were, typically, playing defense. But, really, isn’t the question all wrong?
The real question we should all be asking is this: “Will you be better off four years from now?
That’s what truly matters. I know that, because it’s the question that hangs in the air during the High Holy Days. It’s the essence of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. We don’t gather in synagogue, beat our breasts and pray to change what already happened. We don’t use the time to ask God to remind us of how much better or worse things are now than they were last year.
We pray for things to be better in the coming year.
The difference between these two questions is the fundamental difference between two ways of looking at the world. It’s the difference between optimism and pessimism.
“Are you better off now?” implies that things will just continue on the same trajectory — or get even worse. The past becomes destiny.
Even if the answer is yes, there lurks the danger of complacency, of not pushing for even better.
“Will you be better off in the future than you are now?” conjures hope. It requires optimism just to ask it. After all, for many generations of Jews, the idea of simply surviving another four years was brazen.
Optimism alone isn’t enough. There has to be, in the current vernacular, a “tool” that enables us to turn the yearning for a better four years, a better future, into a reality. In Judaism, that tool has a name: renewal.
Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the new Jewish year, but its true wisdom is contained in the words we recite from Lamentations on that day: Chadesh yameinu k’kedem — “Renew our days as of old.”
American culture celebrates the new. But Judaism pushes renewal, the essentially human ability to revive what is exhausted, to refresh what is worn out, to make great what was good.
That’s how we make an ancient religion ever relevant. “Are you better off than you were 5,773 years ago?” Of course. But only because we emphasize not regret, but renewal.
The newspaper you hold in your hands is a good example of renewal. David Suissa, our president, and designer Jonathan Fong conceived and created a page-by-page renewal of the tabloid form for the digital age. The Jewish Journal staff worked hard — tirelessly — to bring you this new look for the New Year.
We didn’t ask ourselves, “Is the Jewish Journal better now than it was four years ago?” The question we asked is: How can the Journal be even better in the future? With the first question, you get criticism (trust me, I know). With the second, you get ideas.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book “Telushkinisms,” tells a joke: A group of old men are sitting in a cafe in Tel Aviv, bemoaning the state of the world, wringing their hands, kvetching. One day, one of the men shocks the group by saying, “You know what, I’m an optimist!” They don’t believe him; they think something’s fishy. “Wait a second,” a friend challenges him. “If you’re an optimist, why do you always look so worried?” The man answers: “You think it’s easy being an optimist?”
It doesn’t come naturally for us.
But it’s a virtuous circle: Optimism spurs renewal, which spurs ideas, which spur optimism. We sit in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah — and you should, especially if you weren’t planning to — and are reminded that our job, our very Jewish job, is not to reread the history of our shortcomings, but to turn a new page in the aging book of our lives.
Shanah tovah u’metuka.