Greetings on the Eve of 5773

Well, here we are again. Another Rosh Hashanah, same old apples and honey, same old (really old!) liturgy, same old feasting, and festing… Same old, same old. Or is it?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we experience time and its cycles. One of the biggest criticisms that the idea of sustainability has of Western economy and society is its linearity: linear thinking and linear ways of doing things. The clearest example is in industrial production, otherwise known as “take, make, waste.” We take all kinds of raw materials, use them up, and bury the waste products somewhere else. Sustainability is about closing the loops, designing products and processes in a ‘cradle to cradle’ fashion.

Nothing is linear in nature, there is no waste – everything is food for some other organism or process. Even our life spans, which seem like a straight line from birth through life to death, are really just a short segment of a much larger arc, as expressed in Gen 3:19: כִּי-עָפָר אַתָּה, וְאֶל-עָפָר תָּשׁוּב- “for you are dust, and you shall return to dust.” Let’s face it: the earth is just one big composter, and we (at least our physical selves) are biodegradable, organic grist for that eternal mill.

But what does that have to do with time? Well, we are often educated to see time as a line, which progresses (an important word) from primitive through to advanced, modern time. To argue whether this is true, in whole or in part, is beyond the scope of this short “blessing,” but suffice to say that there is a problematic psychological or spiritual side to this belief that is so very much a part of us.

There is something terrifying about the inner logic of the seemingly benign view that progress is the gradual and continuous improvement of society. Plainly put: if we believe things are essentially always getting better, then a) there is little of value to be learned from the past, for it is backward and primitive, and b) we don’t have to worry about the future, since it’s going to be even better than this glorious age. Past and future and our connections to them and their residents (our progenitors and progeny) are devalued. Sustainability, as a vision or a goal, becomes irrelevant: Why worry about the future, when the future surely can take care of itself?

Interestingly, Jewish views on time promote a different approach. Instead of dichotomizing the two – linear and cyclical – approaches, we merge them, and create something new.

For instance, on the one hand, with our unique lunar-solar calendar, we are strongly tied into natural cycles: the phases of the moon, the seasons of the year, agricultural milestones.

But those same festivals and holidays invariably have a historical component as well: Pesach signifies Spring as well as the Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot is the festival of first fruits, and commemorates the Giving of the Torah. Even our weekly Shabbat is celebrated as a remembrance of the act of Creation, and the liberation from slavery.

So “Jewish-time”, as it were, integrates a linear, historical perspective, with a cyclical, natural one. The shape of time then is neither an inescapable eternal loop, nor is it a rigid, unidirectional arrow, shot from a divine or human bow. It is more of a spiral. In fact many things in Jewish culture are spirals, if you think about them: tefillin (phylacteries wrapped around the arm), tzitziyot (spiral-wrapped ritual macramé fringes), even our sefer Torah, the scroll of the Torah-is a spiral shape.

Time is a spiral in that it synthesizes the cyclical with the linear. Yes, we are back at this same place – same season coming around again, same High Holidays, with the same tunes – but hopefully, if we’ve used the year well, we are slightly “higher.” Not exactly in the same place. We’ve returned in the cycle, but have worked on ourselves, and in the world, and we have grown, improved, yes, even progressed. That is, if we have worked wisely and well.

This is indeed once again, another beginning, but it’s a new beginning. New chances, new hopes new dreams. Or even if they are the same “old” hopes and dreams, if they were too big to fulfill in one short year, in the year ahead are new chances to fulfill them.

Another key verse (Lamentations 5:21) sums this up this different view of time and progress well: חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם, chadesh yameinu k’kedem, “renew our days as of old.” Kedem, ‘the days of old,’ is related to kodem, “before,” but the same root gives us kadima, “forward” and kidmah, “progress.” But this is a progress that closes the loop, that sees value in timeless wisdom, in the startling newness of ancient truths.

May we all be blessed with just the right synthesis of chadash and kedem, so that next year we can return, and say, yes: hitchadashnu and hitkadamnu, we have spent our year well, in renewing and progressing….

With wishes for a shana tova umekayemet, a good and sustainable year

Jeremy Benstein
Deputy director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability.

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