Secular it is, but …

New Year’s Eve 2022

“Secular it is,” were the words which often began the last Bulletin column in December by my Rabbi during my teenage years, Charles Akiba Annes, of blessed memory, “but I wish all of you fulfillment, joy and meaning in the New Year.”

His point was that for Jews the real New Year, Rosh Hashanah, occurred sometime in September, but that the beginning of a new secular year could also have significance.

Rosh Hashanah begins a period of intense self -scrutiny culminating ten days later, on Yom Kippur. During that time our tradition implores us to engage in serious soul-searching with an eye toward improving ourselves in the New Year.

For me, Rabbi Annes’ message and the arrival of the new secular year spark a question:

 “That Rosh Hashanah stuff, how are you doing with that?”

In our weekly Torah reading we transitioned from the Book of Genesis with its “happily ever after,” ending to the beginning of Exodus, the story of our enslavement and suffering.

In the first weekly portion in Exodus, God encounters Moses in a Burning Bush, and charts Moses’ course for the remainder of his life. After encountering God so directly, Moses is no longer content to be a shepherd in Midian.  He accepts God’s commission to return to Egypt and lead our people from slavery to freedom.

Our Sages comment that a burning bush is not such an unusual sight in the desert. Only a person of great sensitivity and insight would take time to notice that although the bush was burning, the flames did not consume it.  Only one such as Moses could have seen a life-changing message in that bush.

I think we all encounter “burning bushes” from time to time.  Will we see the potential in them for us to add purpose and significance tour lives as Moses did, or will we, like most people do, just pass them by?

This past week we began to read of the titanic struggle between God and Pharaoh over the fate of our ancestors in Egypt.

Did it really happen?  That is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate, but the “Truth” (capital T) of the story lies not in its historicity or lack thereof. It lies in the message we take away that can improve our lives.

To truly understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war between gods. On one side we have Pharaoh worshipped by building pyramids and other monuments to his glory.  If he needs slaves to build them, that is fine.  If taskmasters beat the slaves to make them work harder, that is OK too.  If the slave population grew too numerous, well, the simple solution is to throw their infant boys into the Nile to drown and be eaten by the crocodiles.

On the other side there is the one true God. We worship our God by studying Torah to learn more about the meaning of life and by performing acts of kindness and compassion. Our God is especially concerned with the disadvantaged elements in society, the poor, the elderly, the bereaved, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

These two conflicting gods with their totally opposite values systems imply could not coexist, and so in the Book of Exodus, they go to war with each other.  It is a hard and bitter battle, but our God wins, so we go forth from slavery to freedom.

But how does this story relate to my life in 2022?

Remember that Cherokee legend I have told you about the two wolves?  “A grandfather taught his granddaughter: ‘Two wolves battle inside each of us.  One is good, caring and kind, but the other is selfish, mean and greedy.’

‘Which one wins?’ The granddaughter asked.

‘The one you feed,’ her grandfather replied.”

Let’s put that legend in a Jewish context.  Pharaoh and the one true God battle within each of us.  Pharaoh exerts a strong pull encouraging us to “look out for number one,” and acquire as many material goods as possible.  If that means exploiting and hurting other people, that’s OK.  If that means paying those who work for us skinflint wages, that’s fine too, just so long as we get ours.

And did you notice how in the Torah after God sent frogs to cover the land of Egypt Pharaoh’s sorcerers did the same.  That symbolizes the self-destructive behavior we so often engage in.

But, hopefully, God’s influence on us is stronger than Pharaoh’s. Hopefully, we are moved by God’s instruction to try each day to be more just, caring and compassionate – to clothe the poor, feed the hungry, house the homeless and pay special need to society’s disadvantaged, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

Over the years, many have asked me: “Why didn’t God simply soften Pharoah’s heart so that he would let the Israelites go the first time Moses approached him?  Why was the struggle so protracted that it took ten plagues and untold suffering and loss of life before Pharaoh relented?

Because the Torah is like real life.

In real life tyrants do not willingly and easily give up their power.  And in real life we simply cannot wish our internal struggles, conflicts and evil inclinations away.  We must battle against them constantly, and those battles will not be easy.

So, what we have is not just an ancient story whose historicity scholars sharply debate. We have a metaphor for the forces that try to influence our lives. As the struggle in Exodus indicates, Pharaoh’s pull is strong, but as God promised Cain at the very beginning of Genesis, “You can rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7).

January 1, then, is like a booster shot for me.  It reminds me that I can control my base inclinations and be a better person than I was before. It is a good time to ask myself:

Have I become any kinder, more understanding, less judgmental, as I vowed I would try to be on Yom Kippur? Have I done anything to make someone’s life richer and more fulfilling?

Perhaps, but I can do better.

“Secular it is,” Rabbi Annes used to write, but the new calendar year can be a time to revisit our hopes and ideals.  Will we sleepwalk through our lives, or will we look each day for the unconsumed burning bush that can ignite in our soul the resolve to make a positive difference in our world?

2 thoughts on “Secular it is, but …

  1. The good, caring, and kind person will win over me who is selfish, mean, and greedy. We work to be the best version of ourselves, to be more kind compassionate and just each day.
    Thank you Rabbi, for this important biblical teaching.

    Liked by 1 person

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