The day some of us have been dreading is upon us.
The Mayan calendar (which hasn’t been in widespread use for over 1000 years) is coming to a close. December 21, 2012 – twelve, then twelve backwards, then twelve again (12.21.12) – will be here tomorrow.
The question is: what will the day after bring?
The answer, of course, is the same as it has always been.
“Don’t praise yourself today for tomorrow, because you cannot know to what a day will give birth.” (Proverbs, 27, 1)
Chicken Little Revisited
Predictions of the ensuing end of the world are akin to the fabled Chicken Little crying out ‘the sky is falling’. For untold ages, such rumors have at times arisen to sweep masses of people throughout the world into a frenzy of fear and dread. All sorts of scenarios exist, with similar themes of radical changes in nature, such as earthquakes and hail and brimstone and fire, wars and pestilence and famine and a host of other pretty scary things. Yeah, we’ve all heard that stuff before.
So what can expect to see tomorrow?
Here’s my best guess: everything; and nothing – at the same time.
EVERYTHING – Like every other day since the dawn of humankind on our planet, December 22 2012 will see people being born, and other people dying. People will wake up, go to work, come home, see their families, smile, frown, laugh, cry, make love, and make war. Not too different from just about any other day in history.
And NOTHING – No end of the world. Just a new beginning, like every other day since the beginning of time. No cataclysmic crash of an unforeseen planet into the face of the earth. No volcanoes, no tsunamis, no water shortages, no electricity outages – beyond those that happen somewhere at some time on the face of our little blue and green globe – as part of any day, like any other day.
Sorry to disappoint you, those who place value on the calendar of the Mayans, a people whose civilization reached its zenith some 1100 years ago in what is known today as Mexico.
My apologies for bumming out folks all over the world who stocked up on dried foods, extra water, guns and ammunition, flashlights and batteries and generators and kerosene lamps and all the other ridiculous waste of hard earned currencies. What are you going to do, take it all back to the stores for a refund? Or maybe hold onto all that equipment until the next end-of-world rumors begin floating up into the media, into the consciousness of a world that is waiting for its own catastrophic end?
Orthodox Jews Also Believe in an End Game
Nevertheless, you may be surprised to know that as an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, I will raise my hand faster than anyone to admit that I too believe in the idea of an ‘End Time’. Judaism calls it the“Geulah” – the Redemption, a future period described in the Torah, Prophets and Writings (the ‘Tanach’, a.k.a. the Hebrew Bible).
They describe a time when, in the words of the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah,
“… nations will no longer lift the sword against other nations, and they no longer will learn war.” (Isaiah 2, 4)
(This vision is deeply embedded in the consciousness of Western civilization. Isaiah’s words are engraved over the entrance to the United Nations complex in New York City.)
In addition, a wealth of oral traditions, preserved and transmitted by generations of Talmudic scholars, also talk about the Geulah. However, the Jewish vision, unlike those of other faiths and peoples, likes things slow and easy. The Jerusalem Talmud records a story of two rabbis, making their way past the Arbel mountain stands high just east of the Sea of Galilee:
“Rabbi Hiya the Great and Rabbi Shimon the son of Halafta were walking in the valley of Arbel at daybreak, when they saw the dawn just as its light was breaking forth. Said Rabbi Hiya to Rabbi Shimon: ‘my teacher! Such is the Redemption of Israel. In the beginning, step by step; and as it goes, it gets greater, and continues.’” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate “Blessings”, 1, 1)
Through this story, we see that the Redemption, according to at least one expression of Jewish tradition, is not something that hits us like a brick in the head. Nor is it like a cosmic object smashing into us from the sky. Rather, it is a process, with stages.
The Key Question – WHEN?
There is one question that so far, throughout human history, no one has been able to answer correctly: not any seer, or soothsayer, or shaman, or witch doctor, or medium or anyone else:
When will all this stuff happen?
Note that all attempts to pin down a specific date for things to move into high gear have until this very moment always proven quite false. Though individuals and nations come and go across the stage of history, life has always gone on. Granted, there have been changes and advancements, particularly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution some 200 years ago. But for the most part, one day has not been much different from the day before it.
Why? Why have predictions of the final days of the human race proved to be 100 per cent inaccurate?
The answer is simple. While we may be able to have some sense of a future vastly different from that of our own day, knowing the date and time of the actual arrival of such times, no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, lies squarely outside the realm of human knowledge. Period. End of sentence.
Sorry to disappoint you, O purveyors of ‘holy spirit’ in one form or another. I don’t mean to take the wind out of your sails, those who claim super ‘powers’ and insight into the future.
It’s just that it cannot be.
The Sages of the Talmud, generations of scholars who collected, edited and finally put into writing the massive corpus of Jewish religious tradition, put it this way:
“Said Rabbi Yonatan:
‘May the bones of those who calculate the End blow up, because they say: ‘since the calculated End has arrived, and he (the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel) hasn’t come: he will NEVER come.’” (Babylonian Talmud, 98b).
Rabbi Jonathan is referring to the tremendous disappointment that always comes in the wake of the predictions of great events.
A Brief Survey of Failed End Day Predictions
How often has the world succumbed to the appeal of believing that the end of days is here? Following are a few examples:
- Just prior to his death, Yesh”u the son of Joseph, the seer from Nazareth in the Galilean Hill region of the Land of Israel, promised students and followers that he would return soon to redeem the world. Despite numerous reported sightings, that promise has remained unfulfilled for nearly 2,000 years.
- As the year 1,000 in the Christian calendar approached, people all over Europe were convinced that the world was about to end. One historian described things this way: “Some squandered their substance in riotous living, others bestowed it for the salvation of their souls on churches and convents, bewailing multitudes lay by day and by night about the altars, many looked with terror, yet most with a secret hope, for the conflagration of the earth and the falling of heaven.” (G. L. Burr, “The Year 1000 and the Antecedents of the Crusades”, 1901, American Historical Review, 29:429-439)
As we all know, the new millennium arrived as scheduled, with the first day being little different from the day before it, or the day before the day before it.
- In the year 1666, most of the world’s Jewish communities, from northern Europe to the south of the Arabian Peninsula and everywhere between, became caught up in a great fervor: the long-awaited messiah was said to have arrived, an erratic, kabbalistic rabbi by the name of Shabbatai Zvi. Hordes of Jews sold their property and bought provisions for the long journey to the Holy Land, where the Ingathering of the Exiles as predicted by Biblical prophecy was said to be in full swing. Even non-Jews were caught up in the spirit, and many believed that the end was really approaching.
In order to test of Shabbatai’s self-professed powers, the Sultan of the Ottoman presented the rabble-rousing preacher with a choice – he could either walk across a bed of white-hot burning coals unscathed, since he said that he was the Messiah; or he could convert to Islam and save his hide. He chose the latter. The mass messianic movement in his name imploded, and thousands of Jews were massacred across Europe at the hands of non-Jews whose hopes for redemption were dashed along with those of the Jews.
- The year 1840 brought a wave of expectations about the arrival of the long-awaited Redemption time. When the expected redemption failed to materialize, prominent Jewish residents of Jerusalem went so far as to abandon the faith of the ancestors and leave the Land of Israel.
- Let’s not forget the year 2,000. The night that the clock turned was Friday, and the Orthodox Jews of Israel went to bed without radio, television, or any electronic device to tell us of what actually happened at the stroke of midnight. But when woke up the next morning, the sun rose on a world not significantly different from the one we had gone to sleep in the day before. And on Saturday, as the shadows grew long, the sun set in its regular way, and the stars came out – we rushed to turn on our radios to hear what had happened throughout the world.
Nothing out of the ordinary, of course. A weekend like any other weekend.
What CAN We Do?
So what is left for us to do?
Well, we can hope. And we can pray. And we can still long for that time, that Utopian period promised by the Hebrew Prophets:
“He will swallow up death forever, and God the Lord will wipe away the tear from every face; and he will take the insult of His People away from all the earth; because God has spoken.” (Isaiah 25, 8)
But let’s not hold our breath the next time someone says that such a day is coming by so-and-so a date. May we always be ready to greet the coming day, just as we greeted the day before it.
Then one day, who knows? Perhaps we, together with the rest of the world, will find ourselves pleasantly surprised.