Thoughts on 5777, and on Jerusalem

Sometimes it gets confusing, living on so many calendars.

The Jewish calendar tells us that a new year — 5777 — has just started; perhaps counterintuitively, it begins in the fall, when life bursts in spectacular color before going dormant for months.

The political calendar tells us that we are not quite two months from the end of the four-year cycle that will culminate in our electing a new president, should we survive this toxic season.

The secular year, of course, will begin again on January 1, as the frozen ground (should climate change allow the ground to continue to freeze) seems to mock our certain knowledge that crocus will be up in about six weeks, all pale hopeful pastel.

And, of course, there are the other new years on the Jewish calendar. It’s very confusing! But of all of them, this is the one where the most things turn around and turn around and start again.

So let’s focus on the new Jewish year.

For some ballast, let’s think about Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, the new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

It’s about Jerusalem, the place that’s at the center of our liturgy and our collective memory. Jerusalem, a place of light so intense that it allows you to see more than perhaps you want to see, and makes it difficult to hide. Jerusalem, a place where the most devout followers of many religions, including but not limited to Haredi Judaism, walk around in layers of clothing that made sense in other places in one specific season — Rome, say, or Poland, or the Central Asian steppes, all in winter — but seem ill-suited for the middle eastern sun. Jerusalem, a place that’s known to drive some people crazy, to make them believe themselves to be grander than they are, and eventually to hear voices no one else can hear.

Jerusalem has been the center of many people’s most sacred stories for millennia, although in none of them is it as central and as potent than in ours. We are a profoundly urban people — think of how often the word “city” occurs in our liturgy — so it makes sense that we might have come from the desert, but our yearnings are for a city.

“Jerusalem” at the Met reminds us that there always have been other people around us, and we’ve always had to come to some kind of understanding with them. When things are good, when we’re lucky, we all see each other as fellow human beings. When that can’t happen, when we don’t, or when strong, well-armed outside forces — say, Crusaders, bands of zealots and true believers and psychopaths out for adventure — we lose. Bloodily and badly.

But the period the Met is showcasing ended more than 700 years ago, and we’re still here. We’re still in Jerusalem, and we are all over the world. We have survived, and we’ve managed to overcome and even in many cases in many places to thrive.

This new year, as we survey the dangers our world continues to throw our way (and this isn’t being paranoid. The world throws dangers at everyone!) and try to overcome them, as we soldier through the rest of the presidential campaign and hope that common sense and decency prevail, and we prepare for the winter that we know is coming and prepare for the spring that will follow, let’s pray for a good year. For a better year.

And as we go through the confessions of Yom Kippur, may we pay attention to the dangers of angry, brutalizing speech, and of the danger of lies. We have to learn not to tell them, and also not to believe them. We often are guilty of complacency; it is human to want to do what’s easy, to be beguiled by spectacle, to be flattered by skin-deep understanding, to be seduced into believing whatever it is we want to believe.

We can’t do that.

May we not only refrain from telling lies ourselves, may we learn to open our eyes, cleanse our hearts, clear our ears, and see and hear and understand what’s true. May we understand and look beyond our blinders.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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