Is this a good way to face a new year?

Is this a good way to face a new year?

No, it is not.

There are no doubt some wonderful things going on. New babies continue to be born, impossibly tiny big-eyed bundles of pure love; teenagers fall in googly-eyed love; enraptured young people stand under the chuppah together and then their friends dance around them; students graduate with honors and ideas and hope and exciting, preposterously titled jobs; people strike up friendships that last lifetimes and hold memories and are an undervalued but real source of love.

Sunrise, sunset, orange and gold and red and purple, and all that. And the ocean thunders, too.

But oh this year that we are leaving has been a horror, and it seems naïve to think that the looming 2024 will be any better.

I find myself wondering, though, what it was like to live through other historical eras. If we lived thousands of years ago, all but the youngest of us most likely would be dead by now. Lifespans then weren’t what they are now, with disease and pestilence and starvation and the odd roaming lion, not to mention the savages from one tribe over.

And what was it like to live through longtime wars? The Eighty Years War, say, or the Wars of the Roses? You’d be safe most of the time — but then there were all those other times.

What was it like to be an American during the Civil War, or the unsettled decades that led up to it? Would you, an average citizen — probably not Jewish, because to be Jewish then would be to deviate even further from the norm than now — know what was going on? You’d know there was trouble, but it would come to you late. So would its resolution. Would you know, say, that Lincoln had been assassinated? Or that Lee had surrendered to Grant? We do know that the new federal holiday Juneteenth is named after the day that enslaved Texans learned that they were free, two full months after they had been liberated.

Now, of course, the internet and social media see to it that we know about terrible things seconds after they happen. In fact, given the misinformation that comes from partisan media, often we hear about terrible things before they happen, or despite their never happening at all.

All this just means that history is never an easy thing to live through. We’re coming out of a relatively easy period, and now we’re facing instability — at least an attempt to reorder the world’s balance as we have known it for decades, to oversimplify ludicrously, but why not? — weaponized by social media and AI.

But this isn’t the first terrible period we’ve lived through, as Jews or as Americans or just plain as people.

I often think of the 13th-century piyyut called Ahot Ketanah, the Little Sister; it’s a Sephardic poem sung at Rosh Hashanah. The melody, as my rabbi sings it, is beautiful and haunting. I think that it can be relevant for the turn of any year, Jewish or secular.

It starts by listing some of the year’s calamities. Please, God, cure her illness, the singer beseeches on her little sister’s behalf. Until when will your eyes be averted, it asks. When will you remove her from the pit of exile? “May the year and its curses come to an end!” it demands.

And then, at the last verse, there is a change.

“Be strong and rejoice/And you shall ascend to Zion

“And He shall declare:/“Clear! Clear! Her paths.”

“May the New Year and its blessings begin!”

This is a secular new year. We are not ascending to Zion, although we pray for Zion’s victory and recovery. But we do hope that the new year brings blessings, and that they begin soon.

It’s not likely, but it’s not impossible, and some year it will happen. We hope against hope that it will be this year.


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