Question Marks for the New Year (1st eve of Rosh HaShanah, 5782 / 2021)

Question Marks for the New Year 

(1st eve of Rosh HaShanah, 5782 / 2021)

Let me tell you about the song I can’t get out of my head today as we begin the new year 5782.  Noting that it is, after all, the ‘80s:   years ago, back in the 1980s, there was a minor Israeli hit pop song that began with the words כל שנה מתחילה בסימן שאלה kol shanah mat’hilah be-siman she’elah, ‘every year begins with a question mark.’  but it rhymes in Hebrew. 

Now there’s nothing earth-shattering about this insight.  Obviously we begin the new year with a question mark, because we begin the new year with uncertainty about the future. That has been a theme of new years since ancient times. Even the image of the book of life that is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur affirms that we’re preoccupied at this time of year with uncertainty about what the coming year will bring.  New years always fill us with uncertainty, and that is probably what the writers of this Israeli pop song from the 1980s had in mind. 

However:  I have a sense, and maybe you agree, that we are experiencing the new year beginning with a question mark in an entirely different way.  Emblematic of this year was the experience that many of us in Hoboken had last Wednesday night.  I wonder if you had this experience:  at 9.15pm seeing an emergency announcement from the National Weather Service that said:  “A Flash Flood Emergency has been issued for Metro New York City.  This is a PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION. SEEK HIGHER GROUND NOW!”

And then 3 minutes later at 9.18pm, receiving an emergency text: “National Weather Service has issued a Tornado warning until 9:30pm tonight. Take shelter now in a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building.”

And you’re thinking:  I know I have had a crash course in risk management over this last 18 months - I’m constantly calculating and comparing the probabilities to help me decide: should I go to the store, should I visit my relatives, should I send kids to school, should I get yet another Covid test, and should it be PCR or antigen -- but even after 18 months of statistical training,  how I am supposed to figure this one out?  Do I seek higher ground, or do I go to the basement?   

Or I think of the following exchange that I actually had with my high school age daughter in February, which I share with you basically verbatim, with her permission.  She said, at one point this past February: “This Saturday night, can I go out in the city with my friends?” 

I said: “Go out to dinner with your friends?  Of course not!”

And she said:  “No, not to dinner.  We just want to go axe throwing at this place in Brooklyn. But you have to sign a waiver for me.”

And I said:  “Oh, axe throwing, no problem.  So long as there’s no indoor dining involved.”

Maybe  you wouldn’t have made the decision that way, but I know not all of you would have made the decision that way, but I think you’ll agree that it wasn’t an irrational way of calculating the risks.


This may be how our experience of 2021 is different from 2020:  In 2020 we knew, or we thought we knew, what it meant to be careful and what it meant to be foolhardy. And in 2021 we’re reminded that so much is unknown, and it’s simply impossible to be adequately careful about everything that could be risky.  Hopefully we’re all doing our best to balance different kinds of risks and make wise decisions even knowing that there’s no way to simply avoid the risk. 

A colleague of mine, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, in London, has noted that in Jewish tradition, we actually do begin our new year with a question mark -- in more than one way. 

First, he notes that, with a little bit of imagination, the shofar is shaped like a question mark. 

And maybe more to the point:  the shofar differs from almost any other musical instrument. Strike a key of the piano, or pluck a string of a guitar, and you know pretty well what sound is going to come out. But even for the very best shofar blower, there is at least a little bit of uncertainty. Pianos, guitars, trumpets, are all made to careful technological specifications, while the shofar retains some of the wildness and unpredictability of its natural materials.  And that makes the shofar a quite good metaphor image for a new year that is full of uncertainty, not only in that we don’t know what will happen this year, 

But in that the one thing we can predict about this year is that we’ll be spending a lot of time this year juggling uncertainties, and making decisions with insufficient information.

For example:  Even 1 month ago, our plans for these High Holy Day services looked very very different, and much closer to normal.  And now we have reduced capacity, masks, and uploads of vaccination cards.  

Are we making the right decisions in all cases?  We’re doing the best we can.  We can honestly say that if there is something about our Covid policies for these high holidays that you would have done differently - you are in good company with every single person in this room and on this Zoom.  No one knows our own personal risk tolerance the way we each do, which means no one’s risk profile looks exactly like our own. And the stakes, in the decisions we’re making every day, are terrifyingly high. Hopefully we can make the decisions that are right for us and also be patient with those whose risk profiles are different from our own. 

And maybe we can take some comfort in knowing that we are not the first to deal with the challenges of living in such an uncertain environment - especially at a time when it feels like the world as we had previously known it, the world of carefree large gatherings, no longer exists, but whatever world is coming next is not really here yet. As we sit here with one foot in 5781 and one foot in 5782, we may also feel like we’re standing in a doorway between the pre-pandemic world and the post-pandemic world.

What guidance can Jewish tradition give us as we start a year with such a profound question mark? 

First, we can take comfort in Jewish tradition affirming that confidence in decision-making, and humility, are not opposites. One of the qualities of a righteous person, as defined by Moses Maimonides, is someone who does not waffle when making a decision, someone about whom you could say  אוֹמֵר עַל לָאו לָאו וְעַל הֵן הֵן.  -- When that person says no, it’s a real no, and when that person says yes, it’s a real yes. But this can coexist with a sense that we often cannot know what decision is objectively correct. 

Centuries earlier, in Pirkei Avot,  Hillel the Elder presents two apparently contradictory teachings, one right after another: - If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?” In other words, when making a decision you should prioritize your own needs, but you should not only prioritize your own needs.  And should this advice sound unclear, Hillel goes on to add a third clause to this advice: ואם לא עכשו אימתי -- and if not now, when? -- As if to say: whatever unresolved tensions there are in the first two clauses, know that you don’t have the luxury to take all day to figure them out.  If not now, when? Sometimes you just have to make a decision now. 

One of the tragic stories in the Talmud concerns a rabbi named Zecharia ben Abkulas who led the Jewish community at a time of significant conflict between the Roman Empire and the Jewish community of Jerusalem.  We often tell his sad story on the fast day of Tisha B’Av.  When faced with a difficult dilemma with no easy answer, Rabbi Zecharia responded by refusing to make any active decision, so concerned that he would make the wrong choice. But later sages point out that his hesitatance and reluctance to make and then to own a hard decision actually led directly to the Roman Empire destroying the city of Jerusalem and destroying the Temple.  The consequences of his decision paralysis were arguably even worse than the consequences would have been if Rabbi Zecharia had decisively made any choice, even the wrong choice. 

I find it helpful to note that our ancestors’s feelings about uncertainty make up a good percentage of the contents of the torah.  You know that ⅘ of the torah takes place in a span of just 40 years - it’s the 40 years of wandering in the desert - and the people of Israel basically spend that time complaining non-stop. We usually explain that their complaining is related to their general immaturity and obnoxiousness.  But there’s another approach, which is to see their complaining as a symptom of their anxiety at being at a time of transition.  They have left behind the oppression of slavery - which while extraordianily unpleasant, was at least predictable.  Suddenly they are thrust into freedom in the desert.  You would think they would be overjoyed -- and they do sing songs of victory -- but very quickly they revert to complaining.  On several occasions they actually speak wistfully of Egypt, and on a few occasions they actually turn around and head back towards Egypt. 

Perhaps the simplest explanation for our ancestors’ behavior is that they  craved certainty and stability - just as we often do -- and as we do, they complained when they didn’t have it.  Our ancestors knew they were leaving a time of stability, and eventually a new time of stability would emerge, but the current moment was a time of transition from one stable condition to another. And these transitions make everyone uncomfortable. 

Anthropologists including Arnold van Gennep and most famously, Victor Turner, have used a particular term to refer to the kinds of moments of transition that seemed to give our ancestors such anxiety - and maybe to us as well. These are moments of liminality -- following the Latin word for a doorway. These are times in our lives when we find ourselves walking through a doorway without a clear sense of what will greet us on the other side. Such liminal moments hold promise and the excitement of new possibilities -- and also they are necessarily times of uncertainty, times when we leave behind what we have become accustomed to.

Think about any Jewish life cycle ritual - it probably takes place at a liminal moment when someone is at the doorway between two stages of being. Two individuals becoming a couple. A child growing towards adulthood. A new person coming into the world, and a person leaving the world.  Maybe it’s obvious to say: we ritualize these moments of transition, these times when someone’s walking through a metaphorical doorway from one stage of life to another, at least in part because these moments always include uncertainty and anxiety. 

And it may be that our Jewish tradition of putting a Mezuzah on the doorpost is a ritual that helps us to feel protected at this moment of instability when we walk through a doorway from one state to another. 

The anthropologists who study liminal moments in cultures around the world notice that, first of all, everybody is a little afraid of these moments, which are times of anxiety and uncertainty and even of danger.  And yet, at the same time,  these liminal moments are also so often the times of maximum creativity and growth.  Certainly that is true of the 40 years of wandering in the desert which was the time when our ancestors became forged as a people.  So often, our most valuable achievements and most valuable insights take place at these critical junctures of uncertainty. 

Franciscan father and author Richard Rohr describes liminal moments in this way (quoted by Susan Beaumont):    “All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. ….  Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…... This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room.”

Our year begins with a question mark - as every year does, but this year even more so. As we pray for the best possible outcomes for our family and friends and community, and our nation and our world, we also note that we’re standing in a doorway - from year to year, and from one way of being in the world to another that is unknown.We ask God and each other to be patient with us, to recognize and soothe our discomfort, to guide us to make wise decisions even without all the information we wish we had, and to help us to fully appreciate this liminal moment and approach it with all the creativity that it demands and deserves.  In the words of an Israeli pop song from the 1980s - כל שנה מתחילה בסימן שאלה -- Every year begins with a question mark -  ואנחנו נמצא לה תשובה -- Together may we identify its answer.  Shanah Tovah!


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