Is there anything new under the sun? Ecclesiastes thought not. “One generation goes and another comes, but the earth remains the same forever.” But Ecclesiastes was jaded, cynical, skeptical, and misanthropic to boot.
Judaism, by contrast, insists that the proper answer to, “What’s new?” is not, “Same old, same old,” but, “This morning I awakened to a brand new day.”
It is particularly worth waking up to this Shabbat, because it is also the new moon (Rosh Chodesh). The American calendar ignores the moon, hardly noticing its waxing and waning. Judaism, however, follows it closely, convinced of the fresh beginning that each new month may bring.
On each new moon, medieval Jews in the Land of Israel prayed, “May Elijah the prophet come quickly; may King Messiah sprout up in our days; may joy increase!” They cited Isaiah 65:17, where God promises “a new heaven and earth, when the former things will be forgotten” — a prophecy composed in the wake of the war that brought Babylonian exile. Imagine a beginning so new that the traumatic nightmares of the past can virtually disappear. Nothing new under the sun? Hardly!
That glorious time has yet to arrive, however (there is a reason why we call relief from our worst memories “messianic”). So we settle for a dress rehearsal in the form of the new moon, a time at least to practice putting bitter memories on hold while summoning up the courage to hope for better times ahead. Elijah the prophet may not “come quickly;” the Messiah may not “sprout up in our days”; but “joy may increase.”
Not all months are equal in their capacity to spread such joy, however, because calendars are not empty envelopes of time where one day is as good as the next. Much as we like to imagine (with poet William Ernest Henley) “I am the master of my fate: I am captain of my soul,” our moods, at least, are captive to a calendar that influences the spirit of the moment.
In the American calendar, for example, Thanksgiving feasts are altogether different from July 4th fireworks. Jewish time too varies in perspective. High Holidays bring serious introspection, while Passover demands Seder celebration. The opportunity to find joy as each new month unfolds depends, in part, on which new month it is, and on the feeling-tone that the month in question brings.
This month, fortunately, is Adar, the month of Purim deliverance from Haman, and, therefore, in Jewish lore, a month of inherent joy. Better still, this is a Jewish leap year: a time when we add an entire extra month into the calendar. We could have added any month, but leave it to Jews to choose another Adar: a chance to double our joy! So we get two Adars this year, each one promising relief from oppressive memories and hope for better times.
If you doubt that the flow of calendric time makes a difference, just try ignoring Christmas or pretending January 1 is not the American new year. By contrast, open yourself to the rhythm of Jewish time, and see what happens.
Don’t get me wrong. All mental and physical pain will not magically disappear the minute the new moon appears. The hard truth is we cannot control sickness and misfortune. But we can control some of our reaction to it all, and Rosh Chodesh is the time to reexamine the way we face reality.
This Rosh Chodesh Adar, try saying your own silent prayer for Elijah; for the messiah, even; and certainly for joy. We do not know when the fullness of Isaiah’s promises will be realized. That, says Rashi, is known only to God. The simpler matter of insisting on joy, however, is at least partially dependent on us.
Was last month the worst you ever had? Take heart. Use this Rosh Chodesh Adar to find some unexpected happiness.