Progressively Speaking: How should Progressive Jews greet the start of a secular year?

Progressively Speaking: How should Progressive Jews greet the start of a secular year?

Rabbi Pete Tobias gives a progressive Jewish view on a topical issue

The start of a secular year offers an opportunity to consider how we humans have sought to impose our own structures on the machinations of the universe.

The year 2017 (a date based on the presumed birth year of a Middle Eastern child) ended on 31 December (the name of the month and the number of days in it established by Julius Caesar more than 2,000 years ago) at midnight (an arbitrary moment when one day is deemed to have ended and the next begins).

At that point, reached in different parts of the globe at different times, human society moved into 2018 as a new day, a new month and a new year began. The universe did not even notice.

Compare that to our Jewish calendar. The new year arrives not at some random point in the middle of winter, but at the time when summer turns to autumn.

The last day of Elul and the first of Tishri do not fall at the whim of some ancient ruler. They are denoted by the appearance of the new moon.

And the new day, month and year do not begin at some artificial moment in the middle of the night, but as the sun sets.

To be sure, the universe does not notice this either, but those who observe this calendar are more in tune with that universe and nature around them.

Our ancestors observed how, at this time of the year, the sun was lower in the sky, and rose later and set earlier each day.

Darkness increased and, in the ancient mind, there lodged the fear that the sun might disappear, never to return.

Once they discovered fire, human beings used light to keep the darkness at bay, imagining, perhaps, that they were sending messages to an invisible force beyond the sky, pleading for the light to return.

We are fortunate. We have computers and the scientific knowledge to tell us that, although we cannot yet perceive it, the days are already growing lighter.

But, like our ancestors, we still surround ourselves with lights to make us feel safe in the dark.

As all our self-made boundaries are reached, and we pass inexorably into the year we shall call 2018, may the increase in daylight bring renewed hope to us and our troubled planet.

Rabbi Pete Tobias is rabbi of The Liberal Synagogue, Elstree 

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