It's that time again – retrospectives on the secular year now ending, Top 10 lists, New Years resolutions, new calendars, the Baby New Year myth become childhood cartoon, renewed diets and gym routines perhaps soon forgotten, the Rose Bowl parade, maybe a hangover or two.
Among the social values of New Years is a sense of renewal – new chances, turning new leaves. As we turn the page from 2015 to 2016, it just so happens that the secular and Jewish spiritual coincide. This week we also turn to a new book of Torah (Exodus / Shemot), a portion of the same name, and with it a new chapter in Jewish spiritual history. Generations have passed and the ancient Israelites have become numerous since we left the adventures of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jaccob, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers who forayed down to Egypt. The story now picks up many years later. But much as the secular New Year begins with a retrospective, so too this new Jewish chapter: we begin by looking back to the names of those who came before (Ex. 1:1-5), to remember their history from which this new chapter emerges. As the familiar adage goes, we can know where going only if we know where we've been.
Now a new story starts, and what a start it is: Moses and the burning bush, and even God reveals a new name, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (Ex.3:14) – not Cecil B. DeMille's mistranslation of "I am that I am" but more accurately "I will be what I will be." In this new start, even God's "name" leans forward to a future of perpetual change and renewal. Whatever our spiritual forebears understood the God of Genesis to be, the God of Exodus promises to keep revealing anew.
Whether that's actually so in our own lives depends on where we look and how we see – whether we look backwards only to the past, or whether we also look forward to the future faithful to the past but not shackled to it. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l famously taught that nobody drives looking only in the rearview mirror: so too our spirituality must connect backwards but also lean forward toward a future we've never lived before. A spirituality that only returns us to where we've been and how we've felt, that only rehearses history by rote, ultimately leads nowhere except around in circles. The calling of Exodus, the calling of God's "name" we encounter in this week's portion, and the whole cultural ideal of the new year, evoke this drive toward real renewal – recommitting to the inner journey, taking new chances, forging new paths. That's how we can make everything old new again.
So as we turn from December to January and from Genesis to Exodus, let's resolve to make renewal real for ourselves and those we love – to truly renew in body, heart, mind and spirit. Happy New Year.
R' David Evan Markus