If you are reading this after Friday, December 21, 2012, it means you survived the Mayan Apocalypse!! Congratulations!!
For those who are unaware of the existence of the Big Day, the Mayan Long Count calendar, an extremely lengthy and complex calendar, began on a mythical creation date in 3114 BCE. After 5125 years, the calendar—which is linear rather than cyclical—reaches the end of 13 “B’aktun” cycles. This end date happened to be Dec. 21, 2012.
For many, this has become a catalyst for end of world theories. 12% of Americans believe the apocalypse will come on Dec. 21. Others are using the date as a source for non-Mayan apocalyptic beliefs. Some new Age/UFO followers are flocking to France to make sure they are on the last spaceship to leave earth.
So what ought to be the Jewish response to all this apocalyptic furor? Oddly enough, I think it should be the same as the Mayans’ approach. For, despite all the hoopla in the media, the Maya themselves did not see December 21, 2012 as the end of the world but merely as the end of a cycle; like a car’s odometer, the calendar simply resets to zero and starts over again. Judaism, too, holds a reluctant attitude towards apocalyptic thought. “Apocalypse” is typically defined as a literary work containing a revelation of hidden things given by God to a chosen individual about events to come. The only apocalyptic work to make it into the Hebrew Bible is the Book of Daniel. Other works, such as the Book of Enoch, Assumption of Moses, II Esdras (also 4 Ezra), Apocalypse of Baruch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Apocalypse of Moses, amongst others, never made it into the canon. Indeed, apocalyptic thought has been relegated to the background of normative Jewish thought over the past 2000 years.
The reason for this, I believe, speaks volumes about the way we perceive the world around us. Apocalyptic thought is based on the premise that the world we are living in is awful and irredeemable in its current form; that we need a cataclysmic divine intervention to redeem the world and take us to the end of days. Rabbinic Judaism, however, by and large has privileged a “this-worldly” view; while the world to come (olam ha’ba) is an important component of rabbinic theology, engaging in mitzvot in the present tense is prioritized.
In other words, our lives matter. In contrast to apocalyptic thought, which can lead either to depression about the hopelessness of the world we live in or hedonistic practices since this life does not really count, Judaism teaches that our daily lives hold the potential for meaning and even holiness if we choose to honor them in this way. So on December 21, and on all succeeding days, let’s join with the Maya in celebrating life rather than death. Let’s make the most of each day rather than anxiously awaiting a mythic tomorrow.