Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
What’s new? No, not the colloquial “What’s up?” but rather “What’s new in your life?”
Like a Russian matryoshka doll, this question contains other questions that telescope toward a central core: “How well do I notice my life?” “How do I make new in my life?” “Can anything really be new?” “Why does any of this matter?” “What really matters?”
Good questions. Glad you asked.
These questions always are important, especially when life feels stale. In my native Northeast U.S., February winter feels old and weary. We’ve entered an in-between time – after winter’s harshest cold but before spring warmth, after Groundhog Day but before the thaw, after the Super Bowl but before pitchers and catchers report.
Last week’s Tu Bishvat reminds us that we’re on the cusp of new. It’s time for new. Perhaps you can feel the impulse of new arising even now. If you don’t feel this impulse of renewal right now, no worries: there’s a Judaism for that, too.
All of this renews our question: what’s new, anyway?
Jewish tradition seems schizophrenic about whether anything really is new. The Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), mystically attributed to King Solomon, imagines that “What happens is only what happened; what occurred is only what occurred; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). When something seems new, really it “first happened long ago” but “earlier times are not remembered” (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11).
Maybe Kohelet was a cynic. Maybe to Kohelet nothing could be new because we live in a “Groundhog Day” movie world of existential repetition. Like Phil Connors (movie hero of “Groundhog Day”), Kohelet tried a “live for now” hedonism and existentialism for a life that seemed to lack ultimate meaning beyond the day to day of this life. In ceasing the search for any meaning beyond now, Kohelet found that (s)he had achieved wisdom.
Or maybe Kohelet imagined that only God can create new. Holding that all of Creation already is created, it follows that anything we are, dream, think, say, do and create is at best a second-best human reprise, finding in Creation something always there but hiding in wait for us. Compared to God, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
But Jewish thought about “what’s new?” doesn’t end with Kohelet, and “Groundhog Day” didn’t end with hedonism and existentialism. Phil of “Groundhog Day” sought new meaning precisely amidst his life’s seeming staleness. So too spring, so too new love, so too new jobs, so too new attitudes, so too new everything.
This is the way of our world. Jewish morning liturgy proclaims, Ham’chadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh v’reishit: “From God’s goodness, God always renews the work of creation each day.” If so, then Creation is ongoing and everything is potentially made new anew. Understood this way, the only true cycle is the cycle of renewal.
Rav Kook – Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), first chief rabbi of Israel – famously taught, Ha-yashan yitchadesh v’ha-chadash yitkadesh: “The old will be renewed and the new will be made holy.” Rav Kook understood that “what’s new” is not an objective metric of attribution but an attitude that itself can transform and sanctify. Put this way, Kohelet had it wrong.
Renewal is not nostalgia. Renewal is an ethic, an active partnership with the Sacred unfolding and renewing each moment and in each moment. Renewal dares us to know – not with fatalism but with an empowering joy – that new is possible, even inevitable. Renewal dares us to know – not with certainty but with a comforting openness – that we don’t know and can’t know what form renewal will take. And if we don’t see it, then we’re not seeing right – or we’re not seeing yet.
But look again. If your life feels stale, if you ask “what’s new” and nothing comes to mind, dare to think again. Imagine an inner vision that can see tree sap rise long before leaves unfurl. Seeing is believing – and believing is seeing.
What’s new? Everything.