Monday, March 01, 1999
Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am, Williamsville, NY
OK, I've finally had enough. When such a venerable institution of 'higher "journalism (yeah, right) such as the New York Times gets involved in repeating ''The Mistake of the Century," it's gone too far. The wrong train has left the station, and it's not coming back.
On the front page of today's paper, in tiny little letters, appear the advertised words: “312 Days to Go! The New York Times Magazine Millennium Countdown.”
So, here's the problem can't anyone count anymore?
We read in the Bible: "so teach us to number our days... that we may attain a heart of wisdom" Although, it's not actually the number of days that I have a problem with. Well, yes it is. If you are going to do a countdown to the millennium, as of this writing, Monday, February 22, 1999, there are clearly 678 days left to the new millennium of the Christian calendar. (That's if my counting is correct: 312 remaining days this year... and the 366 days in the leap year of 2000.) For the new millennium dawns on January 1, 2001.
How do we know this? Because: Hello!!! There was no year zero (O)! We went from 1 BCE (what Christians call BC) to 1. CE (common era, what Christians call AD) [AD, of course, stands for ''The Year of Our Lord," not "After Death," as many people assume it does... if it was the latter, how would you count the 33 years or so that Jesus was said to have lived? Like you count a minyan -- ''year not one, year not two," etc.?] And, simple counting, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 makes one set... and the NEW set begins with 11 (or 2001, as the case may be).
Why dive into these waters at all? After all, it hardly seems a Jewish issue. First of all, there is some doubt as to the accuracy of the dates in the first place. Historians note that there was an adjustment made centuries ago, and the real millennium may have been in 1996. Secondly, the tum of the page to all those zeroes will be the occasion not only for computer anxiety about the Y2K bug, but all kinds of (presumably) crazy sectarian speculation about the end of the world. The whole subject seems like, well, it's not good for the Jews.
But there is a more basic point to be made here and a Jewish one as well. Because: even using the Christian calendar as our common dating system there was no year 0! And, frankly, zero counts. Or, to put it another way, nothing matters!
The invention (discovery?) or the zero by the Arabs or their predecessors revolutionized mathematics. It allowed progress to be made in many fields of scientific endeavor. They learned, and they taught, that nothing matters.
But, in a different way, we Jews got there first. Not in math. But in life.
For it is precisely the premise that nothing matters that is the heart of our observance of the weekly Shabbat.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of the Shabbat as a "sanctuary in time," a day of an armistice in our economic struggle. The beautiful words he wrote in a small little booklet called ''The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modem Man" have always been a source of inspiration to me, a vision of what Shabbat could be if I only let it. A time to reset our inner clock, to start over, to unravel in a place "outside" of ordinary time, a time admiring the view on a beautiful beach, before diving back in to the churning, choppy dangerous waters of the week. Shabbat is much more than "down" time; it is, literally, ''time out." Real time, and no time, at the same time.
A paradox. Unique, and yet not, since we are a people of paradox, who live in and somehow beyond history itself And we are the ones who stood at Sinai and, in hearing the Voice of the One with no vocal chords, surely, clearly, we heard the so told ... of the silent Aleph.
[Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet... a consonant that is silent unless it has a vowel underneath it. It is the first letter of the first word of the first of the Ten Commandments, and that is the sound we were said to have heard at Sinai]
The richest meaning is foretold in the pregnant pause. The voice of God. The sound of silence. The time out of time.
The mystery and the paradox.
And it is all because... nothing matters. It really does.