March 22, 2012
How do we “number our days?“ How old am I?
If we focus on looking behind us, I am 39 years old today (i.e. I have completed 39 years) — according to the Gregorian (solar) calendar. My Hebrew (luni-solar) birthday was 10 days ago, the 18th of Adar. I didn’t remember to mark it!
If we focus on where we’re headed, I am “beginning my 40th year” today. The Chinese do it that way, don’t they? While not for personal age, Jewish counting often works this way, too. The sabbatical year and jubilee (in the Torah) are for the 7th and 50th year (respectively), and a baby boy is brought into the covenant through circumcision once he has begun his 8th day, i.e. 7 days after he was born (not after the completion of 8 days). So, too, our counting of years for our calendar (whether it’s 2,012 years or 5,772 years) is predicated on assigning the first number (Year 1) to the very beginning of the entire counting, not at the completion of the first year — which is why new decades, centuries, and millennia begin after completing the year with the zero in it. Remember all those “naysayers” who insisted that the millennial celebration should be at the end of the Year 2000 in anticipation of January 1, 2001? Well, their logic only works if the celebration is about the completion of a unit, as opposed to entering the final year of a unit — as is done with the sabbatical and jubilee (entering the 7th or 50th year).
Is one way more western and the other more eastern? Is one approach more concerned with completed results, conservatively or pragmatically choosing to “cash in” on what’s already been stored away — while the other is more concerned with a dynamic process, ambitiously and daringly looking ahead to that which is not yet completed? Is one the result of a Greco-Roman, closed, left-brain, scientific approach while the other is a result of an eastern, right-brain, open-ended approach that emphasizes looser integration into porous clusters of meaning?
Some Jewish customs work in what we might call the “western” way. The age of “adulthood” comes at the completion of 13 years (and a day) for boys (12 and a day traditionally for girls) and there are plenty of Torah-based laws that involve the age of fruits, livestock, and people. Are those ages always based on the number of years already completed? If so, it seems our tradition has elements of both approaches, even before being influenced by the Greco-Roman West.
So, is it more Jewish (or more sacred) to look at what part of the journey we’re embarking on rather than what part of it we’ve completed? Is one way more positive or optimistic and the other more negative or pessimistic? Or is it about pragmatic versus hopeful? Or some other polarity of approaches to encountering reality?
Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Bill Cosby is attributed with answering,
“It depends on whether you’re pouring or drinking.”
As we “number our days to attain a heart of wisdom” we have the opportunity to ask ourselves what we are doing. Are we pouring or drinking? Some of both, surely — but which are we doing more? Giving and serving or taking and consuming? Stripping away the already guaranteed portion from the cup of our lives, clenching what’s already there out of fear of it falling out of our grasp? Or adding more possibility to a mysterious cup of potentially overflowing bounty, not knowing — or even worrying about — when we will stop pouring, when (or if) the cup will run over? To borrow images from Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Sages) 2:11, are we like “a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop” or like “an ever-flowing spring,” ma’ayan mitgabeir, a porous vessel that is open continually to the entry of new water, new contributions to an ever-changing flow of possibility?
Obviously, one approach sounds more poetic, romantic, adventurous. Surely we need both. A holistic mind (and therefore soul) is the result of a well-balanced cooperation between our left-brain and right-brain functioning. But in my writing, my imagining, and my yearning, I aspire to the poetic.
Am I 39, focusing on the years I have already counted, or am I 40, entering — pouring and being poured — into the next, uncharted gradation in the unfinished vessel of my life journey? I’ll let the left-brain authorities like the Social Security Administration be the cistern and focus on the years I have already accumulated. I — in my “right mind” (pun intended), even though I am not left-handed — will be the ever-flowing spring and pour into Year 40.
So may I now start studying Kabbalah?!