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The year 2000 is soon upon us--the turn of the century and the turn of the millennium. (Some people say the actual shift takes place on January 1, 2001.) It is a momentous time for a society that thinks in decimals and bases its calendar on the approximate birth date of Jesus.
For Jews, this is the year 5760, which we celebrated in early September as the leaves began to turn and the children in the Northern Hemisphere returned to school. We say that it is five thousand seven hundred sixty years since the beginning of creation or, for those who believe the earth is much older than that, perhaps since the dawn of human spiritual awareness, when many of the world's oldest religions came into being. According to the Jewish calendar, it is only the beginning of a decade, not a century or a millennium. And yet, we live in both worlds, affected by the cycles of the moon-based Jewish calendar and the sun-based Gregorian calendar. And therein lies the central theme of our story.
Unlike the Christian Gregorian calendar, which is purely solar, catapulting us into the future without a break, the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, offering cycles of rest and renewal within the process of evolution. Just as day needs night and dark needs light, the sun and the moon are equal partners in the sky. They represent the need for balance and harmony in our lives, and the Jewish calendar embodies that wisdom.
And so, it is wonderful synchronicity that December 31, 1999 falls on a Friday, and the year 2000 will be ushered in at midnight on Shabbat, the Sabbath. Linear and cyclical time will coincide with cosmic delight. While people around the globe are either celebrating or panicking, Jews have the opportunity to gather with families and communities to observe a Shabbat that is both ordinary as well as extraordinary. It will undoubtedly be a day of deep and powerful prayers. The Torah portion of the millennial Shabbat is Shemot (Exodus), and the stories of the parasha (portion) provide valuable guidance for that time.
Shemot means "names," and the portion begins with a list of the names of the sons of Jacob who went down to Egypt. Although the oppression by a new Pharaoh is underway, the Children of Israel are able to maintain their dignity because they remember their names and where they come from. The midwives, Shifra and Puah, demonstrate tremendous courage and faith by defying the death decree for baby boys, and soon after, a son is born to the Levite couple, Yocheved and Amram. Thanks to his sister Miriam, the child is rescued from the water by Pharaoh's daughter, who names him Moses. He ironically grows up in the palace of Pharaoh, but flees to the land of Midian when his passionate concern for the oppression of his people reveals his true identity.
In the desert Moses marries Tzipporah and lives in simple harmony with the earth as a shepherd. It is during this time of simplicity that he notices the burning bush that is not consumed, and he turns to hear the voice of the Holy One that calls to him. Moses is told that he is standing on sacred ground, and he quickly takes off his shoes. Then he learns that it is his destiny to lead his people from slavery to freedom. He is certain that he is not qualified, and that God has chosen the wrong person, but God reassures him and reveals God¹s secret name, Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh, I Am That I Am. The God of Being and Presence has established a personal relationship with the simple shepherd Moses, and through him, with all of us. In this story of exile and oppression, we are reminded that we are all standing on holy ground and that it is through a return to simplicity that we will notice the bush, hear the call, and know that we can truly help each other, with God's help.
The millennium shift is a crossroads in consciousness--the meeting of linear and cyclical time. Life is speeding up. Everything is moving so fast --cars, telecommunications, computers. We are truly a global village, instantly aware of every major event on the planet. We have allowed time to run and even ruin our lives, measuring hours, minutes, and seconds so we can accomplish more and more, barely stopping to appreciate the beauty of the land on which we walk. We have lost the balance between time and timelessness, between purpose and Presence. Computers have permeated our technological world, and now it is a tiny computer chip that threatens to bring the world to a halt as the year 2000 arrives.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that we plan a break for ourselves during this time rather than suffer a breakdown. He compares our "techno-idolatry" of the computer to the Tower of Babel, and suggests that it may be our own folly of relying on computers that causes the tower to tumble. But the good side of the falling tower is that it can return us to our local communities and to basic survival skills of living in harmony with the earth again.
The Shabbat that begins on December 31, 1999 and 23 Tevet, 5760 beckons us to create meaningful rituals in our families and synagogues. Before lighting candles we can sound the shofar, or ram's horn, to bring us courage and awaken us to our interconnectedness with all of creation. This will also remind us of the Rosh Hashanah theme that Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakkah--The Return to Love, Prayer, and Compassionate Action--can avert the severe decree. We can invite each person to compose a prayer for the earth and all her creatures, which we share before making Kiddush, or a prayer over wine. Since it is the Torah portion of Shemot, we can think about the meaning of our Hebrew names (or choose a new one), and how they connect us to the call of the Holy One. And we can all strive not to drive or use our computers on January 1, 2000, but instead, like Moses in his days as a shepherd, to walk in our neighborhoods, appreciating the trees, birds, snow, sun and people who live on this holy ground!