One of the great things about being an ancient Roman was the chance you had to really advance in life. Roman mythology tells of the king named Janus (Jay-nuss), whose name most of us pronounce “ja-nuss,” whose skill in both war and peace enabled him to make the leap from mortal to god. He was only a minor god, mind you, but he still had immortality, which is better than x-ray vision and the ability to fly faster than a speeding bullet.
Janus (ja-nuss) – I say it wrong, too – became the god of gates and doorways, and his image evolved into a person with two faces. Originally, one was bearded and the other not, but eventually, he was depicted with two fully bearded faces. One face looked forward and the other face looked backward. It makes sense. The god of doorways and gates watched over you on your way in or on your way out. Janus was the god of transitions.
Even if you didn’t remember this tidbit from social studies class, it won’t surprise you now to know that the month of January is named for Janus. Our society’s first month is a time when people look forward and backward to Baby New Year and Father Time. We make lists of what happened in the year past and predictions of what will happen in the year ahead. We total up what we spent and earned in the preceding months, and resolve how we will improve our lives in the subsequent months.
Just as there are multiple doors in a building and multiple gateways to any city, there are multiple moments in our years when we call on the image of Janus to look forward and backward simultaneously. Some of them are ritualized – school graduations, annual reviews, the beginning of any sports season. Some of them are personal and sort of sneak up on you – anniversaries of various sorts, cleaning out the old clothes in your closet, looking at your old yearbook. Old Janus presents a useful model for us as we peer in two directions at once.
We use a different metaphor for our New Year. Nervous as we are about icons and downright intransigent when it comes to promoting human beings to immortality, we have a saying for this time of year. Hayom harat olam. The former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Gerson Cohen, of blessed memory, translated that phrase as “the moment is pregnant with eternity.” That’s a great interpretation of the three Hebrew words, and a sermon I might want to give some Rosh HaShanah, but I prefer a different sense of the phrase: today the world is born. It may actually mean “today the world is pregnant,” but the meaning is basically the same. For us, the New Year carries with it the sense of a newborn babe.
Those of you who have been in the presence of a newborn know that there is only one genuine reaction. It is awe. Whether you are the mother, overwhelmed with love you tried to imagine, or the father, still struggling with the incomprehensible notion that you somehow started that person, or relative, friend, health care professional or stranger, you know that a baby ten days old or less is a thing of awe. Tiny nose, tiny mouth, tiny fingers, tinier fingernails – the life that animates every person you know seems to be distilled and concentrated in a mere handful of human being. I remember with clarity what suddenly unlocked within me as I beheld Jennie as a newborn, and the sense of radical amazement it produced.
Our New Year may not be so tiny, but it is just as concentrated. In these few days, we seem to have a little bit of every festival and occurrence of the year – food and fasting, prayers and lessons, outdoor rituals and musical instruments, with everybody coming together from near and far. And in case you have any confusion about the dominant emotional theme, we call the entire season the Days of Awe.
We have such moments off the calendar as well. These first crisp days of autumn, like the early warmth of spring, give us a sense of the awesomeness of our world. Starting a new job, a new school, a new time of life has its own energy and a sense of unbridled potential. We may not invoke the slogan of the season any more than we consider Janus, but at those moments, on those days, our world is born anew.
Ann and I have been married for over twenty-six years. We do not take those years for granted, especially since we have been so extraordinarily blessed together in so many different ways. Over the course of the most recent twenty-one of those years, I, like most parents, have more than occasionally ached for time to pass more quickly. Exams and recitals, sports seasons and play rehearsals, extracurricular lessons and classes fill the life of an adult who owns a car with ample opportunity to reflect on the things we do for our kids and the things that were done for us. My sense of delight in graduations, concerts, championship games and the end of school year, truth be told, is not only for my kids’ accomplishments. It is for the chance to set the alarm a little later, finish paying the bills before my TV show comes on or go for a bike ride instead of a carpool ride.
But this summer, about mid-July, it suddenly dawned on me that something was about to change. Jennie was about to enter her last year of college in Charlottesville and Julia was about to go off to her first in New York City. The next few weeks, I realized, were likely the last time that the five of us would live together as a family under one roof. The date was on the calendar intellectually, but it only popped into my consciousness existentially on one typical and perfect summer night.
We had faced transitions before, and some of them were bound to alter the nature of our family relations. But here is what was different this summer. My three kids were entirely focused on the excitement and anticipation of the coming fall. And all I wanted to do was reminisce with Ann about the past. My kids longed for the horizon. I was awash in a sea of nostalgia.
It was as if Janus had taken up residence in our home. But rather than guarding our doors and windows, he was trying to define our family. Some were looking forward. And some were looking backward. And had it not been for a simply fortuitous moment of personal clarity, the summer would have spiraled into a bitter disappointment for all of us. For our children would have surely resisted being dragged back in time. And I, at least, was resisting the encouragement to peek beyond the toes of my shoes.
I thought of Janus at that time. His ability to see what was and what will be was not such a blessing, it turns out. His two faces were always away from each other, unable to interact and constantly processing different information. The face that looked to the past could only remember. The face that looked to the future could only hope. But because they looked away from each other, they could never experience the present and each other’s presence.
We had a wonderful July and August. We did stuff together, and some stuff apart, and some other stuff in combinations of twos and threes and fours. Ann and I took absolute delight in the people are children were in the summer of 2003 and blissfully did not worry about whether they had overcome the immaturities of their younger years or would successfully negotiate the more mature challenges of the months and years and lives ahead.
Living in the moment enabled us to be conscious of the joys and blessings that presented themselves and gave us one of the happiest times of our family’s life. It also allowed us to greet the end of that happy time with gratitude rather than resentment or disappointment. Each day, the world was born anew. Each day, we were filled with awe that the tiny babies we had held had blossomed into the complex and wonderful human beings they were. Because we elected to live in the one place Janus could not see – the here and now – we had the fullness of wonder as the context of our days.
These are such lovely sentiments, I ought to just stop right now and bask in the glow. I promise not to ruin anything I just said, but I can’t stop talking just yet. Because while there are some philosophies and religions that encourage you to live always in the moment, Judaism is not one of them. We may have the most attractive New Year slogan since “0% financing and no money down,” but we are a people who remember and hope, remember and hope, remember and hope. Every shabbes we remember the Creation and the Exodus, looking back fondly and gratefully. Every worship service, every grace after meals, every sounding of the Israeli national anthem we hope for a time when we are living in a world perfected under God’s rule, or worthy of Messianic redemption, or a free people in our own land.
Janus is unquestionably a part of our lives. In fact, if you were to translate the Roman name Janus into a Hebrew name, you would likely wind up with a name very familiar on this sacred day: Jonah. And without beating you over the head with it, our version of Janus, our Jonah, learns for all of us that you can neither escape into the past nor fatalistically accept the future. All of the action in life happens at the nexus of the two, that point in between that enables us to make the most of every opportunity. The comfort of knowing the past and the certainty of seeing into the future are precisely what makes the present so important. The citizens of Nineveh let Jonah/Janus in through the gates of the city. They know of their sinfulness, their reprobate past. And they know their future: Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed!! But in the power of the moment they find opportunity to cast off the shackles of yesterday that hold them hostage and recast the landscape of tomorrow to one of promise and renewal.
To proclaim hayom harat olam, “today the world is born,” means there was a yesterday and there will be a tomorrow. And that means that memory and hope are essential ingredients in living in the moment. And it also means that there can be no particular appreciation of the moment if one has no basis of comparison with the past and no sense that it will inevitably dissolve into the future.
So how are we to know when we are Romans and when we are Jews, when we are Janus and when we are Jonah?
Late in the days of the summer just past, some of my family sat in the sunshine of a New York afternoon awaiting that inevitable stroke of the clock that would dissolve the moment into the future and make it the past. A man was speaking to a couple of thousand very emotional parents and their equally emotional college first-years. He said, “There seems to be a sense that you are born and entered into the right pre-school so that you can go to the right elementary school so that you can go to the right high school so that you can go to the right college so that you can get the right job so that you can have the right career so that you can invest in the right pension so that you can have the right retirement and use what is left over to buy the right tombstone that says, ‘he went to the right pre-school--’
“However,” he continued, “we really know that nobody lives life in a straight line. Instead, it is a journey of zigs and zags, with the only things worth knowing learned negotiating the elbows.”
The elbows of our zig-zag lives are the places where past and future can see each other and coexist with the present. These Days of Awe are our annual opportunity to negotiate an elbow together. Why else would the year begin with the imagery of the future – today the world is born, today the world is pregnant with opportunity – instead of the past? Why else would we, ten days later, remember the previous year’s misdeeds and devote a service to the memory of those whose lives are but a memory?
You see, I was wrong about the summer and living in the moment. I thought we had chosen the place that Janus could not see, the place between the two faces that looked in opposite directions. Instead, we did for each other what all of us in this room have been practicing every year of our Jewish existence. The parents did not abandon their grateful gaze into yesterday, and the children did not forego their yearning look toward tomorrow. Rather, instead of standing back to back, we arrived at a place of intersection, where we could not only look at each other, but through each other’s eyes.
In few enough hours, we will have negotiated this elbow together once again. The pace of your life will return to its frenetic flight toward deadlines and appointments and bells and rush hours. As you hurry through the doorways of offices and classrooms, garages and bedrooms, you may be tapped on the shoulder by an ancient Roman named Janus (ja-nuss) or Janus (jay-nuss), who will offer you the chance to see forward and backward at the same time.
Turn him down. Each day the world is born anew and careens down its zig-zag path. And the view is better from the corner.