Here’s a quiz for the times:
Q: What do Jews have in common with Muslims, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Balinese, some aboriginals, and five other peoples?
A: They all have their own New Year beginning on a day other than January 1.
So maybe the Rosh Hashanah/New Year’s Day thing isn’t the element that makes us the Chosen People. No matter. Let’s focus for a wintry moment on what we must in our time consider a welcome gift. We had one occasion to start over when the harvest was in the fields (the first day of Tishri, Sept. 18 in 2020) and another when those same fields, at least where we live, are customarily full of snow (the first day of January).
So here we go again. We are starting over.
And a good thing we are. In our rear view mirror is a bitterly contested election, a controversial president, a horrible pandemic, protests over racial equality, street fights involving masks and bar closings – and Red Sox and Patriots seasons we all want to forget.
Ahead in our frosty windshields is a presidential inauguration, maybe a productive Hundred Days from Congress and the new chief executive, and the hope-springs-eternal rituals of a new baseball season. But mostly a vaccine and real vacation plans.
I was struck by the title of a forthcoming book by the actor Sharon Stone, with whom I have nothing whatsoever in common except for the fact that for six years she was married to a journalist. It is called “The Beauty of Living Twice,” and it occurred to me that that is exactly what we are doing with these two New Year’s, the Jewish one and the American one. We are in essence living twice. That first New Year’s was rough. This second one is what George H.W. Bush, who once sent me a Rosh Hashanah card – the most astonishing mailing I ever got from someone I covered, never failing to give me a laugh when I see it in my desk drawer – would call a kinder, gentler New Year’s.
So let’s luxuriate in what we just got. A second chance.
Second chances are a special kind of justice, which is why – in this time when the news is full of Donald J. Trump’s pardons – it is worth recalling that Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 74, said that without the second chance that presidential acts of clemency provide, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.” And while we are applying the lessons of Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution to our new start, let us recall that Chief Justice John Marshall – in the early 1800s – considered those second chances in presidential pardons an “act of grace.’’
This act of calendar grace – this assurance that justice would not wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel – is precisely what we need at this season.
In his first State of the Union address, delivered three months after the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, President Theodore Roosevelt said that “the harm done’’ by the murder of the president was “so great as to excite our gravest apprehensions and to demand our wisest and most resolute action.” None of us who lived through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy can doubt that.
Now consider TR’s speech to military veterans 10 months later. In those remarks he said, “We know there are dangers ahead, as we know there are evils to fight and overcome. But stout of heart, we see across the dangers the great future that lies beyond, and we rejoice.”
To be sure, we are not exactly in the mood for rejoicing, except in great relief. But we can be stout of heart and see across the dangers to a brighter new year.
The crisis isn’t over. The country remains divided over fundamental issues, the political parties are confused over their identities – Is the Republican Party of the Tafts and the Bushes and Herbert Hoover and McKinley really a populist party, and are the Democrats of three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society really a party of elitists? Plus this: The vaccine won’t end the virus crisis, the Biden administration’s tax proposals won’t end the wealth gap, the departure of President Trump from the White House won’t end the proliferation of provocations on social media, a tentative return to normal won’t return the loved ones lost to COVID-19.
And so on. And yet …
In our family, and I hope in yours, there is much to look forward to – and in our case it is an October wedding. These days we cannot jog from our minds that cloying “L’chaim” song from “Fiddler on the Roof,” mostly because we have a child’s wedding approaching and we know the meaning of the line that it takes a wedding to make us say, “Let’s live another day.” But that is not the only message from that song. So here is a lyric we should sing to ourselves, and to each other, just after we talk about a happy new year:
May all your futures be pleasant ones
Not like our present ones
Drink, l’chaim, to life
To life, to life, l’chaim
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the paper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that earned the Pulitzer Prize.