In new year, chance to add own swatch to canvas of life

We are well past Labor Day, that yearly line of demarcation between summer and fall.
Now it is autumn, and the heads of all living things bow with the weight of an aging year. The leaves fall; the cat and dog begin to grow their winter coats; all creatures start to store up their appropriate fats for the cold days coming.
The writer at her computer says, “I will never live long enough to say all the words.” That realization, too, is an annual inevitable of fall, and as it should be. The season’s message is that life is fleeting.
Next Sunday evening, Rosh Hashanah will come again. I will have lived to enter another new year, moving forward with our ancestors who had the wisdom to know that this time of impending death is a natural part of the greater cycle of life. Those ancestors pledged their faith when they made this season of hibernation and decay the start of the year. How many centuries it must have taken before primitive humans could really believe that the trees would leaf again, that corn would grow again, that birds would return and baby lambs and calves be born!
It was an act of faith to declare that the new year starts here, at nature’s lowering ebb. It was an affirmation of belief in the future, and of life.
We Jews know in our bones, no matter how assimilated our surfaces, that the uprisings of one political or racial or religious or ethnic group against another are recurring constants in the life of humanity. We have had more than 5,700 years of recorded history in which to observe this. We are not surprised that it happens, only about why no people have ever been wise and strong enough to stop it from happening. Why can’t people with wisdom and strength enough to reach the moon and beyond control their fears and hatreds of other people here on earth?
At each New Year, I visualize all of humanity — from the start of time to infinity — as one huge canvas, whose frame is large enough to accommodate the dabblings of every individual. Each of us paints our own little piece, then puts our brush away. Civilization is a work constantly in progress, embodying harmonies and disharmonies. The colors, like the people, often clash, but the overall effect can be rather pleasant.
As we Jews are told, it’s not incumbent upon any one of us to finish the work, but it is incumbent upon each of us to make some contribution to it. It’s hard work to use our insignificant little brushes with forethought and foresight when none of us can see the whole canvas on which we’re painting. Just to do this is an act of faith.
When the trees drop their leaves, they are already preparing for spring. Animals grow fur and store fat with instinctive knowledge that the seasons spiral in regular order; they will soon enough shed them again.
The writer says, “I will not live long enough to use all the words I already know, and even if I could live forever, I would still not know all the words there are for me to use.”
But each year, I work with my keyboard instead of a paintbrush, and I will do what I can for as long as I can, and then turn this metaphorical brush over to those who come after me. They won’t finish the work, either, but they too will make some contribution to it.
For all of us, this is our act of faith. May yours be a very good New Year.
Gross has updated this column, which first appeared in a suburban Chicago newspaper 40 years ago, earning her top honors for columns in the National Federation of Press Women’s 1976 writing competition. Its original title was Entering the New Year as an Act of Faith.

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