Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
I'm 61 (a widow for 35 years) and was raised Catholic. I watch the news each night and see the weather that's occurring in the United States, people rioting, etc. I'm scared to death. Is the end of the world coming? How will we know? This is a great concern to me. I want to be with my family when it does. Could you please explain this to me?
-- J., North Branford, CT
After seeing (and reviewing) the new movie "Noah" and living through this horrible winter in New York, I, too, have experienced some end-of-the-world mood swings, so your question resonated.
My first suggestion for you is one I follow myself: Try watching a little less news on TV and go for a nice walk in the long-
delayed but deeply welcome spring air. The change of seasons is the first and perhaps most powerful argument that the world is not about to end.
In fact, the covenant God makes with Noah after the flood uses the images of springtime and nature to reinforce this promise and message of hope (Genesis 8:21-22): "The Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease." (KJV) In Genesis 9:13, God goes on to declare: "I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth." (NIV) Unfortunately, the hopefulness of this covenant took a beating in later biblical and post biblical literature and history. By the first century, things were bad for both Jews and Christians. Jesus was crucified, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and Christians became a persecuted minority.
All this led to the creation of a genre of religious literature about the end of the world called eschatology. These books are part of the Apocrypha. (Christian denominations disagree on whether these writings, by early Christians, should be included in the biblical canon. They are not part of the Hebrew Bible.) The Book of Revelation, last of the 27 books of the New Testament, is rich with spooky, phantasmagorical images of end-of-the-world beasts living in a time of utter chaos.
All this apocalyptic terror eased in time as Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century and as Judaism stabilized in its new rabbinical form. From that point on, end-of-the-world speculations surfaced only when things went wildly wrong, as when Black Death swept across Europe in the mid-14th century.
As your question shows, what happened in religious literature and world history also can happen in our personal lives. We're all bombarded by images of death, suffering and social chaos in the "if it bleeds, it leads" tradition of news.
They give us a distorted view of the happiness and serenity all around us. Repeated images of cruelty can overwhelm our intuition about the goodness out there. Visions of apocalypse also can enter our lives when death and despair climb our own doorsteps. The death of a loved one, or our own descent into depression, can lead us to mislabel what's really going on. We say we're worried about the world coming to an end, when what we really mean is we're worried about our own difficulties facing each new day.
In addition to professional help for depression, I've seen how religious communities can serve as powerful healing forces for members having a tough time. One of my favorite teaching tools for explaining the value of community goes like this: I take a single pencil in my hands and break it in half. Then, I hold a bundle of pencils and try to break them, but it's impossible. Children quickly see the wisdom of the Masai tribal saying: "Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable, but sticks alone can be broken by a child." The ancient rabbis taught, "Give me community or give me death." This is a deep truth about why we form religious communities. We bundle ourselves together so we're not so easily broken alone. On the eve of Easter and during this week of Passover, I offer you this two-word prayer from the deepest place in my heart: "Get bundled! Amen."
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