When the New Year arrives in America, the traditional greeting is “Happy New Year!” And it’s accompanied by music and dancing, cheering crowds, drunkenness, exploding balls atop Times Square, the New Year’s Eve party, and the hangover the morning after.
The Jewish way of marking the New Year is, to the say the least, subdued by comparison. For one thing, delete the “Happy” from “New Year.” Instead, the traditional greeting is “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!” The really enthusiastic may say, “May you be inscribed for a good year, immediately for good life and peace!” Instead of a delirious embrace, though, a smile and handshake are standard practice. To be sure, there are festive meals and people wear their best clothing, but nothing like the riotous glee of New Year’s Eve.
One might think, therefore, that New Year’s Eve celebrants are so much happier than we are; that their attitude toward the future is more positive, more hopeful. Certainly, if you take a look at the special prayers of Rosh Hashana, it would appear that way. In them we acknowledge that Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment; the day on which God decides who shall live and who shall die in the coming year; whether by drowning or by the sword or by strangulation. And who shall become rich and who impoverished. Who will be raised up and who be brought low.
Fear of God is a dominant theme on Rosh Hashana. In the prayers we ask God to rule over us and impose fear on all His creatures. Not exactly the kind of lyric that makes you want to roll out a barrel of beer.
In fact, the solemnity of Rosh Hashana is such that the classic question is how can we sit down to enjoy a meal under the circumstances, with the dread of death and judgment on our minds?
The answer is that Rosh Hashana is, in fact, a heaven-sent opportunity to take stock of ourselves and resolve to improve. That alone, if there’s serious commitment behind it (and don’t take on more than you know you can do, modest resolutions have the greatest chance of success), mitigates the Divine judgment.
The reason it is called Rosh Hashana, which means “Head of the Year,” is not only because it is the first day of the calendar year, but because this day determines what the whole year will be like. It is the template of the future. To the extent you behave well on Rosh Hashana, your judgement for the year will be favorable. If you can manage to stifle your complaints and control your anger, be kind to others and think good thoughts for just one day, you’ve won. There are still 365 days to mess it up, but the opportunity to make a new start is reason for happiness.
The fear of judgment is meant to impel us to change. If we respond properly, we can face the future with confidence. We have nothing to fear but lack of fear itself.
To start the year off with a chance at having God on your side—now that’s a reason to celebrate. We should be dancing in the aisles. We should be wishing each other Happy New Year!, beside ourselves with joy. Indeed, we say in the prayers that the righteous rejoice on this day.
Why, then, is the mood so subdued? Because who can be confident that God has accepted his resolution, however sincere, to be a better person? Who can know if he will stand up under the trials and tribulations of the coming months without losing his composure? Who can know, beside the Master of the Universe, if he will not be among those who will die or become poor or downtrodden?
So we leave the wild celebrations for others. We leave the hollow declarations of happiness and the sodden stupor of meaningless partying for those who think they can outsource dread to a bottle of Johnny Walker.
The sobriety and solemnity of the Jewish new year is, on the contrary, a cause for happiness. For we have real reason to face the future with hope. Not a false hope or an empty show; but hope based on deep reflection of the fearsome realities of life and death, of who we are and what we can attain. And in the knowledge that whatever comes, even the hardest times, there is a purpose in it; there is Judgement and a Judge.
L’Shana Tova! May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet new year, immediately and for peace!