I knew that something was missing. For the longest time, I understood the difference between January first and the first of Tishrei in the most pedestrian terms. Uneducated greeting card producers aside, “Happy New Year” does not address Rosh Hashanah. It never did. The greeting Shanah Tovah does not mean Happy (New) Year; it means “A good year.” Not only are “good” and “happy” not the same, but at times they are close to being diametrically opposite. Few, if any, will argue that a colonoscopy or a root canal are not beneficial procedures for the good of the patient. By the same token, few, if any, will claim that such procedures bring happiness to the individual. It is entirely possible for an individual to face an excellent year, yet there will few or any moments of happiness. Just ask someone who, through the proverbial blood, sweat and tears, finally brings a project to fruition. In addition to facing what appeared to be insurmountable odds, there was never the slightest word of encouragement from those closest to him. In fact, the exact opposite was the case, with unsolicited advice being freely dispensed that he undertake a different project, one more suited to his abilities. Others will have the happiest year with nothing to show for it. We call it hedonism.
A contranym is a word with two opposite meanings. “Cleave” means to stick; “cleave” means to split apart. “Resolution” is a contranym. Few need to be reminded that January first was typically fraught with resolutions. Countless in our culture would make New Year’s resolutions concerning things they would begin doing or things that they would cease from doing in the new year. Similarly, resolutions were made concerning adopting new, beneficial behavior as well as desisting from old, harmful behavior. Rarely did these New Year’s resolutions make it through the first week of January. Resolutions are also part and parcel of the first of Tishrei. Or at least they should be. Judaism asks that beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating with Yom Kippur, we concentrate on resolving rifts in relationships a well as imperfections in oneself. We call it “teshuvah.” Put differently (as well as simplistically), resolutions undertaken on the first of January are all about looking ahead. Resolutions that ought to be undertaken with the approach of the first of Tishrei are all about looking back. I recall speaking about how different New Years resolutions are from High Holy day resolutions during a Rosh Hashana sermon I delivered while I was still in rabbinical school.
It wasn’t until this past Shabbat, while walking to shul, that it dawned on me that there is a third difference between the Gregorian New Year and the Jewish New Year. My revelation was based on a phone conversation I had on the previous day, when I quipped, that for the non-Jewish world, the week between Christmas and New Years was in some ways, their version of our “Asseret Y’mei Teshuvah” or “Ten Days of Repentance”, the period of time from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. I based my comment not only on the fact that (we wish you a merry) Christmas and (a happy) New Year go hand in hand, but that “peace on earth” is more of a New Year’s greeting than it is a Christmas greeting. January first (provided the New Year’s message is offered and received with sincerity) is all about the individual in this world. Greetings such as “Wishing all my friends and family a blessed New Year full of peace, laughter, prosperity and health” or “May you have a year filled with smiles, love, luck and prosperity” center around relationships with others. Despite all the “we have sinned, we have transgressed, we have…” in the Yom Kippur Confessionals, the message of the High Holy Days, beginning with the first of Tishrei, centers around the relationship the individual has with himself. On the first of Tishrei, we begin to internalize. On the first of January, we begin to internationalize.