Toasting and Tasting by Rabbi Zell
In all likelihood, New Year’s Eve will be celebrated differently this year, if at all, given the importance of social distancing. For Jews, New Year’s Eve being celebrated differently, should not in any way be linked to a pandemic, but rather should be viewed as a perennial issue. There are those among us, who are adamantly opposed to Jews celebrating New Year’s Eve, so much so, that they regard those as having worshipped the golden calf. Hyperbole aside, there is much to be learned about celebrating New Year’s Eve, provided one is prepared to make a comparison between Rosh Hashana and the secular New Year.
The Hebrew word for new is Chadash. Nowhere in our High Holy Day liturgy, do we find the term Shanah Chadashah. Furthermore, the term Rosh Hashana means the head of the year or the beginning of the year. Neither “new” nor “old” receive much play in Judaism. If anything, old – typically referred to as elders, rather than old people – is looked upon positively by our tradition. In Judaism, there is no “out with the old, in with the new”. In Judaism, we profit from the past and build on it. It was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook of what was to become the modern State of Israel, who reminded us: that which is old will be renewed; that which is new will be sanctified. Close to 35 years ago, during his visit to the Rome Synagogue, Pope John Paul II, with more than a modicum of respect, remarked to his Jewish hosts “you are our older brothers”. Hopefully, Pope John Paul II’s words to us were accepted with more than a modicum of honor.
No doubt, Hallmark, along with other Greeting Card companies, have only the best of intentions in designing their product for Rosh Hashana. But traditionally, Jews have never wished one another a happy New Year. Traditionally, Jews have wished one another a good year. “Good” and “happy” are not, nor have they ever been synonymous. Judaism, being a religion of mitzvot, asks that we focus on doing a good job at living our lives, not a happy job. Happy is a reaction; good is an intention. Other than extending a wish or sentiment that the year that is coming to an end be summed up as having been a happy year, other than extending a wish that in 365 days from now one be able to look back and express happiness, it is beyond me, how one can wish another, a year of happiness. In Judaism, sameach was a wish initially reserved for the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. All three were also harvest festivals. Wishing another person, the ability to be happy because of a bountiful harvest is a beautiful sentiment. Jews don’t wish one another a happy Shabbos (Shabbat Shalom), a happy week (Shavua Tov), or a happy month (Chodesh Tov). It is therefore simply beyond me, why we would wish one another a happy year.
Can you imagine concluding Rosh Hashana services with a cacophony of “Shanah Tovah” replete with horns and streamers? Can you fathom supplanting or augmenting the Rosh Hashana finale of HaYom Te’Amtzaynu by turning to the person next to you at services, extending your hand, and asking that he or she give you his or her hand, so together, the two of you can hoist a mug for times long past? Rather than spending time to toast the past, our tastes tend toward the future. Jim Beam and Jack Daniels may be perennial guests at the end of December, but come the beginning of Tishri, Rosh Hashana tables host slices of apple and scoops of honey.
Other than behaving in an unacceptable way, because of too much imbibing, as well as becoming swept away in the frivolousness of the festivities, my main concern, come December 31st, is that those who celebrate, fail to contemplate. The message of Rosh Hashana is crystal clear. For us, New Years’ is the time to recognize the creation of the world, as well as the opportunity to acknowledge G-d as King of the universe. In all too many cases, come December 31st, people are already too fuzzy to recognize anything other than an invitation of “how about another one?”.
I pray that the day comes, when a heartfelt L’Chaim of sobriety, supplants cheers of inebriety, and where the shanda of intemperance is replaced with naches of reverence.