I remember when I first started coming to services at IJC how confused I was by the way we greet each other on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and some of you might feel the same.
On Rosh Hashanah some say Shanah Tovah – a simple greeting – ‘have a good year’. Or the longer Shanah Tovah u’Metukah – ‘A Good and Sweet Year’. The focus here is on the New Year aspect of Rosh Hashanah. New Year? That name is already a bit confusing because it’s late September, early October.
The Talmud adds to the joy by designating no fewer than four new years in our calendar! The first of Nisan – in early spring - the anniversary of Israel’s departure from Egypt and in a sense the creation of the Jewish people. First of Elul in late summer – the new year for taxes – not one we really like to celebrate. The first of Tishri, or Rosh Hashanah, the best-known new year, marking a change in the calendar and the anniversary of creation of the world, and the 15th of Shevat, or Tu Bi’Shvat, the new year for trees around the beginning of the calendar year. We Jews are the only people who get to say Happy New Year four times a year.
So, when we say Shanah Tovah or Shanah Tovah u’Metukah we focus on Rosh Hashanah as the New Year, the new Jewish calendar year, 5780, and we hark back as a result to the creation of the world, according to tradition, 5780 years ago. It’s a day of celebration – like the first of January, a day to enjoy a nice meal with family and friends. A day to come to the synagogue and wish your community a Happy New Year!
Others use a lengthier wish: L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu v’Tichatemu or ‘May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year’ and ten days later, when Yom Kippur is over, we say G’mar Chatimah Tovah ‘a good final sealing’.
The Talmud, in the tractate on Rosh Hashanah, describes the day as the Yom haDin or the Day of Judgement. The focus turns from New Year joy and celebration to ten days of serious introspection. The same tractate tells us that three books are opened this day, three accountant’s ledgers recording the fate of the wicked, the fate of righteous, and the fate of an intermediate category – the in-betweens. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life. The intermediate class are given a reprieve – they’re given the ten days until Yom Kippur to reflect on their lives, to turn their lives around – or teshuvah, another word commonly associated with the Days of Awe, and to change their ways in time for the closing of the book on Yom Kippur. The wicked are ‘blotted out of the book of the living forever’.
Our relationship with the divine, with the people around us, the living beings that populate our planet and our planet itself is a very complex one. There are opportunities to fail at every turn on our path, and there are opportunities to do the right thing. We rarely, if ever, know in advance what we will do when the time comes to choose to do the right thing or slide into wickedness. Most of us struggle even to know clearly what the right thing is. And some of us, myself included, find it difficult to reconcile our understanding of a merciful God with the notion of being ‘blotted out of the book of the living forever’. But if you’re like me and you see this traditional, if artificial and perhaps unreal division of people, as an opportunity to change your life for the better, you won’t have to think too hard to know which category you belong to. Few if any are wicked to the core and none of us are angels. We all need the chance to change, to better ourselves, to turn around, to repair our relationship with God, with each other and with our planet.
If we’re inscribed in any book, it’s probably the book of the intermediates, the in-betweens, not super good, not super bad, just in need of healing. And our tradition holds out the opportunity to be healed and renewed each year.
This year let’s embrace that opportunity with open arms and extend it beyond ourselves to a world in need of healing.
IJC Rabbinical Intern