A Shanah Tovah, Yes; But Will It Be Happy?

Sermon delivered on Rosh Hashanah Eve 5770 – September 18, 2009

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

I had the most embarrassing father who ever lived. That was, of course, until Robert and Daniel came along. Now, they are the accursed ones. Little causes my sons more chagrin than their father’s breaking out into song. My favorite is when they want something that Toni and I are just not going to provide. If you’ve sung it to your children, please join me:

   You can’t always get what you want.
No, you can’t always get what you want.
But if you try some time,
You just might find
You get what you need.

At the dawn of this new year, the song may be a prayer. We may not get what we want in 5770. Let us pray that we get what we need.

On this Rosh Hashanah, those of us who are comfortable with at least a few words of Hebrew might have wished each other a shanah tovah. Literally, those words mean, “a good year;” but most of us simply say, “happy new year.”

As we have offered our prayers tonight, though, and continue tomorrow, we do not find a prayer for a happy new year anywhere in Gates of Repentance. “Good,” yes; even “sweet;” but not “happy.”

If we think deeply, most of us can articulate the difference between a “good” new year and one that is merely “happy.” That’s an exercise I conduct, pretty much annually, at our Children’s Services and as I visit Religious School classrooms on a day like this coming Sunday. Yes, Religious School is in session this Sunday.

For some of us, the reality is that the new year will not bring much happiness or joy. The troubles and the sadness of the year now ended will follow us into 5770.

The pangs of loss will continue for those most recently grief-stricken. Jewish law even forbids seeking joy for its own sake for a full year after the death of a parent. Though I would never instruct a congregant to observe such a commandment strictly, the injunction is wise. Our society tells us to move on with our lives, but human psychology does not work that way. We need time to grieve, and to make sense of our loss, before we can focus on fun again.

We pray that the bereaved will find comfort. We hope that they will find new purpose as a result of their loss. We know of countless individuals who have emerged from tragedy to create new successes, large and small, for themselves and for humanity. If our prayers are answered, our friends in mourning may experience a good new year. We can wish them a shanah tovah in good conscience, even if we would rightly feel awkward wishing them a “happy new year.”

The indignities of unemployment and under-employment will continue for too many in our midst. Decreased income is distressing and anxiety-producing. Not being able to work at our chosen task can leave us without a sense of mission, feeling aimless. Wallowing in our misery will not help, and any resulting depression must be treated aggressively; but the fact remains: Happiness is not our first priority this Rosh Hashanah.

Severe career challenges are nobody’s idea of a good time. Sure, we pray that an unemployed spouse will catch a break; or that our professor friend, who is bringing home a paycheck as a bookstore cashier, will find meaningful new work. But we recall the cliché that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” Perhaps our real Rosh Hashanah prayer is that people living employment nightmares will awaken to a new year of enhanced self-awareness, of new ideas about how to make a difference and a living. If our prayers are answered, they may have little fun in the process, but they will surely experience a good new year. We may wish them a shanah tovah in good conscience, even if cannot look them in the eye and say, “happy new year.”

And what of the family struggling with a cruel illness, threatening to take the life of a loved one, far too soon? To paraphrase Rabbi Mark Goodman, of blessed memory, we may not believe in miracles, but we rely on them, and we pray for them. We have also been wisely instructed to take one day at a time. God willing, we will find moments of joy, but we know that “a happy new year” is not likely in store.

Barring a miracle, the family facing a loved one’s tragic illness will not, on the whole, enjoy happiness in 5770. Perhaps they will be surrounded by a magnificent community of caring. The likelihood of loss may help them to find renewed purpose in their own lives. Some will derive meaning from being at the stricken loved one’s side, day in and day out, or just by fetching the groceries or driving the carpool for the family in crisis. Some will doubtless lose faith in a God whom they hoped would protect them from suffering. Yet they may pray for new faith that transcends loss, forging a new relationship with a God who carries us through life’s darkest days. In the hope that their prayers may be answered, we may offer them a shanah tovah, when we would not dare say, “happy new year.”

A cynic might ask, “Who told you that life would be happy, anyway?” Some view our years on Earth as a series of responsibilities, of obligations to be met joylessly. Judaism does not look at the world that way. Instead, we are taught that, on our proverbial “judgment day,” one of the questions we will be asked is whether we sufficiently enjoyed the legitimate pleasures of this world. God does want us to be happy. As Rabbi Berlin has taught me, though, happiness often comes in bursts, and is not sustained. After all, we will soon celebrate Sukkot, zemah simhateinu, our season of joy; but not tonight.

Indeed, if we look at the Bible, happiness does not seem to be the priority.

In the latter portion of the Book of Isaiah, we read the words of an anonymous prophet. He speaks to the Children of Israel, living in exile in Babylon. Their Temple has been destroyed. Their homeland is occupied. The banished Israelites have been invited into the Babylonian good life, if only they will bow down to their conquerors’ gods. How seductive the offer must have been: if these Israelites will merely become Babylonians; then they could be happy and prosper.

The prophet urges the people instead to choose a path of goodness, even if happiness must be deferred. As we are taught, the Israelites “sit by the waters of Babylon and weep for Zion.” They remain faithful to God. Ultimately, the Persians conquer the Babylonians, and the Israelites are permitted to return to their land and rebuild their Temple. Even that is not a joyful experience. Ezra and Nehemiah recount the tremendous challenges that face the returnees. They are pleased to rebuild the Temple, but they suffer in the process.

Because our ancestors chose goodness over joy, because they followed the prophet’s urgings, our God is worshiped today by billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, around the globe. Those civilizations that chose the happier option, assimilated into the cultures of their conquerors, disappearing along with their forgotten gods. We may read about the gods of ancient Egypt or Greece; but nobody worships them.

The lesson is as true for us today as it was in the sixth century, B.C.E.

Most of us want happiness for our children. Of course, we do. Little brings us greater pleasure than to see our children both happy and behaving at the same time.

But let me tell you about a third grader I once knew. On one mid-term progress report, she got a D minus in math. Now, this particular girl was accustomed to good grades; at the end of the prior grading period, she had an A in math. Indeed, she had never earned any other grade. The day she brought that report card home was not a happy one, not for the third grader and not for her parents.

The parents did not have to ask the teacher what had gone wrong. They knew: Their child had declared that she already understood the math perfectly, and did not need to do the homework. She was not entirely wrong. She did just fine on the tests. However, the grade was based not only on tests, but also on the homework assignments, which were to have been submitted.

The child was not happy. Her parents were not happy. The teacher was not happy. The parents told the girl that she could not enjoy many of her recreational pursuits until the several weeks’ of homework were complete. Lo and behold, within days, the work was produced and submitted. Though the parents had extracted no guarantee that the teacher would accept the late homework and change the grade, the girl had an A in math again by the end of the grading period. The teacher had made her point, which had more to do with behavior and respect than with math. The girl continued to earn A’s the following year.

I tell this simple story to illustrate a lesson we all know, at least about children. Good outcomes most often come from difficulty, rather than from joy. Yes, Toni and I hope that Robert and Daniel will know much happiness in the year ahead. So much more, though, we want them to experience a good year, a year of growth and learning, of exemplary behavior most of the time and of learning from their mistakes.

Isn’t that what we all want, for ourselves and for one another? Our society teaches us to pop the champagne cork; without thinking, we frivolously wish one another a “happy new year.” Perhaps that’s a problem with the world in which we live. If each of us would seek goodness, rather than wishing only for happiness, we might all live better lives. We might even be happier.

The psalmist wrote, Hazor’im b’dim’ah, b’rinah yiktzoru. “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” This year, our fondest prayers may not be answered. Our ailments may not be cured. Our fortunes may not improve. We may know our share of troubles. Others among us, thank God, will experience joy in 5770. We will know new love. We will delight in discoveries, about ourselves and others. A healthy baby will be born.

Whether we know pain or joy in the new year, let us pray that 5770 may be a good year, a year of peace and blessing; for all, a shanah tovah.