I am writing this column on New Year’s Eve. I have always felt some ambivalence about celebrating the secular new year on January 1. On the one hand, I would never think to celebrate such non-Jewish holidays as December 25, Halloween, or Valentine’s Day. While these celebrations have largely been trivialized and stripped of their religious meaning, their religious origins are clear. On the other hand, I believe very strongly in observing such patriotic American holidays as July Fourth (Independence Day), Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving. As Jews, we are fortunate to live in a country where we can live freely as Jews while enjoying the blessings of liberty and prosperity in this great land. We should join our fellow Americans in celebrating these important days on our national calendar.
New Year’s Day falls somewhere in between. It is 2016 years since the event celebrated a week earlier. But the day itself has no religious significance. It has become a day celebrated around the world by people of many religious and ethnic backgrounds as the beginning of the new year. While I am happy to see hardworking people enjoy a day off from work with family and friends, and enjoy spending a little time watching sports events, I find some of the major observances, such as standing in Times Square for several hours to watch a ball drop down a flag pole and getting drunk at parties, to be at best silly and at worst dangerous.
I cannot help but think of the difference between the way the rest of the world celebrates New Year’s Day and the way we as Jews observe the dawn of a new year on Rosh HaShanah. The first days of the Jewish year are a time for reflection and self-improvement. We look back on the mistakes of the past, commit to doing better in the future, and reconcile with our family, our friends, and G-d. If we have observed the Yamim Nora’im in the proper way, we emerge as better people.
The difference between New Year’s Day and Rosh HaShanah is reflected in the greetings for each: Happy New Year and Shanah Tovah (A Good Year).
To be good is intrinsically positive and fully within our power
Happiness is an emotion that lasts only as long as whatever it is that makes us happy. The greeting “Happy New Year” is only appropriate when the year is new. Goodness, on the other hand, is a character trait that we should strive for at all times. To wish someone a good year is appropriate at any time.
The first definition of the word “happy” in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary is “favored by luck and fortune.” The things that make us happy are beyond our control and do not necessarily contribute to making us better people.
“Good” is defined as “something conforming to the moral order of the universe.” To be good is intrinsically positive and fully within our power.
Happiness has its place in Judaism. We are told, “Ivdu et Hashem b’simchah – serve Hashem with joy” and “V’samachta b’chagecha – rejoice on your holidays.” But simchah and happiness are not the same thing. For we know that the things that make us happy come not from luck and fortune but from the grace of Hashem. Of all the holy days on our calendar, only one is referred to as Zman Simchatenu – the season of our joy. It is no coincidence that Succoth comes immediately after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During the Yamim Nora’im we strive for goodness. It is only when we attain goodness that we can enjoy true simchah.
While Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the best time for doing teshuvah, we know that teshuvah is something we should strive for every day of the year. New Year’s Day is a milestone on the calendar. Most people waste it on the foolish and the trivial. We should use the beginning of a new year as another opportunity to reflect on where we have been, where we are going, and what we can do to make ourselves better people.
So here’s to 2016! May it be a Good Year for all of us!