A good year

JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review / Sept. 10, 1999 / 30 Elul, 5759

A good year

By Rabbi Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE GENERAL non-Jewish world is accustomed to greet its new year with the shouted wish of "Happy New Year." The Jewish world however reserves the term "happy" for its festivals and the traditional wish of Jews for the new year is shana tova --- a "good" year. Since nothing in Jewish life and tradition is ever random or simply a matter of semantics, I am convinced that there is an important and relevant idea that lies behind the words "a good new year" instead of "happy new year." So, with my sincerest wishes to all of you for a good new year, I am also taking the liberty of interpreting this greeting to you as I extend it.


Happiness is a subjective personal matter. One person's happiness is another person's tragedy. Sixty years ago this month Hitler and the German General Staff and much of the German people were overjoyed with the invasion and conquest of Poland. The Polish people and certainly the Jews of Poland were filled with dread and loathing, and as events tragically proved, justifiably so, by the very same "happy" event. The rabbis warned us not to overly rejoice even at the destruction of our enemies. There is usually a great deal of pain to others associated with one-sided happiness. Happiness is usually a product of outside stimulus. Very rarely are people truly happy from within their own being and self. Even the Biblical order to be "happy on your festivals" seemingly is dependent upon the outside stimulus of the occurrence of the festival itself and its attendant special observances, leisure and social contacts. So a "happy" new year is somewhat of an ambivalent blessing. Whose happiness? And how is this happiness to be measured or defined? And upon what events and things is this happiness dependent?

There are always instances in life that bring us temporary unhappiness and disappointment and yet in the fullness of the event turn out to be good and positive for us and others. My late blessed father-in-law was a rabbi in a small Lithuanian village in the late 1930's. He had a wife and four very small children to feed and his financial situation in the small village was precarious. He therefore entered his candidacy for the rabbinical position in a larger and much more prestigious and prosperous Lithuanian Jewish community. He was successful in his candidacy and was elected the rabbi, but in an election that was marked by a deep split among the Jewish social classes in that city that really had nothing to do with his personal candidacy.

Leiters Sukkah

The first Shabbes that he arose to speak in the synagogue of his new community after his appointment as rabbi, a riot ensued with actual physical fighting in the synagogue between the various factions of that community. My father-in-law, a gentle and peace-loving person, packed his bags that night and left the community. He had already resigned his previous rabbinic position and thus was unemployed and left without resources to support his family. He was depressed and unhappy in the extreme. In desperation, he accepted the proposal of his American relatives to move to the United States and to take a position as a rabbi in a small Jewish community in Pennsylvania. My wife, her mother and siblings, arrived in America to join him barely a year before the Second World War broke out and Lithuanian Jewry became doomed. My father-in-law, citing his own life story, always reminded me in my many moments of frustration and disappointment and unhappiness in my own varying professional careers that events do not necessarily have to be immediately happy in order to be good.

In a world dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, the State of Israel should attempt to inaugurate in this coming year a program for the pursuit of goodness. Of course, good presupposes less selfishness (pick up the garbage already!), less aggressiveness (don't jump the line) and a far-sighted approach to history and destiny (not happy, feel-good, politically-correct text books but good and honest appraisals of our long and painful history.) Good is measured in the fullness of time. It is determined by what our grandchildren will say about us and our behavior and the legacy we have bestowed upon them. Happy is temporary, illusory, fleeting and oft-times leaves us with a hangover next morning. Bars and pubs always advertise a "happy hour," never a "good hour."

So let us together pray for a good year for all of Israel and mankind. Let us remember that true happiness lies in the pursuit of the good and the just in life. And that our definition of goodness has to be approved by the generations that have preceded us and by those generations that will follow us. Therefore our goals should be to achieve a good and lasting peace with our neighbors and ourselves that will allow us to create a good and harmonious and tolerant society in Israel and thereby make us a source of inspiration and emulation for others. Such striving for goodness automatically brings with it true happiness as well.

Shana Tova.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He resides in Jerusalem. You may contact Rabbi Wein by by clicking here or calling 800-499-WEIN (9346).


©1999, Rabbi Berel Wein