Is Rosh Hashanah a happy or sad day?
If there is one word which comes up repeatedly during the High Holidays, in particular Rosh Hashanah, it is "good."
We greet each other with the words "Shannah Tovah," with hopes that each of us will be inscribed for a "good year." We gather for meals with family and friends, and partake of apples, honey, and raisin challah.
Our tradition tells us that Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of the world, and since God describes the world as "good," we should extend that feeling of goodness to the world around us.
Yet in spite of this positivity, the High Holidays are also an exceedingly serious time. It is the Day of Judgment. We acknowledge that there is a higher power, and that the world indeed is based on a system of justice, however mysterious and arbitrary that may sometimes feel.
Over time, as American Judaism has tilted towards Christian practice, increased attention has focused around culinary and domestic aspects of the High Holidays. Specifically, we devote considerable attention towards who is coming for dinner and what will be served.
Meeting together at the table is a beautiful thing. It renews family ties, and provides children with sensory connections to Judaism which will last a lifetime. Yet, to focus on the social aspect of the High Holidays at the expense of contemplation is to miss the true meaning of these holy days.
More than anything, the High Holidays is a time of judgment. While tradition holds that it is God who judges each of us, there are many who contend that, more accurately, it is we who judge ourselves.
The Talmud tells us that God has no interest in listening to our promises and pleas for forgiveness until we make peace with those around us.
We are encouraged to review our personal relationships, to acknowledge the times we strayed, and to ensure that perhaps the elderly or less fortunate members of our family or community are invited, or visited, or called. It's also a time to contact anyone we know we have offended and attempt to make peace.
It is also customary to visit the gravesites of the departed. This helps us to provide continued respect to parents, spouses, siblings, friends and others, and even enables us to pour out our hearts and bring closure with those who left this earth with words left unsaid.
Most importantly, Rosh Hashanah is a time when we put aside our distractions, and perform cheshbon nefesh. That is, an "accounting of the soul." We also turn our thoughts to the future.
How will we set the table for the year ahead? Will we be happy, healthy, and at peace, or will we face travail, difficulty, and challenge?
There are no guarantees in life, but I do believe that goodness will follow us, the more we pursue goodness.
It is up to each of us to find the right balance. If we overly focus on sadness, or if we overindulge in sweetness, then we are in danger of tipping the scales. For I believe that our odds for a good and sweet year improve when we truly assess ourselves, forgive others, and commit to improvements in our lives.
Psalm 23 reminds us that if we achieve this balance, "then goodness and mercy shall follow us." I believe, however, that in the long run good outcomes only come to pass when combined with good actions.
As we approach the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and the following ten days of introspection, it behooves us to ask, is there anyone in our lives we need to make peace with, and if someone approaches us with an apology, are we ready to say "I forgive you?"
Some would argue that it should not take a special time of the year to engage in this process. They are right. But often, when left to our own devices, we fail to do so without the motivation, and the designation of time.
How are we doing? Are we happy with our relationships? Are we just going through the motions?
Indeed, Rosh Hashanah is a time of restrained happiness, as we embrace the opportunity to clean our spiritual slate. But if we fail to perform an accounting of the soul, then our temporary satisfaction at the dinner table will only lead us to spiritual hunger soon after.
Is that good enough?
As Rosh Hashanah approaches it's time to pick one character trait to improve, and perhaps one person whom we want to promote a better relationship with. The Talmud tells us that it's better to pick one or two small things than to commit to something huge with a low chance of success.
Who is that person? What is that trait?
May each of us commit to goodness-goodness in the year ahead. And may we commit to the hard work of personal reflection as we strive to identify and fulfill our life's destiny.
How will we judge ourselves? And what type of spiritual table do we plan to set for the year ahead?
Best wishes to all for a Shannah Tovah,a happy, sweet and fulfilling new year.
Shabbat shalom, Shannah Tovah,
Rabbi Irwin Huberman