Shanah Tova! Happy New Year! Who says so? The summer saw three Jewish kids and one Palestinian brutally murdered, followed by a war — one ended by a cease-fire that Hamas leaders are already threatening to end by Sept. 25 if they don’t get the results they want.
The Islamic State is on the march, and it’s not clear that the world has the will to stop them, despite President Obama’s announcement last week that the U.S. would conduct airstrikes against ISIS. Here at home, the holidays will likely bring out the very worst in the Jewish community’s Cassandra class — rehashing their interpretations of the Pew study, and a long list of other challenges we face regarding the overall health of Jewish life in America.
And while there are plenty of good things to report, both here and abroad, and I don’t share many of the demographers’ dire predictions, it’s hard not feel at least a bit of reserve, if not trepidation, about confidently proclaiming our hopes for the year ahead. Or not.
It is at precisely these moments — moments when even the more optimistic among us must admit that there are things about which to be concerned, and many new realties which need to be addressed, when we can rely most on the wisdom of the tradition to help us find the courage, the vision, the hopefulness and the love to declare Shanah Tova/Happy New Year! The choice is ours to make, and it’s one that has been built into the Jewish calendar for thousands of years.
In biblical times, the calendar began in the spring, a time when life is literally bursting from the earth, much as the Israelites burst out of Egypt. It’s entirely natural to confidently look to the future at such times and declare that things will be happy and good. But to do so in the autumn as things are dying? Who celebrates a new year and the birth of the world then? We do, and here’s why.
Happiness doesn’t just happen. In fact, psychologists now tell us what the sages who established Rosh HaShanah in the fall, seem to have appreciated centuries ago — that happiness is at least as much something we create as it is a state of being which happens to us. And once found, all agree that happiness is something to be nurtured and expanded, much like an ember we blow into a flame, and to which we must add fuel so that the flame warms our homes and lights up our lives.
Making this choice, seeing the goodness and the happiness around us, and confidently declaring that we can add to both, is an ancient wisdom and a Rosh HaShanah/Yom Kippur gift you can give to yourself, and anyone else with whom you want to share it. Among the ways we can all access and experience this gift, are by celebrating three human capacities each of which is central to the High Holidays and can help us to make the most of the year ahead: feeling a sense of belonging, practicing gratitude and nurturing hope.
Belonging. And, no I am not just talking about the places where we pay dues! Rosh HaShanah celebrates the birth of humanity, and the fact that we all belong to the human family. In fact, we all belong to many families and communities; it’s just that sometimes we forget.
This Rosh HaShanah, take some time to make a list of all the communities, families, tribes and nations to which you feel connected. The list will be longer than you imagine. When you have the chance, write down your list and keep it with you. You really do belong to so many others, and so many others really do belong to you.
Gratitude. From apples dipped in honey, to the ability to both receive and grant forgiveness, the High Holidays offer so many ways to be aware of that for which we can be grateful. Ask yourself for what, and for whom, are you most grateful? Consider whose forgiveness you would be grateful to receive, and who might be most grateful to receive forgiveness from you.
“Gratitude,” as they say in some circles, “is an attitude.” Try these simple steps and see if they don’t brighten your outlook even when the headlines are dark.
Hope. Yom Kippur teaches that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven, or any dream too big to dream. By the end of the holiday, dare to imagine that both a new year, and a new you, truly are beginning. You really are forgiven, and the fulfillment of your hopes is at least a bit more within your reach.
Belonging, gratitude and hope — sacred tools for building a happier you, a stronger Jewish people and better world, in the coming year. If that isn’t the beginning of a Shanah Tova, what is?
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and executive editor of TheWisdomDaily.com.