Insights into Rosh Hashanah: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

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“Let us now relate the power of the day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals; Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles-it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it. The great shofar will be sounded, and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them-and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment…All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock…and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.” (From the Rosh Hashanah liturgy; Artscroll Machzor.)

Rosh Hashanah is serious business.

A quick glance at the famous passage quoted above, or at just about any given page of the special Rosh Hashanah prayer book, will quickly dispel any doubts on that score. So will the harsh and awe-inspiring blast of the shofar, a sound that can arouse depths of feeling in even the most unflappable synagogue shmoozer.

Other nations may celebrate their New Year reveling in Times Square (or its equivalent); we spend ours standing in court, pleading for mercy from on high. “Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life-for Your sake, O Living G-d.” We come before G-d, our Father and King, to ask for Life: both in the physical sense (a year of health, happiness and prosperity…with record-breaking gains on the Nasdaq), and in the spiritual (a year of heightened sensitivity and connection to the greatness of G-d and the Torah).

When you look beyond the apples dipped in honey (beautiful, important and sacred custom though it is) to really think of what’s at stake on Rosh Hashanah…it could get you pretty worried.

Which is why I think some of the best advice I can offer you is what singer Bobby McFerrrin tunefully (some would say vapidly) urged us way back when I was in high school: “DON’T WORRY; BE HAPPY.”

You think I’m kidding you. I’m serious, my friend. DON’T WORRY; BE HAPPY.

In fact, I can quote two individuals of even greater stature and more unimpeachable integrity than the talented McFerrin: Nechemya (Nehemiah) and Ezra, towering leaders of the Jewish people at the time of the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. They reinvigorated a demoralized Jewish population in the Holy Land, who had strayed from Torah observance in the years of the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple.

The Book of Nehemiah records a scene that took place “on the first day of the seventh month”Rosh Hashanah. Ezra read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah to the assembled masses in Jerusalem: though they enthusiastically pledged to commit themselves once again to G-d’s Law, they were brokenhearted at their past misdeeds. Worried (like us) about how Hashem would judge them on the awesome day of Judgment. But Ezra and Nehemiah told the people, in so many words, “DON’T WORRY; BE HAPPY.”

“Then Nehemiah…as well as Ezra the Kohen, the scholar, and the Levites who were helping the people understand, said to all the people, ‘Today is sacred to Hashem, your G-d; do not mourn and do not weep.’ For all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the Torah. He said to them, ‘Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad; the enjoyment of Hashem is your strength!'” (Nehemiah: 8, 9-10; Artscroll Tanach)

Nehemiah was not telling the people to have a wild party; he was not counseling, “Eat, drink and be merry,” in the commonly understood and profane sense. Rather, he was reminding them that Rosh Hashanah is, after all, a Yom Tov, a Jewish holiday with its requisite obligation to rejoice and eat beautiful meals and wear special clothes; his message was, “Eat, drink…and rejoice in Hashem!” What is our true strength-as individuals and as a nation? Our joy in serving G-d, in the special closeness to the Holy One, Blessed be He, that is our portion and our inheritance as the Jewish people.

Though it’s true that on Rosh Hashanah the prayers emphasize G-d’s Kingship (and the role of Supreme Judge that accompanies that) still we should not lose sight of the fact that Rosh Hashanah begins a period that culminates in the Divine compassion of Yom Kippur; and even on Rosh Hashanah itself, we recite the famous prayer of Avinu Malkeinu-“our Father, our King”-which should remind us that even as He judges us, He is still (and ever) our loving Father. That is a constant source of joy for us.

But I’ll go further. There is joy in the very fact that G-d is King, the absolute ruler Who governs all aspects of Creation and lays claim to our complete allegiance as His servants. There is joy in the clear and lofty vision of ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives, and to existence as a whole, that lies at the center of the Rosh Hashanah service. (The mere fact that we are judged is a sign of our-and life’s-importance!)

King David expresses this sentiment exactly in the second chapter of Psalms, in a verse whose second half, I think, captures the tone of Rosh Hashanah exactly: “Serve the Lord with awe, and rejoice greatly with trembling.” (2, 11) Rejoice with trembling? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:

“It is only in serene joyousness that man as a whole blossoms forth and that those energies are liberated which man needs in order to discharge his task. But this unclouded joy is only found “biradah” [“with trembling”], in the complete disappearance of any opposition to the will of G-d, in the awareness of the fact that, without G-d, we are nothing and that our being and striving begin to have some meaning only if we permit them to be completely absorbed in G-d and His will. If we attach ourselves to the great sovereign purpose of G-d with our every achievement, great or small, then no contribution of ours, however small, shall be lost, and we may rejoice in it…” (Commentary on the Psalms, p. 13)

True rejoicing can be found (only) in the awe and “trembling” that accompany the awareness of G-d’s absolute sovereignty…and the commitment to live one’s life according to that awareness.

Is that not the essence of what Rosh Hashanah communicates to us?

Perhaps I would modify McFerrin slightly in light of all that we have said. WORRY…BUT BE HAPPY! (It won’t sell as many records.) Reflect on your life, and its direction, this Rosh Hashanah-a line of thought that might well lead you to worry (or weep). But above all, REJOICE. The only way we can strengthen our resolve for the future-and remember, it is the first day of the New Year, a year during which we all are resolving to live better lives-is to rejoice while you tremble.

Do not be sad; the enjoyment of Hashem is your strength.