A Sweet, Sweet Year

31 Aug 2007

By Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Executive Vice President, Orthodox Union

In these days of the month of Elul, we are already wishing each other Shanah Tovah u-Metukah, a “good and sweet new year.” To many, this may seem like just a trivial, perhaps even an empty greeting—but it’s just the right thing to say at this time of year. But obviously it has a deeper and more profound meaning; expressing the wish of each of us that others, individually, and the Jewish people as a community, will experience a new year that is indeed good and sweet.

The hard-boiled cynics among us may respond, “What good year? What sweet year?” Perhaps for individuals, their year will have moments of goodness and sweetness and perhaps even an absence of real “tzores.” But for the Jewish people as a whole? There may be good news here and there, but it is certainly not likely to be a sweet year. After all, threats to the Israel’s security abound, and anti-Semitism in its most vile and vulgar form is clearly on the increase, while we are clearly decreasing in numbers and perhaps in influence as well. In short, the Jewish people face tremendous challenges at every turn.

As a possible retort to our “hard-boiled cynic,” I draw upon a deep insight I heard long ago from an old Chassidic sage. He asked, “Why do we wish each other both a ‘good’ and also a ‘sweet’ new year? What would be wrong with simply saying have a good year?” He answered by distinguishing between the definition of “good” and the definition of “sweet.”

After all, “What is good?” is not a simple question to answer. Defining “good” has been a popular philosophical problem from ancient times until today. Indeed, from a Jewish perspective, everything is for the good. The believing Jew follows the lesson of the ancient sage Nachum who, in the most tragic of circumstances, would still say “Gam zo l’tovah, even this is for the good.” So when we wish someone a “good year”, who knows what we are really wishing him? “However,” pointed out this Chassidic sage, “when it comes to a definition of ‘sweet’, things are far less ambiguous. Sweet is sweet.” And therefore we add the additional wish of a “sweet” year, a year which is clearly and obviously positive, without the necessity of any philosophical spin.

We are taught not to rely upon miracles, and not even to pray for them. So, setting them aside and trying to be very realistic, what are some of the sweet things that could really happen this year, and that we can wish and pray for wholeheartedly, and could reasonably expect?

I would suggest that one of them is the freeing of the Israeli soldiers who are being held in captivity. Gilad Shalit, for example; his return home is certainly not impossible and is something that we must pray for and have every right to wish for.

That the inhabitants of Sderot can live a year without rocket attacks is something which is very possible and wouldn’t take a major, unexpected diplomatic victory to attain.

We can certainly hope to see major breakthroughs in cures for significant illnesses—scientific discoveries are continually accelerating, and we have every right to expect some sweetness there.

The reconciliation of individual differences, family conflicts, and even the modulation, however slight, of international conflicts, is certainly something in the realm of the expectable.

In our own community, we can anticipate continued progress, if not total and perfect success, on many troublesome fronts. They include domestic violence, the agunah issue, substance abuse, teenage drop-outs, and proper remediation of learning disabilities.

We can hope for progress, too, in our efforts to alleviate the heavy tuition burden on parents who want a quality Jewish education for their children.

And we can certainly look to see more fellow Jews connecting in meaningful ways to our religion and heritage.

All these are within the realm of the possible. Yet, even in recent decades, there have been unanticipated, unheralded events that we have witnessed and have experienced. Had they been predicted in advance, no doubt they would have seemed to our “hard boiled cynic” to be beyond the realm of possibility. They include, of course, Anwar al Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and speech to the Knesset, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the exodus of millions of Jews, and the amazing rebirth and growth of Torah study and religious dedication.

From this perspective, we have every right to aspire to, and certainly to wish and pray for, a good and sweet year in every respect. Good, not just in the philosophical sense but in the objective sense, and sweet for sure.

Let us hope that in Elul of next year we can look back and say that this year was good. But not only was it good—it was also a sweet, sweet year. Shanah Tovah u-Metukah to all!