Friday, September 16, 2022

More Than Just a Sweet New Year


The Torah reading of Ki Tavo includes a lengthy passage filled with curses, the misfortunes that will visit the Jews if they abandon the covenant. This is the second time in the Torah that there is a set of curses; but this section of curses is much longer, and far gloomier, than the previous one in Parashat Bechukotai.


But the Talmud manages to strike a positive note about the curses. It tells us that Ezra, at the very beginning of the Second Temple, established that this Parsha be read before Rosh Hashanah, "that the year should end, and with it, its curses". Placing this Torah reading just prior to Rosh Hashanah expresses the hope that the difficulties of the past year be left behind as we enter a new year.


There is a Sephardic liturgical poem, achot ketanah, that is read on Rosh Hashanah; its refrain repeats the words "May the year end, and with it, its curses". In the final stanza it adds the phrase "may the new year begin and with it, its blessings". (In Hebrew, the words for “end” and “begin” are homonyms, similar sounding words that are spelled differently.) And this is now a popular phrase in Hebrew: Tichleh Shana v’Kililoteha. Tachel Shana u’Virchoteha;  "May the year end, and its curses, and the new year begin with is blessings".


The appeal of this phrase is obvious; who wouldn’t want an end to curses, and a beginning of blessings? For this reason we dip an apple in honey on Rosh Hashanah, and add a prayer for "a good and sweet year." And it is not just apples; many have the custom to dip the Shabbat challah in honey from Rosh Hashanah until Simchat Torah.


From a religious perspective, sweetness is not an obvious aspiration. Some religious traditions require unending discipline and seriousness. H.L. Mencken quipped that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” To stand in awe of God is seen as a continuous experience of fear and trembling.


In the Jewish tradition, we intertwine many significant religious experiences with sweetness. There was a medieval custom, cited in the 14th century Sefer Kolbo, that when a young child is first brought to study Torah, they are offered cakes and sweets. Then the child is shown the letters of the Hebrew alphabet on a board, and taught them; afterwards, honey is placed on each letter, and the child gets to lick the honey. This ritual, which is still practiced today, is meant to convey a message to the child that the Torah is very sweet.


The Torah must be a joy. Many Jewish philosophers see creation as an act of love, a gift of joy to mankind; and that should be reflected in our religious lives. But it is unfortunate that some parents and educators instruct children with a puritanical type of Judaism, one that drains the joy out of the religious experience. All too often, children raised in that environment rebel, not wanting to take any part in a Judaism of negativity and bitterness.


Sweetness has become a part of Jewish culture as well. In 2012, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that Jews have the highest well-being of any of the American faith groups. Being happy is as Jewish as chicken soup, and joy is an important mitzvah.


But realists understand that unending sweetness is impossible. In my early years in the rabbinate, I would announce before Parashat Ki Tavo that with the reading of the Torah, we are now leaving the curses of the previous year behind. But after a few years, I realized that announcing it on a yearly basis sounded absurd; every year new curses popped up that now had to be left behind. The yearly announcement ended up emphasizing that curses are perennial, with new ones occurring every year. Sweetness doesn’t last forever.


The Midrash Tanchuma offers a very different perspective on the curses in Ki Tavo. It connects the curses with the first words of the next Parsha, “you are standing here today”. The Midrash says that the point of this juxtaposition is to express that “even after all the suffering (of the curses) occurs, you can still remain standing.” Instead of looking for hope, this Midrash focuses on the importance of resilience.


It might be sweet to get past curses; but it is more important to know how to get through curses, to remain standing when everything goes wrong. A well lived life requires courage and determination along with sweetness and satisfaction.


Sweetness is not our final goal; happiness and meaning are not one and the same. In a 2013 study, a group led by Professor Roy F. Baumeister studied both the interconnection, as well as the differences, between happy lives and meaningful lives. Often, meaningful lives were fairly happy as well, but not always. The researchers found that “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life," while “the unhappy but meaningful life..(is)...seriously involved in difficult undertakings." Those who pursued meaningful lives, even if it limited their happiness, were true givers, people who made substantial differences in society.


At times, we are forced to choose between meaning and happiness. And in those moments, sweetness is no longer a priority. John Stuart Mill put it best when he wrote “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” This echoes the Talmud, which says one should serve God without interest in a reward and do what is right simply because it is right, even if it is painful to do so. In the choice between happiness and meaning, meaning comes first; Judaism believes that it is better to be a good person than a happy person.


Nowadays, the pursuit of sweetness comes first. The American Council on Education has been surveying incoming college freshmen since 1966. In 1967, 82.9% of freshmen felt that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was essential; in 2015, only 46.5% felt that was an important objective. (In contrast, in 1967, 43.5% of freshmen considered it essential to be “well off financially." By 2015, that number had gone up to 81.9%).


But If only happiness is the goal, then life is diminished. As the character Estragon says in Waiting for Godot: “What do we do now, now that we are happy?”.


Jews cherish happiness; but we know that there is still more to life. In centuries of challenges and persecutions, a quick conversion could have immediately improved the quality of life for any Jew. Some did take that route; but we are here today because so many remained loyal to their roots, no matter how difficult it was. Had our ancestors decided that happiness was the ultimate goal, there would not be any Jews left today.


Professor Marc Michael Epstein tells a powerful story from his days working in the rare book department at Sotheby’s. Inevitably, elderly people would show up with older books of little value, assuming they were important antiques. One day, one such elderly man arrived, with a book of Psalms printed in 1920; it was worth pennies, if that much. Not knowing how to break the news, Epstein asked the man: “What did you pay for this?”, hoping to let him down slowly in conversation. In response to the question, the man became far more serious; Epstein describes how “the old man drew himself up to his full 5 feet, 2 inches. ‘For this, I paid seven days’ Auschwitz bread,’ he replied... It seems that the Nazis had caught him with the little Psalm book, and, as a penalty for possessing it, imprisoned him without food—only water to drink—for an entire week." Epstein was overwhelmed by the response, and turned to the elderly man: “This,” I stammered, “is too valuable for us to sell.” Some things are more valuable than money; and there is more to life than just sweetness.


As we start the new year, we come to leave the past behind, ready to celebrate a sweet future. But even at times like this we must never forget that some things are more important than happiness, and some goals are more noble than joy.

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