Happy New Year or Good New Year
Every year as we lead up to January 1, the secular new year, I think about how Judaism relates to this day. After all, Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year) is completely different from the secular new year. It is a day spent mostly in synagogue praying, sounding the shofar and family meals.
When I lived in the States, virtually everywhere I would go during this time of year I would be greeted by a friendly “Happy New Year!” But what does that mean?
On the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) we do not greet each other with the phrase “Happy New Year.” The most common greeting is Shana Tova u’metukah—which means ‘Have a good and sweet new year’ which is very different from happy new year.
There is a world of difference between happy and good. Not everything that makes you happy is good and not everything that is good makes you happy. The emphasis on the word happy does not place an emphasis on timeless values. Happy puts me first. It plays in to the hedonistic goal of just “having a great time.” Just do whatever make you happy.
Good, on the other hand, emphasizes deep and timeless values. Holding back from sharing a piece of juicy gossip might not make you happy but it is good. Giving up your weekly card game to help a neighbor may not make you happy but it is good. Going to pray make not make you happy but it is good.
What is good is not determined by whether or not it makes me happy.
I remember when I was a high school teacher, there was a program in place that when the students were in 10th grade they had to complete a certain number of volunteer hours. Many of the students would complain about this requirement. The most common complaint heard was that “School is over, how can we be required to volunteer somewhere?”
The premise of the complaint was that volunteering did not make the students happy. They just wanted to go home. Eventually they learned to appreciate the incredible good that they were doing but the initial choice between going home and doing what makes them happy versus doing what is good was a very difficult one.
The first time that we see the word good in the Bible is in the creation story. With each day of creation, God completes the day and declares that it is good. With the end of creation, he declares that is “very good.” What does this mean?
The Jewish Sages offer a profound explanation. The word good in the context of the first chapter of Genesis, means that every part of creation fulfilled God’s purpose. It was exactly how God had intended it to be.
When we apply this idea to human beings, we can define good as living our lives in line with the will of God. God created us to be good. We all undoubtedly know many people who lead good lives despite the fact that they may suffer from many unhappy moments.
One final point. Emphasizing a life of goodness may not be the fast track to happiness but study after study have demonstrated that good people are happy people. Having lots of money does not make you happy—ironically studies show that giving to charity though does. It is a get rich slow plan.
So I propose that we start to wish people a “Good New Year” on January 1. It should be a year that our happiness is a product of our goodness. Have a Good New Year!