For 24 years, I officiated at Rosh Hashanah services at several synagogues. Some of the synagogues put together books of readings to augment the Rosh Hashanah liturgy by focusing on a variety of themes of the holy day in contemporary ways.
Many of the readings were good, but one has stuck in my head ever since the first time I read it. I do not know who wrote it, but it may well have been Rabbi Jack Riemer, who wrote a number of poignant additional readings for this time of the Jewish year. Here are the lines that I want to quote and explore:
There is a world of difference between a holiday and a holy day.
On holidays we run away from duties. On holy days we face up to them.
On holidays we seek to let ourselves go. On holy days we try to bring ourselves under control.
On holidays we try to empty our minds. On holy days we attempt to replenish our spirits.
On holidays we reach out for the things that we want. On holy days we reach up for the things that we need.
Holidays bring a change of scene. Holy days bring a change of heart.
Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a vacation, a holiday. In fact, there are very good reasons to do so. We all need to enjoy some time away from our normal work routine, especially if it also helps to renew and strengthen relationships with family or friends who accompany us on the vacation. Vacations also enable us to refresh ourselves, and they can contribute to gaining a new perspective on our lives at this stage of life. Indeed, the Jewish tradition mandates that we engage in a vacation from work each week on Shabbat, the day that Rabbi Edward Feinstein aptly calls “the antidote to American civilization.”
The High Holy Days, though, serve a very different need that is at least as important for our lives as vacations are. They ask us to think about the year past and evaluate it against the Jewish values our tradition teaches us so that we can plan to do better in the year to come. We do this not as individuals, but as a community so that we can gain strength from each other in this difficult task, a task made easier when it is clear that we all need to do this, not just I alone. As the Rosh Hashanah liturgy indicates, this holy day is not intended to be an extended guilt trip, although there will probably be some guilt stirred up in each one of us as we remember ways in which we should have acted differently; Rosh Hashanah is instead to be a celebration of creation and a call to make our lives as much as possible a contribution to the flourishing of our people, humanity in general, and the very earth we live on.
So, as the beginning of the reading from which I quoted above notes, on January 1st, we wish each other “Happy New Year,” where the focus is on pleasure. On Rosh Hashanah, in contrast, we wish each other a shanah tovah, a good new year, where the emphasis is on making our own lives morally good. Then, before lunch on this day, as we dip a slice of apple into honey, we add yet another word, “shanah tovah u’metukkah,” may we have a good and sweet new year.” So may it be for all of us.