Rabbi's Corner

How do we greet one another this Rosh Hashanah?
Erev Rosh Hashanah 2001/5762
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit

There is a section of the Talmud where the rabbis are remembered and represented by a few pithy phrases, a distillation of some of the most important things they taught throughout their lives. It is like the quote you put in your high school year book, although you don't chose it: others chose it to represent the most important things you have taught them. In that section, Pirkei Avot, the great sage Shammai is represented by the words, "greet every person you meet, b'sever panim yafot, greet every one in a really nice, appropriate manner." Now, you have got to ask, why would the rabbis focus on such a small thing? "Make sure to say hello to people?" Yet upon consideration, I don't think that this statement is trivial at all. Even if that spark between our eyes, between our hands, lasts a moment, how we receive one another when we meet, is one of the essential elements in creating community.

So, I have been thinking: What is the greeting we should use as we come together on this New Year? Traditionally we wish each other Shanah Tovah, a good year, or Shanah Tovah u'metukah, a good and sweet year. In English, it's common for us to translate that as "Happy New Year." Yet tonight, after the horrific events of last week, many of us feel neither happy nor good. As reports of deaths and injuries filter in and the country takes on a new mood, we feel like much of the sweetness has been taken out of the beginning of this year.

To me, it feels as if we need to find a new way of thinking, a new way of being, and certainly a new way of greeting one another at this difficult time. I would like to suggest three possible greetings on this Rosh Hashanah, and explore briefly how they might help us move ahead into this year with the strength and courage that feels so necessary at this moment.

The first new greeting I would suggest is Shanah shel nechama, a year of comfort. This is a time to especially value and cherish our friends and families and explore in a deeper way, what it means to support those who we love. But if we are really going to offer and receive comfort, we must be prepared to move deeper into our relationships with the people around us. I think of the Hasidic story of the rabbi who watches two Russian peasants drinking together at an Inn. The first asks, "Boris, do you love me?" His friend replies, "Ivan, Do I love you, we've worked side by side on our farm for years. Of course I love you!" They return to their vodka and a minute later, Ivan asks, "Boris, do you know what causes me pain?" Boris thinks for a moment and answers no. At that point Ivan roars, "If you don't know what causes me pain, how can you say you love me!? Afterwards, the Hasidic rebbe who heard this exchange said to his students, "This is the essence of our connection with one another. We must look deeply enough into one another's souls not only to know what makes us happy but also to understand what causes us pain." If we really are to have a year of comfort, we must be ready to go deeper with our friends and understand their fears and difficulties. At the same time, we must be willing to share our own burdens, revealing ourselves to those around us.

Now, there is a deeper secret contained here. Within the Hebrew word nechama, comfort, is found the word, nacha, rest, rejuvenation. At this time, we each have a responsibility to pay special attention to take care of ourselves. We can't be effective comforters if we allow ourselves to get used up in the process.

The next greeting I want to suggest for this New Year is Shanah Hazakah, a year of strength. There is much to be done and we will need strength to go forward effectively and intelligently. We need strength to proceed thoughtfully, even in our anger and grief. The word hazak means something else as well, it means resolve. I hope this is a year when we work to clarify the values that are important to us. It's a time when we must look closely at our country and work to understand our commitment to justice, our belief in democracy, and how our great economic wealth can be used for good. America is far from faultless in our dealings in the world; that should not blind us to the fact that evil exists and we need to oppose it when we encounter it. I understand the need to defend ourselves and that military power has a place in this struggle but I pray that we will have the strength to know that ultimately, the only things that will overcome evil are justice, understanding and love. It takes strength and resolve to stay discerning, refuse to stereotype certain groups and act thoughtfully in the presence of evil. We will need a Shanah Hazakah.

And that brings me to the last greeting that I want to suggest on this Rosh Hashanah, and that is Shanah Ahavah, a year of love. Now, I understand that my own generation did a lot to trivialize the word "love" in our national discourse. I came of age in the late 1960s when the phrase "peace and love" was overused, ultimately losing much of it's meaning and power. "The Summer of Love" in 1969 was a great party. Woodstock was a really good party (but it was very muddy, as I remember) Neither expressions of love solved the world's problems. So how can we speak of love without trivializing its meaning? I would like to suggest this: I think love is ultimately about the willingness of people to truly listen to one another, to open their hearts to one another. This is at the core of Judaism as we say the Shema, Listen! Shema Yisrael! Listen! That central prayer underscores the value of listening. The Shema teaches that while intelligent people know how to talk; wise people know the importance of listening. A community where people listen is a community where people will open their hearts to one another. That is why, I think, the Shema is followed by the prayer V'ahavta (And you Shall Love). Listening is a prerequisite for love. To build the kinds of bonds we need, between people and groups who are quite different from one another, we need to listen if we are to move towards love.

I want to end my words this evening with a story about the power of our greetings. I am told that it's a true story. All of my stories are true stories. This story starts in the city of Danzig in Germany in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Each morning in Danzig, the town's rabbi would take a walk. And on that walk he would take great care to greet everyone he met, including a certain farmer, Her Muller. Gut morgen Her Muller. Gut Morgen, Her Rabbiner, the farmer would return, a simple ritual but one that was played out every morning for years. When the dark cloud of evil descended on Germany, the rabbi was sent to a series of concentration camps eventually ending up at Auschwitz. As he stood in a selection that would decide who would live and who would die, he saw the farmer from his home town standing before him wearing an SS uniform. The rabbi was gaunt and starved, hardly recognizable but when he saw the farmer he said Gut morgen Her Muller. The guard was surprised but automatically replied Gut Morgen, Her Rabbiner, and quickly motioned that he should move not towards death but to the work details, to life. The next day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp where he survived the war.

Our greetings are important. They set the tone for our daily lives and relationships. Who knows how they influence our future. At this difficult time, I wish you a Shanah Nechamah, a year of comfort, Shanah Hazakah, a year of Strength, Shanah shel Ahavah, a year of connection and love. May our greetings strengthen the bonds between us and shape our communities. May they lead us towards a Shanah Tovah, a year of goodness and peace.


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