Susan and I shared in the immense joy of dear friends while attending the wedding of their daughter on Labor Day. Since Rosh HaShana starts this coming Sunday night, we heard many greetings of, “Shana Tova,” (have a good year) and, “Have a happy new year.” The sentiment is lovely. The words are not quite accurate.
Being happy is a purposeful decision we make. Being happy is our responsibility. It’s not the responsibility of our parents, friends, family, or God. God commands us to be happy regardless of circumstance. (Deuteronomy 16:15)
On both occasions when the Torah mentions Rosh Hashana, it fails to speak of new year.
Speak to the Children of Israel saying, in the seventh month, on the first of the month, you shall have a rest day, a remembrance with shofar blasts, a holy gathering.
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy gathering;
you shall do no work, it is a day of shofar sounding for you.
The day is identified only as a day for blowing the shofar, a ram’s horn. Indeed, the Rosh HaShana synagogue service revolves around hearing one hundred blasts of the shofar.
In general, Judaism seems to value sound above sight. Music is more esteemed than the visual arts. In fact, the Torah warns against trusting eyes, much preferring what you hear to what you see.
…that you don’t detour after your heart and your eyes,
which incline you to go astray.
…hear, Oh Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears today
God indicates that ears are a better avenue for trustworthy information than eyes. But there is another difference between ears and eyes.
What happens if we press ‘pause’ while watching a movie? We see a freeze-frame—a still picture with actors frozen in whatever postures they were in at the instant that ‘pause’ was pressed. We can slice an instant of video, disconnected from the moments before and after and still retain a meaningful visual image.
However, with sound it is different. If we press ‘pause’ while listening to a song or a speech all we hear is silence. Sound is meaningless when disconnected from the moments before and after.
Rosh HaShana is also known as, “The Day of Memory.” Nobody with zero memory could hear a tune. All he’d hear is a sequence of disconnected notes. Despite having no memory, a human could easily view a painting, picture or statue.
Hearing also helps to connect us to others. If you had to make a horrible choice between having only sight or having only hearing, many people might instinctively choose sight. Yet ancient Jewish wisdom suggests that deafness is a worse affliction. Blindness isolates one from things, but deafness isolates one from people.
Our ability to make sense of sound depends on continuity of time. And continuity of time helps us be happy. Living in a sliced instant of disconnected time means that the pain, sadness or humiliation we now endure overwhelms us with its sense of permanence. We remain frozen in our agony.
Or, perhaps, we think that being happy this very instant is the most important thing and so we miss out on the joy of planning and working for long-term happiness. Hearing the shofar blasts vibrates our souls into a visceral awareness that this instant is not all-important. It is part of a bigger picture. We can recognize that excruciating pain will pass and so will peaks of excitement. Our task is to choose happiness with past, present and future in mind, as did the young couple whose marriage we celebrated.
Rosh HaShana does not stand as a day isolated from the rest of our year. It is a time when our prayers focus on how our own conduct impacts our connection with God, our world and with all humanity. May God grant us all a year of peace, good health and prosperity. And happiness? Well, that is, of course, our choice.