good and sweet two different blessings

rosh hashanah 5779/2018

Why do we say the blessing ‘Have a Good and a Sweet year’?

As New Year pops its curly head out of the window of our lives once again, it is worth taking another look at one of the customs of New Year: the manner of greeting one another at this time.

First, a quick peep at what New Year is about. In keeping with the shared beliefs and traditions of New Year all over the world, and with many variations in other cultures, the New Year cycle starts with a time of self-confession and the desire for the relief of consequences from some of our less noble actions. This is understood as putting in the effort to balance what could be called our ‘karma’, or the restorative redress of intentional or unintended wrong action. Every peoples in the world has some ritual in place to ‘delete and reset’ themselves, so as to be less burdened by carrying the weight of errors of the previous year into the new cycle. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone sometime wishes that they had not. New Year helps us to deal with that.

Then the ritual moves to a short and more focused time of self examination. This is usually a time of prayer and meditation, addressing the Divine, or whichever deities one’s culture teaches has authority over one’s fate, or being present with whatever forces one believes shape our destiny. This culminates in the quiet confidence that our supplications and reflections have been successful. Finally, this time is always followed by a period of great rejoicing and celebration, secure that the peace, happiness and kindness that we desire are waiting for us in the year ahead.

This New Year cycle, or the main elements outlined above, is similar all over the world and has been practiced for all of recorded history. The Akitu ceremonies from almost 5000 years ago follow this cycle quite closely, as does contemporary orthodox Judaism. An internet search on New Year ceremonies around the world will fill in the gaps.

In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah is one of four new years. This one acknowledges the solar cycle and is the time for personal reflection. Rosh Hashana is ‘The Head of the Year’. It is customary at Rosh Hashana to offer various greetings and blessings to anyone else who is also mindful of the new year ritual. Amongst the usual greetings are wishing a fellow celebrant are ‘l’shana tova’( to a good year), and the more thorough ‘l’shana tova tikateiv v’tichateimu’(may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year), where the ‘inscription’ is in the eternal Book of Life, and the ‘sealing’ is the part that settles the matter of goodness, health and other pleasant things. There are other variations of greetings and good wishes.

One popular greeting, especially amongst Chassidim and those who study esoteric scripture, is‘l’shana tova u’metukah’, which means ‘to a good and a sweet year’. Many know of the tradition of dipping apples in honey at New Year, to ensure and encourage a blessing of sweetness in the year ahead. And the bread blessed and eaten at the New Year meal is also dipped in honey, instead of the usual salt.

Although having something sweet is usually pleasant, some scholars have questioned the wording of this greeting. Surely if you wish a person a ‘good’ year, you intend to include in that also a ‘sweet’ year. Or if you wished a person a ‘sweet’ year, then obviously you also mean that it would be a ‘good’ year. Using both words seem redundant.

There is more to this blessing than meets the eye. In common with many other philosophies, Judaism considers that God’s sustaining energy is always a synergy of two forces. One is a radiant, generous, light, and out-going energy, usually identified on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life as the outgoing, expansive masculine side. The other power is that of gestation, containment and boundaries, identified as the nourishing, insightful, feminine side of the Kabbalistic tree. By their union and constant dynamic, all of creation is sustained.

However, when either side gets out of proportion, all of creation suffers. Expansiveness without limits soon becomes excessive, greedy, wasteful and eventually destructive. From shopping malls to television news, pornography and social media, ‘everything’ becomes meaningless.  By including everything, it values nothing. By taking or giving everything indiscriminately, nothing is held as valuable or cherished. By seeing all of creation as ‘more’, nothing is precious or sacred. Everything is a running on and events are not reflected on and deeply experienced. Imagination is destroyed by literalism.

Equally, limitation without wisdom and generosity soon becomes cruelty. When taken to excess, the laws of nature and those that guide society, necessary for the wellbeing and balance, become harsh and unbearable. No one would imagine that a child who makes a silly mistake should be harshly beaten or imprisoned. Or that drones and cctv, useful to monitor crime, should erode the personal freedom of every person. Leaders and limits to our desires are necessary. Dictators and cancers are expressions of holding too tightly, control without kindness, taking without giving back. Love is corrupted by fear and the need to control.

The sun shining strongly all the time would burn the earth. Summer is contained by winter. Day is balanced by night. We need sleep and dreams as much as daytime activities, silence and quiet to balance business and noise. And now we can understand better why in the bible story of creation, we are told repeatedly that after God created something, God ‘saw that it was good’. Good means that’s done, it’s enough, that action is finished and there is no need to overwork it. ‘Good’ means expansiveness has found a way to be held. Good means kindness that has found its proportion.

And the boundary and containment side also needs to know their limits. ‘Sweetness’ means judgements should err on the side of kindness. Reproach should be sweetened with guidance. Stupidity met with instruction. Poverty met with generosity. And the terrible physical and emotional sufferings of many people, and of our planet, must be embraced with compassion, met with consideration and engaged with humour. Severity always needs to be sweetened. And as we ask it of ourselves, so we remind God that we would wish to be judged similarly.

We need both the good andthe sweet, in the same way that we need one another to live a creative and nourishing life.

L,shana tova u’mesuka.May we all be blessed for a good and a sweet year.