By Reb David Markus
Shanah tovah. I hope your new year is dawning bright and sweet.
It’s a particularly fitting time of year for getting back to basics – the essence of who we are and whom we aspire to be, the essence of our relationships and the truth of our lives. God, growth and new life always call to us, but this time of year is especially ripe with possibility: as Isaiah reminds us, “Call to God while God is near” (Isaiah 55:6).
So we wish each other Shanah tovah, a “good year.” And fittingly for this meaningful time of year, even this simple greeting offers layers of meaning.
Shanah, of course, means “year,” as in Rosh Hashanah, “new year,” literally “head of the year.” But shanah derives from a Hebrew root with several meanings: from shanah we also derive shinui, which means “change,” and shoneh, which means “difference.”
Shanah, shinui and shoneh – year, change and difference. We can’t say the word “year” without speaking of change and difference. When we wish each other Shanah tovah, a “good year,” we also are saying “good change.” Even our greeting reminds us that time and change weave together. We cannot speak of one without the other.
A story about shanah and shinui: King Solomon tested his minister by asking him to bring a ring that held the wisdom of the world. The minister searched high and low for such a ring but could not find one: how could a simple ring hold so much? One day at this time of year, the minister saw a poor merchant laying his wares on a carpet. The minister asked the merchant, “Do you know a ring that can hold the wisdom of the world?” The merchant took a small gold ring, engraved it and handed it to the minister, who read the engraving and smiled.
When King Solomon next saw the minister, the king asked, “Well, my friend, have you found what I sent you for?” The minister said, “Here it is, your majesty,” and gave the king the ring. Solomon took the ring and saw that it was inscribed with three Hebrew letters, gimmel, zayin, yod, which stand for gam zeh ya’avor: “this too shall pass.”
This too shall pass. All things pass, everything changes. Change is the wisdom of the world, the essence of all things. In our shanah, the year that passed and the year now starting, change (shinui) is a certainty. As R’ Alan Lew, of blessed memory, said of this time of year, “This moment is before us with its choices, and the consequences of our past choices are before us, as is the possibility of transformation. This year some will die, some will live and all will change.”
All will change. The question is, what kind of change will this year bring for us?
Well, that depends. As Alan Lew reminds us, change is partly about choice. Of all life on this planet, we humans have the unique ability to choose change, to do teshuvah – to return to our best selves, to do our parts to nurture relationships, release hurts, forgive flaws, adjust habits and seek forgiveness. We have the unique ability, and the unique opportunity at this time of year, to change if we choose.
Of course, some changes are beyond our control: all things pass, gam zeh ya’avor. Pleasures fade, losses are part of life and challenges always change us – more shinui in our shanah. But while we can’t avoid some challenges, how they change us is up to us. If we will it deep in our souls, even losses and failures can plant seeds of gratitude, renewal and opportunity.
Before author JK Rowling birthed Harry Potter, she bore a baby and lived near poverty. Today, Rowling speaks of those days as Harry Potter’s birth pangs. She says, “Failure meant stripping away the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive. Rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Challenges can beat us down or strip away the inessential to uncover our souls – bright and true, a strong foundation that the hurts of our world might shake but never topple. We face this choice every day: a choice of the heart, of turning, of teshuvah.
Sometimes it’s no easy choice, especially when we feel pain and fear. Some changes hurt; some change is scary. Those who preach the power of positive thinking are right, of course, but try saying “think positive!” to someone who’s suffering, especially when the changes or losses they suffer are beyond their control. We don’t have to be Job to feel like some changes are too much to bear, as if our souls will shatter. What can we do when change seems too hard, too risky, too painful?
This time of year asks us to risk our hearts for change. It’s a lot to ask. But are we so satisfied with our lives that we’re happy to stay where we are? Are hurts that lay on our hearts so dear to us that we prefer them? Are habits that might hurt our loved ones or ourselves so important that we want to keep them? Will we let loss and pain turn us into victims, or can we use them to build more unshakable foundations for our lives?
That is the gift of Rosh Hashanah: the gift of shinui, the gift of change, the gift of another chance – and yes, the gift of choosing risk for change.
So our question about what kind of change this year will be, the shinui in our shanah, is also a question about risk. Will we risk our hearts to choose changes that are within our power to make, and use changes beyond our control to put a shine on our souls?
And in these efforts, our third word – not shanah or shinui, but shoneh, difference – can help.
When change feels risky or scary, tradition invites us to tell about it a story that’s a bit different, shoneh. Emotional and spiritual risk is itself the story we tell about it. These stories are our personal narratives, attitudes about ourselves and our resilience evolving throughout our lives. They are powerful. Words are power. God spoke the world into being, we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and spiritually speaking we have tremendous power. Spiritually we are as potent and resilient as we say we are.
Often we tell our internal stories about “what” happens – “what” we have or don’t have, “what” we want, illness or health, rags or riches – often things we can’t control. But Rosh Hashanah asks us to shift our stories about “what” into stories about “who,” who we are and whom we wish to be – things we can change because spiritually we have infinite power to change. With this infinite power, spiritual risk can fade like a candle in front of the sun. As kabbalist Estelle Frankel observes, shifting our story from “what” to “who” helps us tap the infinite power of the soul. Or as the Kotzker Rebbe put it, “Where is God? Wherever we let God in.”
Shanah, shinui, shoneh: the year will bring change, and telling a different story about it – not the “what” of change but the “who” of change – can tap our infinite power, and God’s infinite power, to make spiritual change for the good. This choice to take a different path might have been what poet Robert Frost meant when he wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I, I took the road less traveled by. And that has made all the” – shoneh.
It is said that when God created the world, God created birds without wings. The birds complained to God, “We’re so small that we’re being devoured by larger animals.” God said, “Have patience: you’ll see.” In time, the birds grew wings and God asked, “Are you happy now?” “No!” the birds replied, “It’s worse than ever. Before we were small, but at least we were quick so we could avoid larger animals. Now we have weights on our sides and we can hardly move!” God said, “What appear to be weights are really wings,” and God taught the birds how to use these apparent weights to fly higher and higher.
Let us invite God deeply into these days of teshuvah, to turn our weights into wings that lift us higher and higher into a Shanah tovah – a good year, a good change, and a good difference for us and all our loved ones.