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The meaning of Shana Tova

Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is the editor of the research and data-journalism website themadad.com, and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

September 26, 2016

Wishing people Shana Tova, and meaning it, is trickier than you think. Exactly a week from today, we will all do just that – we will all wish everybody a happy new year, using the traditional Jewish greeting Shana Tova – a good year.

But before we do, it is worth remembering that this is a problematic greeting.

If you wish your neighbor, the auto repair mechanic, a good year, this means a year that is not as good for those who own and drive cars. The mechanic surely has good intentions, but his livelihood depends on other people having problems with their cars. If you wish Shana Tova to the weatherman, this means a year not as blessed for those who might get hurt by interesting weather. The weatherman craves the blizzard, the heatwave, the hurricane, to have a fulfilling year – the rest of the public has other interests. If you wish the greengrocer Shana Tova – you will pay more for your cucumbers. If you wish your banker Shana Tova – your commissions will raise. If you wish the columnist Shana Tova – well, a good year for the columnist is a bad year for everybody else.

Wishing Shana Tova calls for caution. A good year for Donald Trump would not be a good year for Hillary Clinton. A good year for Prime Minister Netanyahu would be less satisfying for President Barack Obama. A good year for the Republican Party would be a troubling year for Democratic voters. A good year for Bashar Assad would be devastating for the lives of many Syrians.

It is inconvenient, yet necessary, to admit: Shana Tova for one could mean a year that's not as good for another. A good year for Israeli settlers would not be as good for Palestinian nationalists. Some might say that it would not be as good for the State of Israel as well. A good year for the Shas Party – a Haredi party – would not be as good for the many new voters of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Some might say that it would also not be good for Shas Party voters whose party is dragging them down. Hence, as we wish our neighbors, countrymen, friends, even family, Shana Tova, we ought to aim for it to be a good year, but not too good. Less the preponderance of goodness tilts sharply in one direction.

What is a good year?

A good year is a year in which we properly identify those things that are good for almost everybody – say, good health (the doctors could get bored) – and those that are really good for just one sector of society – say, bad health, which still benefits the pharmaceutical companies and their many employees (Many get the virus – few get the bonus).

A good year is a year in which a reasonable balance is achieved between what is good for me and what is good for you, between what is good for the individual and what is good for society, between what is good for a nation and what is good for the world. Shana Tova – a good year – is a year that must be less than perfect. Because nothing can be perfect, neither for all of humanity, nor for all the members of a certain group – say, the Jews who will celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

This need for an equilibrium of goodness touches all aspects of personal and political life. In order to have a good year (but not perfect) for everybody, those who believe in less taxes would still have to see some of their money taken away from them and spent on goals and programs they deem unnecessary. To have a good year for everybody (but not perfect), those who support more government subsidies and funding of projects would still have to see the rich enjoy a plenitude that the poor will never enjoy. To have a good year for everybody (but not perfect), those who want the Supreme Court to be more active in setting a liberal tone would have to accept certain rulings that favor a more conservative approach to life. To have a good year for everybody (but not perfect), those who want the court to block all government initiatives that infringe on their rights would have to accept that the court is sometimes hesitant to do such things.

In all years, but even more so in election years, and even more so in election years such as the one the US is currently going through, we should remember that Shana Tova is not a year in which the tug of war between people and between groups and between sectors somehow disappears. This battle of wills, interests, and viewpoints is essential. It is the expression of every person’s, every group’s, every sector’s wish to better its situation, to have a good year.

In Israel, the Haredis are currently engaged in budget maneuvering to make this a better year for those dedicating their time to the study of Torah. In Washington, left-wing Jews are engaged in lobbying against the Netanyahu government to make this what they believe would be a better year for Israel. All over America, Trump voters are engaged in provocation to make this a better year for whom they believe are the marginalized silent majority. And in the same America, Clinton voters are engaged in scare tactics to make this a better year for whom they believe are the marginalized weakened segments of society. President Obama is toying with ideas concerning the peace process to make this a better year for Palestinian hopes. Even Iran is pushing its agenda forward to make this a better year for its version of the interests of Shiite Islam.

All of these want to have Shana Tova. Hence, the battle between them must continue. What is Shana Tova? It is a year in which all the battles continue – without any of them turning into an actual war.

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