The most ubiquitous and traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting is known to almost all Jews: L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu V’Teichateimu; may you been inscribed and sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year. In its few words, it alludes to the central metaphor of the High Holidays. The verdict of our divine judgment is to be recorded upon its completion, and our most fervent prayer is that it be recorded in the Book of Life, and not, God forbid, that other book…
While I certainly concur with the sentiment, I have always favored a line adopted from a Hebrew poem written in 13th century Spain: Tichleh shanah v’killeloteha, tachel shanah u’virchoteha. Let the old year with its curses end, and the New Year with its blessings begin. Thirteenth century Spain, twenty-first century America and Israel: It seems to be a timeless sentiment, doesn’t it? No matter where we might find ourselves at a given moment in time, as Rosh Hashanah nears, we are, invariably, ready for a re-boot, both spiritually and otherwise. Not only are we ready to start over, but we actually long to start over, to feel as if we have a chance to live life better and more wisely, both for our own sakes and for the ones we love.
As we prepare to welcome in 5776 this coming week, I would like to suggest yet another greeting. Actually, it’s a re-working of a different, frequently used prayer that Jews offer each other: nor af simchas! Only simchas, or, more frequently, may you know only simchas.
Nor af simchas is commonly said when taking leave from someone, and you don’t know the next time you might see him/her. What you’re saying, in essence, is that you hope that whatever it is that brings you together down the road is a joyous occasion, and not, God forbid, a funeral or tragedy. Actually, if you look on the web, you’ll find a site titled onlysimchas.com. Not surprisingly, it features announcements of engagements and marriages.
When I was sitting Shivah some years ago for my parents, of blessed memory, it was common for people, as they were leaving, to say “May you know only simchas.” Particularly as a rabbi, I understand where they were coming from. Here I am, sitting Shivah, and they’re hoping that, from this time forward, I will know only joyous occasions.
The only problem with the greeting is that, again as a rabbi, I know that it is what the ancient rabbis would have termed a t’fillat shav … a useless prayer that has little if any chance of being realized. The more people said it to me during the Shivah, the more empty it left me, despite the excellent intentions of the visitors. Of course I hope for simchas, but I know there will be occasions of the other kind! Life throws all kinds of things at us, in rapid fire, and they are most certainly not all simchas. From day to day, we are never more than a minute away from the possibility– the reality– of unforeseen challenges, some of them severe.
So through the years, I developed a version of the nor af simchas wish that I think is more realistic, and still offers a blessing worth receiving. Here’s what I say to people: May the blessings and simchas in your life far outweigh the difficulties. Yes, it’s a little less elevating and blissful than wishful thinking, but it also says something meaningful and significant. And it implies that if life brings you the inevitable difficult challenges, I’ll be there with you in those moments as well.
So this is my wish for all of you in the new year about to begin. May 5776 bring you many blessings and much joy, far more than its inevitable challenges, and may we be privileged to share those moments with each other: L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu V’Teichateimu; may you been inscribed and sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.