Brian Burke
Brian Burke

Can it really be a happy and sweet new year?

Date palms outside Kibbutz Yahel in southern Israel, July 2021. The honey referred to in the Torah as "flowing" in the Land of Israel was from dates (Photo courtesy of Brian Burke)

As the Hebrew year 5782 begins, I find myself wondering whether the traditional greeting of “shanah tovah u’metukah,” a happy and sweet new year, is truly applicable in our world today.

Americans are torn apart by political polarization that threatens our social cohesion and democratic system of governance and institutions. The last few weeks have seen chaos and tragedy as America’s longest war ended in Afghanistan. The COVID-19 pandemic continues with few signs of abating because of unvaccinated people. Women’s reproductive rights are under assault in states across the country, with the most blatant example being the new Texas law that recently went into effect due to shameful inaction by the Supreme Court. 

The climate crisis is worsening in front of our very eyes, from the devastation caused by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Northeast to deadly wildfires across California and drought in the Southwest. Millions of people face food insecurity, unemployment, and evictions even with signs of an economic recovery. 

The Jewish world is not immune from trouble. Antisemitism continues to rear its ugly and pernicious head across the world and from all parts of the political spectrum, including in this country. Divides between Israel and segments of diaspora (particularly American) Jewry are growing. 

Fundamental disagreements over Israel, the former and current presidents of the United States, the new Israeli government, Jewish identity, and every other issue Jews could argue about seem to animate relationships between and within Jewish communities more than our shared story and traditions. General apathy among some younger Jews about connecting to their Jewishness is a trend that seems to be becoming more common, not less. Many Jews simply do not know or care to know Jews who are different from themselves. 

On a personal level, 5781 continued a trend of downright rotten years. 5779 included relationship problems, struggles in dealing with the trauma of the Tree of Life tragedy (which will stay with me and so many others forever), and the anxieties countless college seniors feel amidst the uncertainties of graduation and the future. 5780 saw a lymphoma diagnosis, subsequent surgery, and thankfully a recovery just a few months before this once in a century deadly pandemic arrived, throwing life into a general upheaval. 

The past year was hard. My Bubbe OBM passed away in March. A small masked, socially-distanced outdoor funeral and zoom shiva did not make the grieving process any easier. I lost one of my dogs in July. The pandemic threw a wrench in job and travel plans. 

The Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa said “keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. One one ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other: ‘the world was created for me.’” 

I know there are billions of people who have had a worse last few years than I have. I am privileged in countless ways. I am one of those specks of dust. What kind of chutzpah is it for me to complain or feel down about my circumstances? 

Yet the world, as the rav taught, was also created for me. I am an individual. And as individuals sometimes we just have to throw down all our cards and say “this sucks.” 

Judaism has both cyclical and linear concepts of time. The months of the Hebrew calendar do not change from year to year. Rosh Hashanah is on the first of Tishrei. After the final Torah portion of Devarim is finished, we start again with the first words of Bereshit. 

However, the world according to Jewish tradition is not simply a replica of the water cycle. We are not static. People, places, and things change. 

Perhaps these two balancing acts are precisely what we need for a better year ahead. Humility helps us put life and our own experiences and hardships into perspective. Treasuring our intrinsic value as individuals is what makes us want to be our best selves. The cyclical nature of the Jewish year designates a specific time for deep introspection, repentance, and atonement. How we choose to take our mistakes and strive to do better far beyond the Yamim Noraim is up to us.   

I have no idea what 5782 will bring beyond the dates on the calendar. So much is wrong and broken. We face crisis after crisis in a world that is more interconnected than ever before yet seemingly ready to pull itself apart at the seams. 

Despite it all, I will continue to hold on to a few words that have provided hope to our people for better days ahead. Shanah tovah u’metukah. A happy, sweet, and please G-d healthy new year.

About the Author
Brian Burke is a Pittsburgh native and 2019 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied political science, history, and Jewish studies. In college, he was involved with Hillel and the David Project, holding several leadership positions including president of the Pitt Hillel Jewish Student Union in 2018. Like many early 20-somethings, he is figuring out what comes next amidst the health and economic uncertainties of these times.
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