To do better or to repeat?

One of the standard greetings for the Jewish New Year is L’Shanah Tovah, or just Shanah Tovah. We hear the same word in the festival name: Rosh Hashanah. The word shanah means year. But if we play with the root, even midrashically, it can mean two things: repeat or different. And therein lies a mystical charge for how we navigate the coming year.

First: repeat. The word shnayim/sheni (meaning, two/second) and Mishnah (1st century code of Jewish Law) are similar. The Mishnah was about learning by repeating. And in a sense, we have an opportunity to repeat the year. We can take a step back and take stock in our life and say: “this is a year when everything went right. I would do it all the same again.” For the majority of people, that clearly is not the case with regard to 5780/2020. However, there are decisions many of us would want to repeat.

But the word shanah also brings us to the meaning “different”—as in l’shanot or shinui. Shinui is the word we use when we distinguish between the way we act on Shabbat as opposed to the rest of the week. We intentionally change our actions. And likewise, this year can be different. We can pause and reflect on all those moments in our year when we could have and should have done better.

Knowing that traditionally we wish each other a Shanah Tovah, are we inspiring others to be different or to be the same? Is this about pursuing new horizons or walking the same path as last year?

In a sense, it is both—repeat and different. You can walk (or even run) that same path, but you can do so more intentionally—faster or slower, more self-aware or more aware of your surroundings, and so on. And really, our options are not explicitly binary. We can repeat some of the year while still doing some of it differently.

The compelling aspect of this part of Jewish tradition is that really it is our choice. God does not control our actions. God does not control our will. God may know the decisions we have yet to make—and what we will decide—but we still have the power to make that decision. And that is the greeting: to choose tovah, “good.”

Let us all pray that this year be a year when each and every one of us finds a way to repeat and do differently, all at once.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.
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