One New Year’s Eve when I was 6 years old, I stayed up way past my bedtime and, crouching behind the living room door, looked on as my parents celebrated the night with friends. I silently watched as they twirled to the music of Tony Bennett, drank champagne from elegant glasses and toasted Happy New Year when the clock struck 12. I couldn’t wait to be grown-up — to wear black and gray silk lounge pants like my mother and have parties where I served tiny hotdogs wrapped in pastry. From my young vantage point, the night seemed magical, filled with celebration and friendship.
As Americans, we wish each other a happy New Year on New Year’s Eve and toast to a year of good health, friendship and success. Yet when the Jewish New Year rolls around, we wish each other something quite different. At Rosh Hashanah we say: “L’shanah Tova!” — may you have a good new year, not a happy one. Why is that?
Although Judaism values joy and happiness as an important part of spiritual wholeness, we seek something more as the cornerstone of each New Year. To be a mensch — a good, loving and caring person is what the Jewish New Year is all about. When we wish each other a good New Year, the message we pass along is one of hope; that this year we will become more compassionate, loving, responsible and honest human beings, and in doing so make the world a better place for everyone.
So how do we go about becoming a “good” person? Judaism does not provide a singular rule, definition or value that categorically defines goodness. It understands the complexity of being human and that the variety of situations we will face and the many relationships we will have will make our ethical decision-making complicated, challenging and not amenable to rigid rules and standard regulations.
The beauty of Judaism is that it provides us with a system, a framework of morals and values that can help us in the daily choices we make in our efforts to be good people. As in any system, the first step is to learn more about it — to study what traditional Jewish wisdom has to say about things like caring for our parents, helping the needy, raising our children or dealing with business matters. Once we know more, we can use the tools we have been given — the Torah, our inner wisdom and free will — to enable us to act on what we know is good and right. The net result is that in studying more about what Judaism has to say, we create more opportunities for ourselves to become better parents, friends, professionals, community leaders and volunteers.
What are some of the Jewish guidelines that help us become better people? They are found throughout the Torah, Talmud and other sacred Jewish texts. While the following is by no means an exhaustive list, it is must-read for any syllabus on “How to Be a Mensch.”
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
Do not do to others what is hateful unto you. (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed. (Leviticus 19:16)
Justice, justice you shall pursue. (Deuteronomy 16:20)
Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirkei Avot 2:5)
Do what is fair and good in the eyes of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 6:18)
Do not hate your brother in your heart. (Leviticus 19:17)
The world stands on three things: Torah study, service of God and acts of loving kindness. (Pirkei Avot 1:2)
He has told you what is good and what the Lord requires of you: To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)
This year when someone wishes you L’shana Tova, remember that within those two words lies a deeper, more profound meaning. For in those words is the hope that this year will be a year of learning, opportunity and commitment to becoming a good (or better) person and the knowledge that the world will be enriched because of your efforts.