Putting the Happy in "Happy New Year"

Thursday, 14 September, 2023 - 2:19 pm

The Torah gives us basic instructions on how to observe the holidays, including Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud and other works of the Oral tradition give us more details, and layers of meaning underlying each holiday and its unique observances. It is less common, however, to find descriptions in Scripture of actual observances of the holidays. There are a few scattered references to holiday observance throughout the entire Tanach.

One of those is in the Book of Ezra/Nechemia. Ezra was the leader who oversaw the return of the Babylonian exiles to Israel at the beginning of the Second Temple era. 70 years of desolation had wreaked havoc on Torah observance. Assimilation and intermarriage were rampant, leaving most Jews ignorant of and apathetic to religious practices. It is not a stretch to say that the vast majority of Jews alive at the time had never seen, let alone read from, a Torah scroll.

Enter Ezra and Nechemia. They gathered the people and started to teach them what was written in “the scroll of G-d’s Law.” There was a surge of commitment, and many people were very inspired. The narrative continues that it was Rosh Hashanah, and the people were moved to tears by the words of Torah that they heard. Ezra and Nechemia then declared, “This day is holy to the L-rd your G-d; neither mourn nor weep. Go, eat delicacies, and drink sweet drinks, and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our L-rd, and do not be sad, for the joy of the L-rd is your strength.” Scripture continues, “Then all the people went to eat and to drink and to send portions and to rejoice greatly. And on the second day (of Rosh Hashanah), the people… gathered to Ezra, and to understand the words of the Torah. And they found written in the Torah that the L-rd had commanded by the hand of Moses that the Children of Israel dwell in booths on the festival in the seventh month… And all the congregation of the returnees from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths… and there was exceedingly great joy.”

There are several takeaways from this narrative that are relevant to us in 2023.

Firstly, we see that Rosh Hashanah is to be properly observed not with sadness, but with joy. Since it is “a day holy to Hashem”, He rejoices, and we derive strength in that joy. Real teshuvah should induce us to “rejoice greatly.” What greater joy is there than distant children who come home to their parents?

Secondly, we see that for us to be happy, we need to share with those who don’t have their own. It is never enough to take care of yourself and be happy. We can only rejoice when we bring that joy to others. When we “eat delicacies and drink sweet drinks” we must remember to “send portions to whoever has nothing prepared.” This is true of any type of need, whether material and spiritual.

Lastly, we see from this story that on Rosh Hashana one should already be thinking about Sukkot. Just as we are cautioned to be concerned with the needs of others for Rosh Hashanah, so too for Sukkot. In return, the joy of Sukkot feeds back to Rosh Hashanah. So, on this occasion, I encourage all of us to think of how we can help another Jew observe the holidays. This is true both in a material sense as well as in a spiritual sense. We must ensure that every Jew has access to a Sukkah and a Lulav & Etrog. We must see to it that our fellow Jews have what they need to celebrate Sukkot.

We at Chabad seek to make the holiday of Sukkot as accessible as can be. One of the ways is through Sukkah-Fest, offering hundreds of people the opportunity to celebrate together in a Sukkah with good food, and access to a Lulav & Etrog. Partner with us in the spirit of “the Ezra story” by going to or reply to this email and let us know that you want to be a partner!

In the merit of our love and care for each other, may Hashem bless us all with a good and sweet year filled with health, prosperity, nachas, and meaningful spiritual growth.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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