Shetir’u baTov

(10-Apr-2008: Added a significant point near the end.)

The Bostoner Rebbe (of Boston) commented once on the expression “Shanah tovah umsuqah – a good and sweet new year”, which is related to the famous custom of having apple and honey on Rosh haShanah.What does “umsuqah — and sweet” add, beyond the notion of “tovah — good”?

As Rabbi Aqiva often said, “All that the All Merciful does, He does for the good”. An echo of the words of one of his rabbeim, Nachum ish Gamzu, who would greet events that would disappoint or depress most of us with “Gam zu letovah — this too is for the best.”So actually, wishing one another a good year could be thought of as being redundant. Everything is good, how could this year be any different? However, not everything I was told was “for my own good” was particularly pleasant.
Therefore, the rebbe teaches, we wish that the year not only be tovah, good, but also be mesuqah, sweet to our perception as well.

Along the same lines, I had a thought about a phrase in Shabbos and Yom Tov davening:

Our L-rd, and the L-rd of our fathers, sanctify us bemitzvosekha (through Your mitzvos), and put our portion beSorasekha (in Your Torah), satisfy us mituvekha (from Your Goodness), and make us (or: our souls qua living force) biyshuasekha (in Your salvation)…

The predicate prefix has an oddity: it says bemitzvosekha, beSorasekha, and later, beyshu’asekha. But by goodness, the prefix is “mituvekha” — “from”, not “be-” (“in” or “through”) like by the others.

The reason, I believe, is because we are asking for something inherently different. We can ask G-d to make us more holy by allowing us to do more mitzvos, or give us the opportunity to learn more Torah, or make us happier by saving us more often. This is “be-“, we are asking for more of a gift by asking for more of the vehicle He uses to give it to us.

Since everything G-d does is good, we can’t be asking for G-d to give us more good, and thereby make us more satisfied. There is no more good for us to get. Rather, we are asking for more satisfaction with the goodness He already provides. This is why the “mi-” prefix is used.

This is also in contrast to Rebbe’s words (Berakhos 50a) about benching, that a wise person says “uvtuvo chayinu — and through His good we live”, and a boor, “umituvo chayinu — and from His good, we live”. Rebbe says that “umituvo” is incorrect because it says that we live through some of His Good, implying that Hashem gives meagerly. Perhaps it’s different here, when we ask for happiness, because the truth is that if we had a full realization of even a small part of His Good would be enough to satisfy. Like the piyut we sing at the seider. We list fifteen things Hashem did for us when taking us out of Egypt. But had He done any one of those 15 alone, “Dayeinu“!

R Shelomo Wolbezt”l would part someone’s company wishing him “shetir’u batov — may you see the good!” Because the tense of “tir’u” is ambiguous, this is both a berakhah and a mussar shmuess.

Taken in the future tense, “May you see”, it becomes a blessing that Hashem allow him to see all that’s good in his life. In the imperative, the same work becomes “Look”, advice to the person to take the initiative and seek out the good of every situation. To aspire to the middah of Nachum ish Gamzu and Rabbi Aqiva of realizing the Hand of G-d in everything, and looking to see how even the tragedies in our lives are necessary steps to something bigger which He has in store for us.

The two together yields a profound combined meaning. Live is the product of a partnership between myself and G-d. It is the sum of my free-willed decisions and the hand Hashem deals me. “Shetir’u beTov” addresses both at the same time, by praying that Hashem show the person good, and that the person look to find it. A greeting that recognizes the fundamental covenant by which man is redeemed.

It’s a beautiful greeting, one worth adopting. Wishing others could taste the sweetness.

Shetir’u baTov!

(With thanks to RYGB for helping me find the gemara.)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Possibly related – stolen waters are described as sweet, which tells us something unpleasant about the human condition. Perhaps what we are requesting is not only an objectively good year, but the ability to appreciate that goodness, similar to the way in which we regrettably now enjoy the prohibited.

    – Moishe Potemkin

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