[Preface: I’m currently out in the Middle East for work and a long way from home. This is part of what inspired me to begin writing down my thoughts.]
Without a round challah, shofar blast, or big group of family and friends with which to celebrate, what is left of Rosh Hashanah? How will I make New Years 5778 meaningful, stuck out here in the desert?
Erev Rosh Hashanah, and I sat pondering these questions, wondering where to begin. I had already taken care of the apple-and-honey requirement at dinner a short time ago and now I had to decide how to observe my favorite holiday. I chose to start with music to set the mood, so I turned to my Youtube playlist of various Jewish acapella groups singing New Years-themed parody versions of popular songs. It was a great beginning to the evening and instantly brought to mind all of the deep symbolism associated with the occassion. It made me smile at times, brought tears as well, but most importantly initiated the crucial melody of these two holy days – self-reflection.
Just a month ago I had given a short presentation in which I noted that “the constant symbolism throughout Jewish life is an ever-present reminder of the values and beliefs that are the foundation of this persevering faith and lifetsyle.” Rosh Hashanah and its symbols are no different. But as I sat pondering my life and the meaning of this yearly renewal, I realized that the symbolism is but half of the equation. Perhaps even less. Allow me to explain.
Let’s start with the pomegranate. I had cut open one of my Lebanese poms that I was fortunate to find in a market a few days before, and I carefully removed each aril from the rind as warm, familiar tunes played through my headphones. The pomegranate arils represent mitzvot – good deeds. I looked at the bag of arils that I had collected so far and was pleased with all of the charitable acts that I would do in this coming year. But then I had another thought – who says I’ll do all of those things? This pomegranate can’t possibly change my character and turn me into a perfect, model citizen. Then why am I eating it?
The key is that arils represent the good deeds, but they themselves do not act out the mitzvot. “I have to do that,” I told myself. I would have to live up to their promise.
This was a wake-up call, much like the shofar blast itself. The loud, clear call to action that could only come from a ram’s horn, but must resonate deep inside each of us.
I continued to evaluate other icons of this time of year in an attempt to extract their deeper meanings. The round challah is representative of the cyclical nature of time. Time continues on, with or without us, and will indeed renew itself next year, and the year after, as the cycle promises. An important note about time, however, is that we ourselves do not have such an assurance of a certain future, year after year. Our lives begin, and someday, sadly, we may not be written in the Book of Life. I hesitated at this thought, as holidays are supposed to be joyous occassions. But High Holiday time does contain this imagery of life and death, and it’s important to explore. My time, I noted, is indeed like the challah, round and cyclic as the years go by, but eventually limited, like the quantity of dough that made it. If I cannot add more dough to the loaf, I simply have to learn to enjoy what I have to the fullest. Waste not, want not.
This brings me the the final symbols that I will address, which also may be the most beloved of them all – apples and honey. Eating the two together will surely be a sweet experience, but unfortunately it does not guarantee a sweet year. Apples are fruits, and fruits as a general rule, are sweet. There are plenty of times in our lives that are commonly and inherently sweet – making someone smile, getting a good grade or promotion, the birth of a child or grandchild. The apple wishes us these experiences and reminds us to appreciate their innate positivity. It is the honey that complicates things. Honey comes from bees which may sting and hurt. But from these creatures comes something not only free of pain but indeed pleasant – honey. We all go through our own struggles in life and sometimes it is difficult to see how anything positive can come from these times. This is the honey, the elusive sweetness hidden away in the combs.
Rosh Hashanah is an occasion which encourages self-reflection, but after this introspective period comes the responsibility to use what we have learned. We must be the ones to actively answer the call to action. If there are good deeds to be done, we make a conscious choice to do them. If time is limited and the future uncertain, we go forth boldy and live fully, grateful for the present moment that we have. And if we are to grow from our unique experiences, we will not only pick the low-hanging fruit, but we must also learn to separate the honey from the hive.
Shana tova umetuka!