Rabbi Elyse Winick

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Elyse Winick

Erev RH 5762

My heart was heavy and my head was weary as I unpacked our honey pot this year. Never before have I so yearned for a year to be sweet, but the motivation and enthusiasm to make it so is weak. I suspect that many of you found your holiday preparations to be similarly peculiar. We cook, we clean, we ponder and we wonder. All under a shadow, a sense that something just isn’t right. Many of us probably would have preferred to tuck ourselves into our families for the next two days and not take on the added burden of celebration.

But I unpacked my honey pot nonetheless and my heart leapt slightly when I remembered that we had a new one as well, brought for us from Israel by friends. At that time I marveled at their ability to go gift shopping in a country under siege.

I unpacked the honey pot and looked longingly at it. Imagined the taste of the honey on fresh sweet hallah, on crisp, tart apples. My mouth watered and my eyes filled up with tears. Could the sweetness of the honey be enough to make it so?

I looked at all the minutiae of preparation with a different eye this year and suddenly I was craving the power of symbols, for their comfort, their magic and their carefree hopefulness. I wanted more than the American flag we hung in front of our home for the very first time this week and though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, I think I wanted guarantees.

We dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah and we recite “Yehi ratzon shethadesh aleinu shana tova u’metuka,” May it be your will, God, that the year be renewed for us with goodness and sweetness. This year, pretend that it’s Pesah and dip twice. We eat hallot that are round at this time of year, symbolizing God’s kingship because they resemble a crown and reflecting the continuity of the cycle of life. Some bake their hallot with a ladder on top, signifying God’s choice of who ascends and who descends. Others choose hallot shaped like birds, a reminder that we are sheltered by God’s protective wings.

We eat pomegranates with an eye towards increasing our merits to equal the seeds of the pomegranate – supposedly 613. There are other eating choices which have unique homes in Rosh Hashanah observance. Sephardim eat the whole head of a fish or lamb, based on the expression, may you be at the head and not at the tail. They serve baskets of covered fruit, to represent that no one knows what the new year will bring.

Some people serve carrots in the shape of coins to signify prosperity. Egyptian Jews eat black-eyed peas for the same purpose. Others avoid the eating of nuts because the numerical equivalent of egoz, nut is the same as that of het or sin. Some eat fenugreek because its Hebrew name, rubiya also signifies increase, as in “may our merits increase.” Pumpkin is eaten because its Aramaic name, kera is like both read and tear, choosing either to ask that our negative judgement be torn up or that our good merits are read into the book of life. Tamri, Aramaic for dates, also means consume. Here the significance is may those who want to destroy us be consumed. Perhaps we should all be eating dates this Rosh Hashanah. Salka, meaning remove, also means beets. We ask that our enemies be removed. Karti, or cut down, also means leeks. We ask that our misdeeds be cutdown.

If you eat all of these symbolic foods, you’ll hardly have room for the main meal. While it adds entertainment and interest to the meals of a holiday which is largely synagogue-based, what is our intent here? What are we trying to achieve?

Certainly we are reflecting our hopes and aspirations for the year to come. Just as we wish one another ketiva vehatima tovah, to be written and sealed well in God’s judgement, we hope for all kinds of wonderful outcomes in the new year. These clever food choices could well fall under the learning theory of multiple intelligences – we think of certain ideas, we discuss the ideas, we eat the ideas, or rather, we absorb them wholly, bodily, to further our attempts to live up to our dreams. It’s like whistle a happy tune – if we can successfully convince ourselves, through a variety of measures, that in the year to come we will prosper, we will find fulfillment, we will find happiness and peace, then we are on a far better footing to actually make those things happen. A positive outlook does wonders for our ability to succeed.

But there is another side to the story, a basic, primal need to attempt to control our own destinies. In Herman Wouk’s World’s Fair, the protagonist, a young boy growing up in wartime Brooklyn, is convinced that if he worries about something, or at least thinks about it, he can keep it from happening. He successfully protects himself, as far as he’s concerned, from a whole host of potential disasters, merely by thinking of them. Until one day, he runs down the front steps of his apartment building with a lollipop in his mouth, loses his footing and proceeds to impale himself, through the mouth, on the lollipop. Even as he is being rushed away for medical assistance he consoles himself with the notion that the only reason it happened was that he hadn’t thought of it first. The need to control our destiny is deep-seated and longstanding. The ancients read the patterns of the stars, chose some days as more auspicious than others. Rituals double as amulets, like the culture which sets its priest to sit upon a certain rock in a certain way to keep the earth from tilting. Like stepping over cracks and picking up only coins which face heads up. There is a magical quality to the eating of these foods which goes beyond a lighthearted reflection of what we hope will be. There is a passionate and poignant desire to control the fates by the seemingly innocuous acts of dipping apples in honey. And even as our intellect concurs that these acts pale next to teshuva, tefila and tzedaka, repentance, prayer and good works, our heart circles the wagons and hides more than a shadow of a wish that we can consume our destiny before it, in turn, consumes us.

Two realities emerge. On one hand we do have control over our destiny and we must use the God given gift of free will cautiously and proudly. We must strive to make our world a better place, we must repair our relationships with family and friends and we must seek a higher level of commitment and devotion as regards our God. On the other hand, we acknowledge the painful reality that we are not in charge, that the fates sometimes toy with our happiness, that evil is present unchecked in this world and that whether or not there is a divine plan, one can still be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So what are we to do? My vote is to take the first route, the one in which we turn magic into meaning. Where we become the embodiment of that for which we yearn. If it will bolster our self confidence, if it will restore our sense of wellbeing, if it will serve as an ot, a sign, a reminder of the direction in which we are traveling, what’s the harm in dipping an apple into honey? But we should never lose perspective in either direction. The honey will not render for us a sweet new year on its own. We must take responsibility for our lives and our growth, our spiritual nourishment and communal survival. For the building of a safe and secure society of which we can be proud. And at the same time, as they say in Yiddish, Man plans and God laughs, or at least, does whatever God pleases. We hover in the delicate balance between two masters and we never quite know who’s in the lead.

It can be disheartening, particularly in a week like the one just concluded, in which we look for answers to heartrending questions and try to find the flaw which enabled it to happen. But Tom Clancy thought of it and that didn’t stop it from happening. And God isn’t laughing at all right now. Our victory, if there can be one, will be to push our lives ever forward, rebuilding not just infrastructure, but rebuilding our shattered souls.

This holiday season was the hardest in recent memory for which to prepare. We are not inspired to song and praise; we are too weary to look within and review the year’s deeds. We have seen too much and we are afraid of what we may find. We cannot, no, we should not, erase the past. But we cannot and we will not be afraid. Perhaps there could not have been a more apt season of the year for the past week’s tragic events. If you are angry with God, be angry. You won’t be the first Jew to take issue with God’s action or inaction and you certainly won’t be the last. But take the opportunity now, just as you tearfully embraced friends and family when you heard and saw the news, to tearfully embrace God as well. Psalm 23 enjoins that lo ira ra, ki ata imadi, we will not fear evil, God, for You stand with us. I always thought that the intent of that line was to say that God will protect us from evil. Now I realize that God stands with us and suffers with us and cries with us. Our strength comes from sharing our burdens with God and drawing upon the loving strength which God has to offer. It is a partnership and the sweetness of our year depends a little on God and a little on us. So dip twice tonight, once for you and once for God. And pray that our comfort and our courage will be speedy to return, so that this year will truly be a good year, a sweet year, a healthy year and a year of joy and peace for us, for Israel and for all the world.

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