Erev Rosh Hashanah 2015
Close your eyes. Picture the Cantor and the Choir. The smell of high holiday cooking in your kitchen from growing up. The taste of chicken soup. The sounds of the shofar. The touch and feel of our Rosh Hashanah books. The music of the high holiday liturgy. Open your eyes.
During the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the 10 days of repentance between now and yom kippur, our senses are heightened because of these words that we hear, the smells that we take in, the people that we see, the books that we touch, the feelings that we have, and the foods that we taste.
Rosh Hashanah invokes many images for our community. For some of us this is a joyous time of creation, renewal, and opportunity. For others it is a time that is somewhat subdued because of a loss we might have encountered in this past year. For all of us it is a time where we tweak our different antennae to not only see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, but to feel, love, cry, embrace, and grow.
As we enter together into this high holiday season I want to focus on one of the five senses in particular, that of taste. I want us to think about the foods of our holidays, as a way to begin to go think about this new year ahead.
What do we want a taste of and how will we find the time to take a bite?
On a very practical level there are fabulous connections between the foods of Rosh Hashanah and the expectations for the year ahead and I wanted to share some wisdom from Jewish scholar, Noam Zion.
Rosh Hashana’s evening meal may encompass an ancient custom of eating symbolic foods, a mini-seder, if you will. The family tastes (or at least holds up for a New Year’s wish) a variety of foods whose name, shape or color remind us of our greatest hopes for the New Year.
Since the days of the Talmud the foods on the holiday table have been transformed into informal symbols of our New Year wishes. Best-known are the apples dipped in honey that symbolize a sweet year. Yet even the most ordinary vegetables, seasonal fruits and miscellaneous foods provide us an occasion to wish away our fears and verbalize our deepest hope, as well as a chance to pun on their names in any number of local tongues.
Let us think about some of these foods and how they will help us usher in the season of repentance.
Honey is usually dipped with challah – usually round-shaped like a rising circular staircase – The circular breads also represent the circularity of time.
This is a crucial idea. We know that throughout life there are a variety of stages. There is birth, life, and death, but it is the time in between that counts. Over the next ten days together we will have the opportunity to think about the time that we have on this earth, and the way we recall those who are no longer here. These holidays force us, in a good way, to sit with our hopes, our fears, and our dreams as we confront the notion of time.
There are other holiday motifs, such as surrounding the challah with a wreath of flowers or other decorations to recall the crowning of the Divine King on Rosh Hashanah.
As I think about this idea, I am looking forward to sharing more thoughts with you tomorrow about the notion of God and what we are called for. Each of us can have a spiritual relationship with God, if we so choose, and decorating the challah is a wonderful act to engage in this spiritual need.
The dipping of bread at each meal often continues from Rosh Hashana all the way to the end of Sukkot. Jewish women from Poland and southern Russia used to place honey in the four corners of their homes for luck. (Candy might serve the same role today).
There is no question that luck is a part of life. Luck might be how we met our spouse-maybe we were in the right college class at the right time. Luck might be deeper than that however. Luck could be missing a train that ended up getting into an accident. Neither of these examples point to worth, but the role of luck, and then of course, what we do, when we discover that we have been lucky-how do we help others? How do we help the world?
Some families buy a special fruit or vegetable just now in season, one that has not been eaten for at least a year, and bless it on the second night of Rosh Hashana. This custom too may be combined with the Rosh Hashana meal, but it also has significance for Jewish law. For it is not clear on what basis we recite Shehechiyanu – the blessing reserved for a new food or object or a beginning of a new holiday – even on the second night of Rosh Hashana. By adding a new fruit, one has an uncontested reason for reciting Shehechiyanueven on the second night.
This teaches the lesson of gratitude. There are many emotions that we feel in our lives, and over the course of the holidays, certainly on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah I will be exploring a variety of these feelings. Gratitude must be a part of our emotional menu. We must be able to give thanks for moments-small and large, that impact our lives.
Then the list often continues with figs, dates, pomegranates, apples, and the head of a ram or a fish. Other lands add carrots and beets, but obviously any food will do as long as you have a creatively corny sense of humor and a willingness to share your greatest fears and hopes.
At SPS this year we have decided to use food as a theme to engage with Judaism, the Jewish community, and more. As SPS kicks off a new year of programming, education, and community building, we are pleased to present the theme, A Taste of SPS, as our thread that will tie together so much of our time together. Through the concept of food, and all that relates to food, we will develop a deeper understanding of our Jewish holidays, Jewish cultures around the world, and the role food can play as we take an active part in the notion of social justice. For example, each of our holiday celebrations will have a food component-highlights will include: challah baking on a Friday, latke making in preparation for Chanukah, a Passover wine tasting for our young professionals, and the ability to try new foods on Tu B’shvat. Each of these moments will not only awaken our senses to new foods but we will develop a deeper understanding of the Jewish rituals that we celebrate. Further, we will welcome speakers, such as Nigel Savage, the executive director of Hazon, a Jewish Non-Profit committed to issues of food sustainability, to help us learn about our role in leaving the world better than we found it. Additionally, we hope to have a nutritionist come to our congregation to help us understand that taking care of our bodies, through the food we eat, is a Jewish value, just as much as eating! Finally, we need you! We know that food and recipes are often what binds families and communities, so we would love to highlight recipes of yours that have been passed down through the generations. Please send us your recipes, and their origin, so we can share them with our membership in the year to come. While not all of our programming will cover this theme, we hope that you will taste all that we have to offer in the year to come, and this preview, whet your appetite for all that you will experience.
In Noam Zion’s piece on Rosh Hashanah, he concludes with some blessings to share after eating each food. He writes:
Traditionally the head of a lamb or a carp is the occasion for a blessing (though vegetarians might perhaps substitute a head of cabbage or a head of lettuce):
May it be God’s will that we will be a head and not a tail.
Pomegranates, filled with numerous sweet seeds, traditionally are associated with the 613 mitzvot, so the blessing is :
May it be God’s will that our lives may be as full of mitzvoth as the pomegranate is with seeds.
For dipping challah, we might use this Hassidic wish:
“May God create yeast in your soul, causing you to ferment, and mature, to rise, elevate, to your highest possibilities, to reach your highest self.”
Let us suggest some contemporary “green grocer” wishes punning in English on the shape, name or color of these fruits and vegetables:
Dates: May it be God’s will that all my single friends have many dates this year.
Tomatoes or Hot Peppers – May it be God’s will that this be a red-hot New Year.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg suggested:
Peaches – May we have a “peachy” year!
Brussels Sprouts– May our good fortune “sprout”!
Others bring leaf of lettuce, raisins and celery: Let us pray that our employers will raise our salary
All of these food items and all of these blessings allow us to frame the way we want to enter the year. We enter it not impulsively, but thoughtfully; not callously, but sensitively. Not selfishly, but empathetically.
Over the next 10 days we will think about our lives, our role in this world-as Jews, as members of a family, and a community. We will think about what we must to for ourselves and for others.
I began this sermon by talking about our senses. As Jews we must heighten our senses to see suffering of others, to feel their pain, to feed their hunger, and to listen to their cries. To be Jewish is to act in God’s image and to help fix the world. As we begin the 10 days of repentance let us look at the menus in our lives-let us make the choices we need to make to be proud of ourselves and others. Let us understand that mistakes might be made but we will have another opportunity to re-order. So this year, don’t only eat but feed; don’t only taste but share; don’t only hear but listen; don’t only see but recognize; don’t only observe but feel.
As we gather together to celebrate this New Year, I hope and pray that each and every one of us will have the courage, the strength, and the tenacity to live up to this holy task. May this New Year bring sweetness and goodness to all Shana Tova u’metukah-may this be a sweet, and happy, and a healthy new year.