Last night at our holiday dinner we dipped apple slices into honey. I am sure many of you did the same. This is just one of several possible food items placed on the Rosh Hashanah table known as “Semanim” or ‘omens.’ Each of the items represents a wish for what the New Year will bring. It is commonly understood that apple and honey is meant to signify a sweet year, and as we eat it we pray “Y’hi ratzon haShem Elohenu vaylohay avotenu sh’techadesh aleynu shana tova u’metuka” “May it be Your will our God and God of our ancestors that you renew for us a good and sweet year.”
In fact the tradition mentions many other Semanim. For example, the first one mentioned in the Talmud is a gourd, known in Hebrew as “K’ra,” which sounds like the word for ‘announce.’ We pray that our merits be announced before the Holy One. “K’ra” also sounds like the word for ‘tear’ and according to that interpretation the prayer asks that any evil decree against us be torn up.
Can you imagine putting a sheep’s head on your table? That’s what was done years ago in Afghanistan. Everyone at the table would touch the sheep’s head and pray for the coming year, “May we be a head and not a tail.
My son-in-law loves puns. His favorite Seman is raisins and celery. He explains that what he wants in the coming year: a raise in salary.
Let’s go back to the more familiar Seman, dipping apples in honey. Why honey? Why not anything else sweet; perhaps maple syrup or sugar?
The late Rabbi Abraham AvRutick of Hartford gave a wonderful interpretation based on how honey is produced by bees. It doesn’t come easily. The bee has to work like crazy. It goes from flower to flower, all day, day after day and only then can he produce the sweet honey we enjoy. What is the lesson? If you want a sweet and good year, you have to WORK FOR IT. You have to labor like the bee. It doesn’t just happen by dipping an apple into something sweet or hoping for it. You must work at it.
I want to share a story I heard on the radio about ten days ago. 72-year-old Ellarina reminisced about when she was a teenager and her parents wanted to get her away from her boyfriend, of whom they did not approve. Quite against her will she was sent to spend the summer with her 106-year-old great-grandmother in Farmerville, Louisiana. As it turned out, the young girl and the much older great-grandmother formed a deep bond that summer. They spent hours together as the old woman told stories. There really was not much else to do in Farmerville. The old woman explained that she was the young girl’s age, 16, when the Civil War ended. Even though when the war was over she was officially free, without the ability to read or write she said she “felt like a jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing.” When she was 85 years old she vowed, “It stops here.” She found some people to help her, and she began to study on her own. One day the great-grandmother told the teenager that she had something special to show her. From her cedar chest, she took out an old tattered church fan. The teen saw on the back of the fan was scrawled the name “Sylvia.” The great-grandmother explained that when she could spell her name, that was when she truly got her freedom.
Let me tell you what impressed me about that story. Great-grandma Sylvia recognized she had a problem, she identified it, and she determined to do something about it. You know what else impressed me? She did this when she was 85 years old. We have all heard people say “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Sylvia clearly did not subscribe to that flawed philosophy. First, she refused to see herself as a dog. But more importantly, she knew that she could learn a new trick. Literacy is what she really wanted, it was the missing piece in her jigsaw puzzle, and she determined that she would do something about it.
On this Rosh Hashanah, as we face a new year and a new opportunity, what jigsaw puzzle pieces are we missing?
In Hebrew, the word Shanah, as in “Rosh Hashanah,” has several meanings. In the name of this holiday we use the word to mean “year.” Interestingly, the word originally meant “to repeat,” as in “to repeat what one has been taught.” We know this from the first paragraph of the Shema where we say; “V’shinantam –and you shall repeat them – l’vanecha – to your children.” So consider the irony. When you wish someone a “Shana Tova,” do you mean to say,” “May you have a good repetition?” “May this year be the same for you as was the last.” Many of us would say to that, God forbid.
But what is going to make this coming year different? There is only one answer to that question: You are. It is your year that lies ahead, if you want it to be different, if you want it to be more than a repetition of last year, you are the one who is going to have to make it so.
Here is another story, but this one probably apocryphal. Joe and Henry are sitting in the lunchroom. Joe opens his lunch box, and every day he has the same complaint. “Tuna fish again. Every darn day, the same lunch! I am sick and tired of it.” Henry says to Joe, “You know what I am sick and tired of? Hearing you complain about having the same lunch. Why don’t you tell your wife to pack you a different lunch?” Joe responds, “My wife doesn’t fix my lunch; I do.”
Be it lunch or the coming year, we are responsible to fix it ourselves. As it did for Sylvia learning to write her name, as it does for the bees making honey, it is going to take hard work. Rabbi Aaron Jaffe, our Religious School principal, wore a wonderful necktie on the opening day of classes. It said, “The only place where ‘success’ comes before ‘work’ is in the dictionary.”
So what is it that you are going to work on in this New Year to make sure it is not a repetition of the last?
Is there a new skill you want to master? Is there a cause to which you want to devote yourself? Do you want to deepen your relationship with God? Any one of those goals will require hard work.
We are so good at making New Year’s resolutions. The resolutions come easily; the fulfillment not so much.
We have all made such resolutions. We have resolved to think or act more wisely, to love more compassionately or generously, to live more humanely. But what comes of those resolutions made so sincerely? You go home, you get lost in the details of life, and you find that those lofty goals will have to wait?
Think back ten years. We faced the most terrifying attack our nation has ever experienced. We came together then. We resolved to have a different perspective on what is really important in life. We vowed never again to be so divided. On the weekend following that September 11th, more people attended church or synagogue than ever before. And the following weekend the attendance was still up. But by the third week, it began to wane. And so it continued downward. What happened to all our wonderful, sincere resolutions? We got caught up in our lives and we said we would have to put off until another time those lofty resolves.
What resolutions did you make a year ago?
Did you resolve to remedy the broken relationship you have with your brother? Did you resolve to build a closer tie with your daughter to whom you haven’t spoken in six months? Did you resolve to get your financial affairs in order, to create a will or to update the one you wrote years ago? Did you resolve to include a bequest to your synagogue in that will, or to create an endowment fund to support the good works of this congregation? Did you resolve to visit Israel, or to get back there again after so many years?
Did you resolve something like, “I’m going make changes in my lifestyle so that I’m healthier. I am going to the gym more often and I will walk the stairs instead of using the elevator.” Perhaps you resolved to be greener; a better steward of the environment. And what truly came of it? Did you go home, get lost in the details of your life, and find that such lofty goals will have to wait? If in the coming you want to be more environmentally responsible, following the example set by this synagogue would be a good idea. I asked our properties vice presidents to tell me about the energy efficiencies we have adapted in the past year. The list was so long I couldn’t begin to tell you about it here. Those improvements are impressive from an environmental prospective, and will save us money as well. We all owe them a big “Yashar Kochachem.”
I hope some of your resolutions last year concerned your Jewish life. Did you resolve to attend services more often? To be more responsible about your place on the Jewry Duty List? To join a committee or volunteer to chair an event? Perhaps to make Shabbat a more important part of your week? Even if the realities of life stood in the way of fulfilling that resolution last year, you know that this year brings another chance and the opportunity to do better.
Let me suggest another resolution for your consideration. Get to know more members of the congregation. When you meet someone new, follow up with a lunch date or an invitation to Shabbat dinner. I recently reviewed the congregational membership list and realized there are many members I should know better. I want to do something about that this year and I certainly hope I have the determination to follow through on that resolution.
Every Rosh Hashanah we think back to last year and recall the resolutions we failed to enact. Every Rosh Hashanah we think of how many things we have put off for tomorrow.
A scholar by the name of David Barash put it very well. The title of his article was “We Are All Madoffs.” “Our relationship with the world,” he wrote, “is a giant Ponzi scheme.” In a Ponzi scheme everything works as long as tomorrow never comes. But it does. The bills eventually come due; we eventually have to pay the piper.
The columnist Thomas Friedman said it better than I can – what a surprise! – Just last week he wrote, “We can either roll up our sleeves and do what’s needed to overcome our post-cold war excesses and adapt to the demands of the 21st century or we can just keep limping into the future.” Let me paraphrase him: We can roll up our sleeves and do the hard work we have to make this coming year better, or we can limp into the future and allow it to be as it ever has been, a repetition of what we did and did not do last year.
One of you today is thinking, “But rabbi, you don’t understand.” I think I do understand, and it’s from personal experience. I have set goals I have not achieved. I have made resolutions I have found impossible to keep. Believe me, I do understand. Change is not easy. It is far easier said than done. But it’s not impossible.
We all have limitations, some God-given, some self-imposed. But we also have gifts. This holiday is not a time for schmoozing or snoozing. It is a time for serious prayer, for deep introspection, for looking into our hearts and saying, “What is my purpose in life? What do I want to accomplish? What are my unique gifts that can be applied to make this coming year truly different?”
Today is the day to do serious work on our souls. Today is the day when we must make our commitments more than just good intentions, we must make them sacred obligations, holy covenants. Just as we ask God to remember His covenant with us, we must resolve to keep our covenant with God and with ourselves. Today is the day our hard work must begin.
We cannot afford another year of promises deferred for tomorrow. Now is the time.
Hayom t’amtzeinu, Hayom t’varchenu, Hayom t’gadlenu: Let us be strong today, let us be blessed today; let us be as great as we are called to be, today. AMEN