(photo credit: REUTERS)
Head or Hair?
Rosh Hashanah is not just the first day of the year, it is the head of the year. A head serves two purposes: It is a platform for hair, as in a beautiful head of hair, and a housing apparatus for the brain.
The head is the seat of intellect and sensation. It is where the human is ascendant. Yet, it is also critical to the hair that crowns it, a mane that would fall off if we lost our head. Allow me a ridiculous question, which is more important?
I know many bald people who have no need for a hair platform, but are immensely glad to have their head. Indeed, the head has an internal and external dimension. Compared to the internal, the external is trivial. Of what value is hair when compared to the mind? If you tire of hair, would you shave off your head? Conversely, if I lost my mind, but kept my head for its hair would that make me an (h)airhead?
In the end I suppose it depends on whom you ask. If you ask me, I would let down my hair and choose my brain. But if you ask my hair, I suppose it would have a different opinion. Of course, no one is asking my hair, who cares what a hair follicle thinks, if indeed it is capable of thought. In that case, allow me one more question: If merely considering the perspective of a hair follicle is ridiculous, why do we often adopt its point of view and formulate our entire approach to life on the basis of its perspective? In other words, why do we sometimes behave like a hair follicle?
Just as the human head has an internal dimension, which by far supersedes its external one so does the head of the year. Rosh Hashana, The first day of the year is celebrated through prayer, introspection, the Shofar’s call and renewed commitment. The first day of the year is also celebrated with traditional Rosh Hashana dishes: tzimmes, kugel and gefilte fish to name a few.
The question I pose today is which is your primary Rosh Hashana experience? Are the prayers and introspection a lead up to the social, culinary experience or is the social experience an expression of your prayer? When you think of Rosh Hashana, what stands out most? How is it characterized?
Many will say it is characterized by both in equal measure. They think of the synagogue experience as a major part of Rosh Hashana, but so are its holiday meals. This is true, but it evades the question. Put differently I might ask, should someone enter your home two days before Rosh Hashana, what would be the tip-off that a holiday is around the corner? Would it be the prayerful posture of the family or the aroma of tzimmes wafting in from the kitchen? Should a fly gain access to your mind two weeks before Rosh Hashana, would it encounter introspective contemplation or the planning of a guest list?
Focus on the Internal
As Rosh Hashana approaches it is appropriate to review the year that has passed and compare it to the hopes and aspirations we entertained for it before it began. It is proper to conduct an internal audit of the goals we reached and the ones we did not. It is appropriate to prepare an honest list of the new goals we want to reach, ought to reach and feel capable of reaching in the coming year.
Rosh Hashanah is the day on which G-d allocates blessing for the coming year and we want to be prepared. Not only do we want to prepare a list of all the things we need from G-d, we also want to prepare a list of all the areas we need to improve. In a sense we want to strike a deal with G-d. I know what you want from me and you know what I want from you, let’s make each other happy.
Incorporate the External
Of course we also plan our menu, arrange our guest list and cook our tzimmes. It is akin to arranging our hair in attractive fashion though we know our heads are primarily for thinking. Embracing the priority of the internal does not dictate neglect of the external.
The same applies to Rosh Hashana. Of course we eat and gather socially on this day, but it is an outgrowth of the day’s significance, not its sum total. Mealtime is when we express gratitude to G-d for a new year. It is when we celebrate the blessing of our children’s good health. It is when we raise our glasses in fervent prayer that the coming year be marked only by good things and never by suffering. Indeed, food is not the main dish of this holiday, but it can be in synch with the day’s primary message.
Even preparing the traditional dishes gives expression to our prayers. Adding honey to the Tzimmes gives us opportunity to pray for a sweet year. By deliberately avoiding vinegar we express our wish that the New Year not be soured by suffering, hatred or anger. As we cook the fish we ask that our loved ones flourish and our merits proliferate like fish in the sea. As we grate the carrots we pray that our blessings increase like carrots. (Meren, Yiddish for carrots, also means to increase.) Every dish is designed with a meditation for happiness, abundance and joy.
Synchronizing the Dimensions
Let us therefore synchronize the two dimensions of Rosh Hashana. As we prepare its traditional dishes, let us also resolve to enhance our traditional observance. As we add spice to our recipes let us also resolve to spice up our Torah study. As we plan our guest list let also plan the list of charities to which we will contribute in the coming year. As we gather with family in joyous celebration let us contemplate the joy G-d derives from every Mitzvah we observe.
These dishes add comfort and joy to an otherwise weighty and solemn day. When done correctly they can fit Rosh Hashana like a glove to a hand. Gloves are only useful when they are fitted to a hand and hands are most effective when they are protected by gloves. Thankfully we have both, the hand and the glove: The introspective prayer and the delicious meals, the quiet reflection and the celebrative joy.
In conclusion, we might make a big tzimmes of Rosh Hashana, but Rosh Hashana is larger than mere Tzimmes.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of
Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book,
Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org