Rosh Hashanah: Filled with meaning

The traditions of Rosh Hashanah have maintained themselves throughout the years because many of us have infused into the rituals and davening a meaning that captures the new year for us.

APPLES AND honey: The classic Rosh Hashanah combination. (photo credit: SUFECO/FLICKR)
APPLES AND honey: The classic Rosh Hashanah combination.
(photo credit: SUFECO/FLICKR)
Some 70 years ago, this appeared in a weekly Jewish newspaper in the USA: “Rosh Hashanah was a day of much praying, much talking, cantorial music, and shofar blowing... When we got home, we dipped some apple in honey, symbolic of a sweet year, and we wished one another that they be written down for a good year. Then there was the deluxe yom tov meal that mama had prepared for new year with her special tagelach as well. On the following day, we walked to a nearby lake and threw our sins away.”
The traditions of Rosh Hashanah have maintained themselves throughout the years because many of us have infused into the rituals and davening a meaning that captures the new year for us. Personally, I recall sitting in shul by my father, reading as many tefillot as I could. Sometimes, I was a bit tired so I snuck out to be with my friends who were on the sidewalk by the shul doing what they pleased. Then I went back in and waited for the tiny little shofar to be blown. No giant shofarot in those days. I have these memories – really poignant. I believe, however that Rosh Hashanah, these days, should provide us something more spiritual for the coming year.
Trying to broaden the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, I asked people what the New Year will mean to them this year. The answers reflect how significant the holiday is.
One Modern Orthodox couple living in Jerusalem made aliyah a few years ago after very successful careers in the US. As volunteers, they are using their professional skills to help others.
“Rosh Hashanah is a time of self-assessment,” they began.
“We look at ourselves within a one-year time frame. We ask who we were this past year. Will we be the same person in the coming year? Or will we be new?” Who we have been and who we will be are points to ponder as we sit in shul moving through the mahzor (holiday prayer book), hearing the Torah read and the sounds of the shofar and listening to the rabbi speak.
They continue, “Tradition says Adam was born on Rosh Hashanah – the initiation of God’s existence in the physical world.” This is a very powerful statement that we hope will inspire us because we are unique as human beings and we are “standing in the need of the Lord” as the African-American spiritual goes.
Now they ask more pragmatic questions. “These past few months have been a stressful time in defining who we are as a Jewish nation. A law has been passed that many find uncomfortable or even worse. Some believe this law is unnecessary.
As Jews, we have always tried to see who we were among the nations. Now for the first time we have our own nation, Israel.
How should we characterize ourselves here? “We already defined who we were,” the couple continues, “decades ago in a Basic Law. Have we done serious reassessment to justify this new attempt at defining who we are? Are we honestly holding up a mirror to ourselves, or is someone else holding the mirror? Rosh Hashanah is a time for questions and truthful answers.”
MY COUSIN Henry Schuster, from Atlanta originally as I am, has been a producer at CBS 60 Minutes for the past 12 years.
Since his marriage, he and his family have been active Conservative Jews. He shared his opinion with me.
“Let’s give a thought to the apple this Rosh Hashanah. Before it was synonymous with a trillion-dollar corporation; before it was the Beatles’ record label; before globalization and refrigeration when you could get a perfect looking and tasteless facsimile any time of the year, the apple harvest coincided, at least where I lived, with Rosh Hashanah.”
Then Henry focuses on the “sweetness of the apple” that we are privileged to have every year at this season.
“The smell, and most important for the New Year, the sweetness from a bite of a freshly picked apple made the honey almost superfluous.”
In Israel, the Bereshit company and other large fruit distributors advertise apples in a most dramatic fashion. Henry, however, helps us understand why the apple needs real support.
“The apple always got a bit of bad press. There’s no evidence it was the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden. Indeed, its place at Rosh Hashanah is precisely to remind us of Eden. It is also a reminder, if you will, that words and facts matter.
“The days are subtly getting shorter,” he reminds us, “and even though this Rosh Hashanah comes earlier by the secular calendar, the folks at our local farmers’ market say the apples will start arriving from the orchards (we live in the DC area) not far away in Virginia before Tishrei. OK, they don’t say Tishrei, they say early September.”
Let Jews all over the world join him as he emphasizes to us all. “Still, I can’t wait for that first bite. Boreh pri ha’etz.”
TURNING TO another symbol of the holiday, we cannot help thinking of the shofar, whose sounds reach us in the synagogue.
The ram’s horn we used, for a long time, was very small.
The sound it made was still powerful and did touch us. Now the shofar is large and its tones are deeper as they rise into the atmosphere of the synagogue.
Outside of Israel, those practicing on the shofar normally do it in an enclosed space because they do not want anyone alarmed by the sounds. Here in Israel beginning in Av, everyone can hear the practicing of the shofar. Porches, parks and vacant lots resonate with shofar sounds. This is our nation where we can hear the ram’s horn before Rosh Hashanah itself.
We are all – men, women and children – required to listen to the sounding of the shofar. The sick and infirm are to be visited and the shofar is blown for them. Since those who practice the shofar do it so publicly, all Israeli citizens hear the shofar – some with a bracha, some not.
The shofar’s three notes, tekia, shevarim and terua, all have their own sounds to penetrate our hearts and call us to action.
ANOTHER RESPONSE to my question came from a very committed Conservative Jew, a lawyer who attends the daily minyan and Shabbat and Holiday services and keeps kosher home. He constantly criticizes what is happening to us as Jews in this era and calls out to us to concentrate on how we must transform ourselves to ensure a Jewish future.
“Jewish secularism,” he emphasizes, “is a dangerous way to go; it leads to lack of morality and puts our youth on the wrong path and to assimilation. Those who are killing animals for sport perform an unnecessary act, needlessly destroying God’s creatures.”
We see here a challenge we are called upon to respond. Our Torah spells out for us a code of observance and conduct that we have observed throughout the centuries. Now that we live in a more open world with instant communication, are we using these new instruments for enhancing our lives properly? That is a question for us to explore on Rosh Hashanah and definitively remind ourselves what technology does for us, since every day is so important.
“Only we mortals, aware of our perishing,” a rabbi writes, “proclaim the passage of time; only we mortals can startle ourselves awake. As we use our devices to connect with others, we must not lose ourselves in their drawing power, but focus them in the proper manner so they let us communicate. They should not crowd out the rest of our precious lives.”
I WAS 19 when I performed tashlich for the first time. Since then my family and I have been able to throw our crumbs/ sins into the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland, into the Ohio River near a state university, into the Lackawanna River in Pennsylvania, into the Brandywine River in Delaware, into a pool in New York, followed by discovering many places in Jerusalem for the mitzvah – including a bathtub when my gait was not steady.
In 1486 in Padua, Elijah del Medigo, a philosopher born in Crete, watched his fellow Jews throwing bread crumbs into the river. “These individuals thought they were ridding themselves of their sins, but the fish ate the breadcrumbs. The fish were caught and the sins were swallowed again.” Del Medigo’s opinion was repeated by other rabbis, but fortunately it did not deter the observance.
There are many reasons proposed for tashlich. One states, “Most of what we do on Rosh Hashanah depends on verbal expression or on listening. Tashlich, in which we cast away our sins, constitutes one of the few active rituals of Rosh Hashanah.” As we transform ourselves through prayer, we must cleanse ourselves with action.
Tefillot and Tashlich remind us of what we must change in ourselves after all our persistent efforts on Rosh Hashanah to do teshuva, to return. Tashlich, I think, is one of the great mitzvot of our faith – and it is growing in importance because the entire family can participate in it together.
I RECEIVED a letter from an old friend when I asked my Rosh Hashanah question.
“Since I do not go to shul that often, Rosh Hashanah is important to me. At the New Year, services I am going to pray that all the ‘unecessary killing’ be stopped. Hundreds of innocent youth and adults lose their lives because of demented gunmen. Armed nations fighting kill thousands of people. Each of those people ‘wiped away’ would have made so many contributions to our universe.
Alas, they are gone never to return. My Rosh Hashanah will be devoted to praying to God to end the massacres.”
The mounting deaths in civilian life and in the military occur so often that we are numbed by the frequency of killing. Hunting animals is another way to rub out living creatures. I knew sergeants, when I served in the US Army, who were always looking for animals to kill. Near us we had a buffalo preserve, so that particular animal was under protection. These militarists, who were trained to kill and could only do so in battle, treated the animals as their victims in lieu of human ones.
I wish, as my friend requests, I could invent a “text” which could appear on every cellphone in the world: “Do not kill unnecessarily, life is too precious.”
This Rosh Hashanah, I hope that the prayers we recite will remind God to pour out on our family, and on every family in the world the blessings of good health, happiness and joy. May our lives be free from unwarranted challenges to our existence.
The writer dedicates this article to his wife, three children, their spouses, and our eight grandchildren, as we begin our 42nd year in Medinat Yisrael.