Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of contradictions for me. On the one hand, I approach the New Year with solemnity, a serious demeanor, praying that G-d blesses me, my family, and all the Jewish people, with a year of physical and spiritual health and happiness. On the other hand, I have a festive holiday meal, complete with all special foods including honey cake, which I love. How can I be both solemn and happy at the same time? How do I go into the holiday happy, knowing that everything is going to be ok?
The first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), known as the Alter Rebbe, writes in Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 11 of the Tanya:
“… no evil descends from above and everything is good, though it is not apprehended because of its immense and abundant goodness.”
It seems my goal is to find that elusive goodness hidden within something that appears to be bad.
Rosh Hashanah Customs Of Contradiction
A Good And Sweet Year
Even the customs of Rosh Hashanah hint to the holiday’s contradictory mood. On Rosh Hashanah we wish each other a good and sweet New Year. The words ‘good’ and ‘sweet’ seem redundant. Why are both words used? If something is good, isn’t it sweet? And if something is sweet, isn’t it good?
An example of something good but not sweet is getting a shot to prevent illness. The shot hurts. That’s definitely not ‘sweet’. The good part is I won’t get sick. I love chocolate. That’s certainly sweet. But if I eat too much chocolate, I’ll feel sick. That’s not good. So just because it’s good, it may not be sweet and vice versa.
To help me internalize that everything is, in reality, unadulterated good, I observe the Rosh Hashanah custom of eating apple slices dipped in honey. But why do I eat honey? Why don’t I use sugar, corn syrup, or anything else that has a sweet taste? In fact, when the Torah refers to Israel as ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’, the term honey here refers to honey from dates. So why am I dipping my apple in honey made by bees?
My answer to this question is that bee’s honey hints to me that there is always the true good hidden within what appears to be bad.
The Symbolism Of Eating Bee’s Honey On Rosh Hashanah
A worker bee lives for about six weeks. In the little bee’s short lifetime, it makes one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. (Now I understand why honey is expensive.) In the wild, the hive is usually hidden in a tree cavity or a hole under a rock outcropping. Because the hive is not openly visible, I don’t see the manufacture of that golden and sweet sticky substance we call honey. The honey itself is neither opaque nor clear, it’s translucent. I can sort of see through the viscous liquid, but not clearly.
So it is with G-d’s blessings. Like the bee hive, the sweetness of these blessings are well hidden. Sometimes I don’t see the goodness in the murky, translucent picture of life.
Finding The Good?
Here’s what my driveway looked like after the remnants of hurricane Ida hit New Jersey. I fail to see what’s good about the end of my driveway disappearing. Some of my friends are dealing with flooded garages and basements. I don’t know what’s good about that either.
I can see a bit of the silver lining hidden in this gray cloud. I’m thankful that we have electric power, running water, and that the toilet flushes.
Another area where I don’t see the immediate benefit is exercise. While riding my stationary bike, I thinking I’m going nowhere, when in fact I’m working my muscles, moving my body, and making myself healthier.
Similar to the visual viscosity of honey, if I look hard enough, I can see the benefit hidden within my driveway collapsing, and my exercise.
The Bee’s Sting, The Sweet Honey
Rashi, in one of his commentaries on parsha Balak quotes a popular phrase:
“I don’t want your honey, I don’t want your sting.”
Pain, either physical or emotional, seems to go hand in hand with life’s joys. Unfortunately, in the days before Moshiach, I can’t have one without the other. And sometimes it’s extremely hard to find any joy at all.
For now, I guess I have to experience the ‘sting’ to experience the sweet. When Moshiach comes, I won’t have to. The Lubavitcher Rebbe always told us to pray not just for a good year, but for a good and sweet year, a year that’s visibly filled with G-d’s blessings that are palpably good. I pray for the time, may it be very soon, when we will all no longer have to feel the ‘sting’ of a sweet life.
Wishing you a good and sweet year, filled with G-d’s revealed blessings.