Last night Rosh HaShanah began, the start of the Jewish year 5774. For most this meant traveling to services, eating apples and honey (for a sweet and prosperous new year), and hearing the shofar–a ram’s horn–blown. For me it meant none of the above.
I could easily steer this conversation in about five directions, depending on how I choose my next few words, and since each road isn’t incredibly long and all equally relevant, my task now is to touch each of them in turn.
1. Fallen Apples
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to attend Rosh HaShanah services in their entirety. As a child I remember we went every year, and to keep us occupied during services, our parents got us all these little things… A black board of some sort that you could “paint” on by moving the black gel around with your fingers, LEGOs, books… We weren’t allowed to play our Gameboys during services, but between them it was alright.
Now in college, I don’t get the holidays off like I did when I was homeschooled. And education is important, so I place education over observation and skip services to attend classes. So it’s probably been five years or so that I’ve missed some portion of Rosh HaShanah (and Yom Kippur) services. Last year I missed all of it.
I’ve struggled to find meaning in Judaism, so far detached from its fruitful observance. Like setting aside a novel you’re in the middle of, if left too long, you forget your place in it, and when you return, you don’t know where you are, not at first anyways. Now when I return, I realize what I’ve missed; but busy elsewhere, it’s hard to feel that absence, that longing, buried beneath all of life’s other obligations.
As a child I sat through everything, but I wasn’t always present. Now as an adult, I can’t sit through everything, but when I do, I’m always present.
2. Sacred Apples
When my 2012 NaNoWriMo novel began, the stars literally fell from the heavens and my main character became entangled in an intergalactical (but completely mythological) mess. This was a significant event for him, not merely because, you know, the stars fell out of the sky, but because he was born into the tribe of the Star Goddess and felt a particular bond with the events in a way few other characters can feel for it.
Even though his village is nestled high in the mountains (where the skies are clearest and they’re closest to their mother in the stars), their village is surrounded by apple orchards. This is fiction, so it’s easy to say apples can grow wherever I want to them, so it doesn’t matter if this detail doesn’t make logical sense (I honestly have no idea–could apple trees grow high in the mountains?); what it does do, however, is make spiritual sense. Apples are sacred to the star goddess. If only by her will alone, they must be there.
To his people, all things related to the stars must be sacred; they empower him and bear great symbolism. Likewise, there are things tied longingly to Rosh HaShanah that even alone in my residence hall I keep musing over. I have some apples and some honey, special honey I purchased in Belize that I haven’t used before. I can say the shehecheyanu, the prayer over new things, and bring in the year personally, a moment shared between me and God.
Like the moment he shares with his goddess, that moment when they cut open an apple and see a star shining from the inside.
3. Apple Turnovers
A few nights ago I was speaking with an old friend and we were talking about Rosh HaShanah and our plans for the day. “Are you going to services?” he asked me, and I told him, even if I had been able to arrange a ride (and there were opportunities I didn’t take advantage of), I was already committed elsewhere, attending an advocacy workshop I was helping to lead and registering new voters on campus earlier in the day.
I said, “Going to services will be personally fulfilling”–
He stopped me, his hands help up, and said, “You don’t go to services because they’re fulfilling. You go because you’re commanded to go.”
“Okay,” I said, conceding defeat, “but this workshop only happens once, and not to belittle Rosh HaShanah, but I can go next year.”
He shook his head at me. “You should never assume like that. God forbid, what if you can’t go next year?” Obviously implying, “What happens if you die before then?”
So I took a breath, gathered a crooked smile, and I told him this:
“If I stand before judgment tomorrow, and God asks me why I didn’t attend services, why I disobeyed this commandment, I’ll tell him I do not regret my decision–for while I could have been in services, obeying this commandment, instead I was helping to empower others to create a better world, to repair the world.
“And I have no regrets in that.”
4. Drops of Honey
It’s hard to think about where honey comes from when we taste it and our heads roll back. But in all honesty, we would have no honey if not for a vast number of many small things.
Honeybees are awesome and interesting creatures. They live in large communities, they communicate through dance and work together to support the hive–it’s rather socialist, from a political perspective. And they make honey not for fun, but because they depend on it and need it to live. And they share that honey with us, and we partake of its sweetness without ever once pausing to remember where it came from.
Honey is sweet. We take that sweetness for granted–but it was not always there; it was cultivated. With many hands buzzing about and working together, something amazing was created. We have many hands, but we don’t work as well together, and we fail to create what could otherwise be amazing.
Could you imagine how sweet our world would be if we worked together like honeybees?
5. Apple Blossoms
Yesterday before Rosh HaShanah started, I spent a little more than an hour outside registering voters with a clipboard and pen. Some people ignored me. Some people said they had class to get to and walked off faster. Some people listened. Some people registered. And some people promised to vote.
It’s nerve-wracking, the work I do. I get uncomfortable, I feel embarrassed, I get nervous before I place the phonecall. But I carry on, because I know all these simple, seemingly futile actions add up to create something greater. Like seeds scattered around a snow-covered mountain, they’ll grow someday into an orchard, and I know when these fruits grow large and plump, there will always be a star on the inside.
On the one hand I could have joined my Jewish brethren and rejoiced in our Jewish community; instead I chose to turn my heart towards the world, to face those yet to blossom into their highest potential, and spend my time dedicated to the local, the global community. Only through the work of many hands, all moving together, can our harvest be as sweet, as rich, as golden as apples bathed in honey.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah
Have a sweet and happy new year