Turning Bitter into Sweet

UNDERSTANDING THE SYMBOLISM OF EATING HONEY ON ROSH HASHANAH.

By Rabbi Dov Greenberg

One of the favorite foods in the Jewish home during the Rosh Hashanah is honey. In fact, the holiday would hardly be complete without it. Dip an apple in it. Spread some on bread. Bake it into a cake. It’s all good.

Not only is honey tasty; it’s a powerful symbol for Rosh Hashanah, representing our desire for a sweet new year. This lovely tradition is an ancient and universal Jewish custom. It is recorded in the works of the Babylonian sages of the 7th century. In truth, the tradition dates back to even earlier times.
Honey certainly adds sweetness to recipes. But what we might not realize while scooping up a generous glob of honey on a slice of challah is that, according to custom, honey also represents a deeper concept that we are meant to internalize at Rosh Hashanah: transformation. Produced by bees, honey is indeed fragrant and sweet. Yet when they sting, those same bees cause pain. This paradox represents an inner theme of the Jewish New Year. To understand this idea, consider what we refer to as the sweetness in our lives: The times of the year when we’re successful, when things go easy and when we’re prosperous. We think of those times as sweet.
Then there are other times when we feel the sting associated with hardship. An average year is made up of lots of sweetness and many stings. But one of the advantages of being human, of having a soul, is that we can often transform stings into sweetness through the power of faith and the right attitude.

Eating honey on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes our God-given capacity to transform negative experiences into positive ones, and ultimately turn them into blessings. Judaism calls on us to acknowledge failure and misfortune without diminishing it—it happened and it was bad, but we have the ability to transform negative energy into a force for healing and blessing.

For example, you’ve worked hard at something and ultimately succeeded. It means a lot to you and you hope that people will praise your work, but no one does. No one notices. You feel hurt. Take that pain and use it to affirm that when you see someone else putting in effort, you will go out of your way to praise that person’s work. Or, perhaps in a time of crisis, you awaited a reassuring word from a friend, but it did not come. You felt lonely, and maybe even a little betrayed. From this hurtful experience, learn to give reassurance and comfort when another needs it.

In 1909, a Manhattan woman named Henrietta Szold learned that the man she loved for years and planned to marry had abruptly gone off and married a younger woman he had just met. Szold was no longer young, and knew she would not find a husband. A lesser woman in her situation might have withdrawn from the world, immersed in self-pity or anger. Instead of wallowing in despair, Szold channeled her unrequited love into good deeds, founding Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, which over the course of decades inspired millions of Jewish women to perform great deeds of love, including saving the lives of children in Nazi occupied Europe and founding one of the world’s leading medical centers in Jerusalem. Unable to find a man with whom to share her love or heal her wounded soul, and unwilling to let that tremendous love go to waste, she built a worldwide organization to dispense love and healing. When she died, she was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; her gravestone reads: “Mother of Thousands.” Henrietta tasted the sting of rejection, but stayed resilient and turned it into sweetness and blessing.

The Jewish people are known as the “People of Israel.” Where did Jews acquire the name Israel? What does it signify? It was acquired in the famous, enigmatic story in Genesis 32 in which Jacob, while alone one night, is attacked by a mysterious stranger. They wrestle. When the assailant cannot overpower Jacob, he strikes him on the hip, dislocating it. Despite the pain, Jacob keeps fighting. Then the attacker grows desperate; dawn is about to break, and he appeals to Jacob to release him. Jacob knows that this is no ordinary opponent, but rather a heavenly emissary and responds, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The stranger asks him: “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.

“Your name shall no longer be Jacob,” said the stranger, “but Israel, for you have struggled with heavenly beings and humans and have prevailed.” Like Jacob, when tragedy strikes us, the struggle can feel like wrestling in the dark with an indomitable opponent. But like Jacob, we too can refuse to relent until we have turned suffering into a blessing.

Produced by bees, honey is indeed fragrant and sweet. Yet when they sting, those same bees cause pain. This paradox represents an inner theme of the Jewish New Year

When you examine Jewish history, you will find something surprising. After each catastrophe that should rationally have led to despair, there was a stunning new burst of creativity that lifted the Jewish people. The Destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. was one of the greatest crises in Jewish history. Yet out of the ashes came the creation of the Midrash and the Talmud, vehicles that inspired Jewish life for 2000 years.

The Spanish expulsion in 1492 was an upheaval. For centuries, Jews lived prosperously in Spain; the expulsion should have led to hopelessness, but what followed was the blossoming of Jewish mysticism.

Responding to the massacres in the 1600s of Jews in the Ukraine, the Baal Shem Tov founded one of the most significant spiritual reawakenings in Jewish history, Chasidism. And even the Holocaust, in human terms the worst tragedy of all, led to the single greatest affirmation of the collective Jewish will to survive: the rebirth of the State of Israel and the rebuilding of Jewish life throughout the world. It is not easy to face devastation and refuse to stop struggling until we have turned it into renewed strength. But this is our name. As a people, we wrestle. And ultimately, we triumph. Our darkest nights have been a prelude to our most inspired dawns.

The creator of the world’s finest violins, Antonio Stradivarius, crafted his most beautiful instruments from piles of broken, waterlogged oars he found on the docks of Venice. He understood that in those shattered ruins lay the potential for great music.

This is true of more than violins. It is true of all that is broken in life.

Indeed, the word Yisrael (Israel) also means Shir-El, God’s melody. To be a Jew is to take the fractured shards of history and turn them into music, so that every day, every act, every mitzvah contributes another sweet note in the divine symphony.

So as we dip the apple in honey this Rosh Hashanah, let us bless each other and all people that in the year to come there will be only sweetness. But if there are any stings, may we understand that, as our ancestors did, with strength and perseverance, we can turn them into blessings.

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