A Slice of Time with Honey on the Side
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
For most of us, it is very difficult to believe that another whole year has
come and gone, and that we are about to stand once again before the King of
Kings on Rosh Hashanah this week, b"H (assuming that you are reading this
before Rosh Hashanah). Some of us just don't feel ready for Rosh Hashanah,
the seven days of Selichos and Tshuva that follow, and then, Yom Kippur.
Perhaps this is why the rabbis instituted saying Selichos at least four
days in advance of Rosh Hashanah, in order to prime us for those awesome
The truth is, this week's parsha of Shabbos Shuva (named so because of the
special Haftarah portion) is also very timely, which presents the shira
alluded to at the end of last week's parsha. As we have mentioned before,
shira, the Jewish form of song, is the song of the soul ... what one hears
when the body is silent. More precisely, shira is what one sings when even
the body experiences an exceptionally open revelation of the hand of G-d,
and can't help but comment on it.
The shira of Ha'Azinu introduces a very important concept, one that has not
been outright alluded to in the past, but one which plays a very important
role in understanding what goes wrong in history, and why.
There is a phenomenon (and I call it this, because really, it is not
logical or natural) in life whereby people negate the past, at least in
terms of any value it may have with regard to the future. When it comes to
money and the business world, the opposite is the case: people constantly
look at the past and try to glean wisdom from their mistakes and the
mistakes of others. Everyone knows that mistakes cost money, and one has to
be "on his toes" to maximize success. Yet, when it comes to the lessons of
history, people tend to assume that the past was the past-water under the
No wonder the Torah advocates:
Remember the days of the world, and understand the years from generation to
generation. Ask your father and he will tell you, the Elders, and they will
inform you. (Devarim 32:7)
It says something about a society that "commands" people to know world
history. Western society makes it mandatory to learn history somewhat in
the early grades, but it is certainly not a crime if you don't. And even
what they do teach does not necessarily leave a person feeling morally
responsible to his or her society.
The reason is simple. History becomes meaningless if it is simply a
driverless "car." The only message it says to a person is, "Watch out! Make
sure not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or you'll get hit!"
This was the kind of lesson one woman drew from her perspective of
history's approach to anti-Semitism, and the advice she had for her fellow
Jews. She wrote in her college campus newspaper: "If we stop calling
ourselves 'Jews,' " she said, "then people will stop hating Jews."
She was certainly not a student of history, and for sure not a student of
Jewish history. For, her suggestion was predicated upon one very mistaken
point: she assumed that G-d had and has little to do with what happens to
the Jewish people throughout history. A quick scan of Jewish history seems
to indicate that G-d has had everything to do with our history. ("You can
run, but you can't hide" seems to have been written about the Jewish
people, and their eternal relationship to G-d.) From the Torah's
perspective, the notion of a driverless car when it comes to history is
nonsense, and, the truth be known, downright dangerous.
Frighteningly enough, the people who had built Migdol Bavel (Tower of
Bavel) had had a similar approach to Divine judgment: 340 years after the
Flood, they had built the tower to "hold up the sky," lest it leak and
flood the world all over again! Imagine that. Noach and his family was
still alive at the time the plans for the Tower had been revealed; Avraham
was walking around preaching about G-d's dominion over creation as
construction of the Tower began-and these guys are building a tower to make
up for nature's shortcomings!
The answer is very basic. The Talmud tells us that "Everyday the yetzer
hara gets up to kill us." (Kiddush 30b). Not a very encouraging thought, is
it? As if the streets weren't dangerous enough, the Talmud has to tell us
that we go to sleep and wake up with a built-in murderer!!
What the Talmud means is, life is for making free-will moral choices. Moral
choice implies that immorality must be a possibility if the choice is going
to be a valid one, which means that something within us must relate, on
some level, to the wrong thing. We call that "thing" the yetzer hara, and
it is his job, so-to-speak, to make the wrong thing appealing enough that
we have to consciously choose not to do it. This is why the same Talmud
writes that G-d said, "I created the yetzer hara, and I created Torah as
its spice ..." (i.e., Torah channels the energy of the yetzer hara in a
However, without Torah, the yetzer hara has free reign to call the shots,
which leads to certain spiritual death. And, as the Torah warns in this
week's parsha, if you look at history carefully through G-d's "eyes," you
can see how societies that have been built upon cornerstones set by the
yetzer hara fall soon enough, and leave very little trace that they ever
existed in any meaningful way.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure all this out, says Moshe
Rabbeinu. You just have to be willing to take the lessons of the past to
heart, to recognize them for the Divine Providence they represent, and to
act accordingly. It is the only way to guarantee that you will be one of
the fortunate few to bear witness to history, and not the other way around.
This Sunday (October 5) will fall the Fast of Gedalia (usually the first
day after Rosh Hashanah, but since this year that day is Shabbos, the fast
is pushed off until Sunday).
The fast day was instituted to recall the assassination of Gedalia ben
Achikam at the hands of Yishmael ben Netaniah, who had been instigated by
the king of Ammon. As a result of the assassination, the final vestiges of
Jewish autonomy after the Babylonian conquest (423 BCE) were destroyed,
thousands of Jews were slaughtered, and the remaining Jews were driven into
As the history goes, after Nebuchadnetzar, the then king of Babylonian had
destroyed the first Temple and had exiled the people to his land, he had
allowed an impoverished remnant to remain in the land with Gedalia as their
governor. Many Jews who had previously fled to other neighboring countries
because of the initial attack returned to the territory of Yehudah and
tended the fields and vineyards returned to them by the king of Babylonia.
They were able to enjoy a period of peace after their original suffering.
However, jealous of and hostile to the Jewish remnant, the king of Ammon
sent Yishmael ben Netaniah to assassinate Gedalia, who had received the
former cordially in the town of Mitzpeh-despite advance warnings of his
guest's diabolical plans. Gedalia had not wanted to accept what he thought
had been loshon hara (derogatory speech) about his guest, and instead had
chosen to act as if he knew nothing. His righteousness cost him his life,
and the Talmud comments: it may have been wrong to speak and listen to
loshon hara, but there was nothing wrong in exercising a little caution in
After Gedalia was murdered, the remaining Jews, in fear of the revenge of
the king of Babylonia fled to Egypt, and the land thus fulfilled the
prophecy that it would one day lie uninhabited and fallow. The fast day
itself was established to remind us that the death of the righteous is
likened to the burning of the Temple, for which a fast day was also
However, if the Fast of Gedalia teaches us anything, it is how petty
feelings of jealousy and hatred "cut our noses off to spite our faces." We
had been decimated by the Babylonians, and rightly so, according to how
abusive the pre-Destruction generations had lived. Yet, in spite of all
this, G-d, in His infinite mercy, left a "seed" behind that could have
flowered and saved us from complete and utter exile.
What did we do? For selfish reasons, we threw it back in G-d's face saying,
"We may not get away with this, nor benefit from our actions, but at least
they won't either." It's the Philistinian point of view all over again
(Samson tore down the walls of the Philistine building, crushing everyone
inside while taking his own life).
On Yom Kippur, the rabbis point out that we don't wear shoes because on
that day we are supposed to be like angels-and angels don't wear shoes.
However, a second reason the rabbis give for not wearing shoes is far more
down to earth; it is to remind us that Yosef's brothers had sold him for
shoes ... for shoes!! ... and look what we went through and where we ended
up in the end!
In fact, the Ten Martyrs, whom we read about during the Yom Kippur Mussaf
service, were still paying the price for Yosef's brothers' mistake. The
truth is, so are we ... and so will we pay for that mistake until Moshiach
comes. For, the same flaw that sent the brothers off in the wrong direction
continues to infect our perspective of reality, making us petty and willing
to die for mundane matters, while overlooking the issues that count the
In essence, this is really the underlying root of all the transgressions we
beat our chests about on Yom Kippur. As we learn in many places, sin is not
so much a question of what, as it is one of when, and we make a mistake
about the "when" at times that we lose sight of our priorities and what
matters most in life. Even Gedalia's trait of completely overlooking the
evil report about his murderer was enviable, but misplaced at the moment,
and his death and fast day remind us that, when it comes to living a
completely Torah life, it is not just important to know what to do, but
when and how as well.
What would Rosh Hashanah be without apple and honey? Well, for one thing,
less fun and less sweet.
Many people know that we dip apple in the honey on Rosh Hashanah to
symbolize our desire for a sweet, new year. We even say so at the time of
dipping and eating (see the ArtScroll Machzor for the different foods to be
eaten prior to the meal as "segulos," and the special prayers that
accompany them). However, few people know how deep the apple in the honey
is supposed to go (philosophically, that is).
In the Zohar, the Jewish people are compared to "apples" that hang on a
tree that alludes to G-d Himself, reminding us of the intimate relationship
that exists between us and our Creator. The honey itself alludes to Torah,
as the verse says:
Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; honey and milk are under your
tongue ... (Shir HaShirim 4:11)
"Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride ..." in discoursing upon Torah
(Rashi) "... honey and milk are under your tongue ..." This refers to the
secrets of Torah (Divrei Yehuda)
According to the Pri Tzaddik (Rosh Hashanah), dipping the apple in the
honey alludes to our desire to renew our understanding of Torah, but on an
even deeper level. The apple, which is sweet to begin with, is immersed in
the honey, which is sweeter yet, to symbolize how the Jew who immerses
himself in Torah can make an already "sweet" life even sweeter. And, as the
Divrei Yehuda points out, the deeper the "immersion," the deeper the
understanding, and the deeper the serenity in life.
Who could transgress further when life itself becomes so sweet?
After all, transgression is also a function of a sense of discontentment.
Physically content people are often righteous people, and vice versa.
People who feel that they have to always get ahead materialistically, and
feel the pressure if they ease up for a moment to focus on more spiritual
matters are often slaves to their desires, and will have great difficulty
in not bending the "rules" to make things work out the way they feel they
need them to work out.
The apple in the honey is supposed to remind the Jew that contentment lies
not in the realm of the physical, but in the realm of the spiritual.
Knowing this, and living by this for the Jew, is the difference between
being an "apple" that remains "attached" to the tree, and alive, and one
that becomes, G-d forbid, severed from the tree, and ...
Not all of Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemai Tshuva (Ten Days of Repentance),
and Yom Kippur is fire-and-brimstone. There is a far more upbeat side to
all of this, and that is, going home.
No, not just returning home from yeshiva or college to your parent's home
for the holiday and great Yom Tov food. Going home in this sense means
using Rosh Hashanah as a chance to become "true to thine own self."
What I mean by this is, everyone has shtik. You know, that kind of presence
we try to create with respect to how we are perceived by the outside world.
Everyone acts a little bit in life, for whatever the reason, though we may
barely be conscious of it anymore (it's like going out on a shidduch, when
you may act the way you'd like to be perceived, but not necessarily the way
you actually are presently).
And so what's wrong with a little shtik? Well, for one, we know it's not
us, at least on some level. Deep inside our heart of hearts, we know what
we really think about, and what really matters most to us. And one thing
bothers us more than anything else, even more than not being the person we
long to be, and that's faking it. As many a person has pointed out before:
there is great comfort in being the real you, even if the real you is not
what you ought to be.
Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemai Tshuva, and Yom Kippur, are times to
confront the real You, to assess what you like about yourself and to
analyze what you don't. Being real with yourself is the first stage to
self-improvement; people who pretend to be things they're not end up never
being that which they are, and that which they are not. And in the words of
one philosopher: People wrapped up in themselves make small packages!
It is the egocentric misguided human being who fashions himself to be G-d's
gift to man. However, it is the down-to-earth, self-honest human being, who
sees himself for what he is, who uses the good to help improve the
not-so-good, who ends up becoming man's gift to G-d.
Can you think of any nicer way to spend the birthday of creation?
Have a great Shabbos Shuva,
Chasiva v'Chasima Tova