It’s Rosh Hashana and everything old is new again.
We listen to the same shofar, chant the same prayers, and eat the same sweet, round hallah year after year, as eagerly as if for the very first time. There is comfort in the familiar, and in the way these rituals unite us with Jews the world over. But it is the family customs, the little twists and spins we put on our observance, that personalize the holiday in ways both meaningful and unexpected.
Growing up, one of my favorite family activities before Rosh Hashana was apple picking. The process was weighted with possibility, signifying the start of the High Holy Day season. We went from tree to tree, sampling different varieties until we found apples that were juicy and ripe, the perfect bounty for applesauce and apple cakes and, of course, dipping in honey. We carried on like that until our baskets — and our stomachs — were full.
When our sons were small, I wanted to continue the tradition as a way to build a sense of anticipation and excitement in the lead-up to the new year. After all, we live in the Garden State, home to orchards aplenty. But as soon as the boys got a little older, we let the custom fall by the wayside, allowing soccer games, birthday parties, work schedules, and family obligations to consume the few autumn Sundays before the holiday.
New traditions filled in some of that missing piece. I began writing down topics I wanted to discuss with God in shul while the Gates of Heaven were open, tucking the paper between the pages of my Mahzor before candle-lighting. We used the honey dishes shaped like bears and bumblebees the boys made in school. When they decided they were too old to sing the preschool classic “Dip the Apple in the Honey,” my husband took over with unparalleled enthusiasm.
Yet each time Rosh Hashana rolled around, I missed the crisp aroma of autumn and the stirring of fresh potential from the apple-picking outings of my memory. A few years ago, I finally went picking alone — at the local farmers’ market, where every year since I’ve found fresh-plucked apples in a bin, the smell of the trees still on them. I haven’t abandoned all hope of picking apples in a real orchard again one day, but my current compromise works its magic for now.
I recall, while picking apples as a girl, that I always found one perfectly round, perfectly red apple too high up or too far out on a branch for me to reach. I’d climb toward it, stretching my short arms until it was in my grasp, often to discover it had a blemish I could never have seen with my feet on the ground. I’d clean it with my shirt and take a bite anyway, convinced — whether it was tasty or not — that it was the sweetest specimen in the entire orchard.
The wisdom of our tradition reminds us that happiness alone, unrooted in deeper values, soon leaves us wanting. It is something we microwave for instant gratification, a fleeting emotion gone before we’ve licked the honey off of our finger tips. When we dip the apple on Rosh Hashana, we ask God for a Shana Tova u’metuka, a good and sweet year, not simply a happy one. True happiness builds over time from what is genuine and meaningful, the components of a bigger picture we may only see when we sweeten our perspective.
We are about to put another year behind us and step forward into the great unknown of 5777. This is a period of personal reflection, a time to reach high and far and to make the best of the fruits we are given, rather than bolt at the first taste of bitterness. I’m a year older and, I hope, wiser. I should know by now to keep my eyes out for the sweet and the good, even when they are hidden from view. And in moments when life throws a sour apple in my path, as it inevitably will, I pray I’ll remember that a little honey goes a long way.