October was a month filled with holiday festivities, meals, friends, gatherings and prayers — everything important in an active Jewish life. But after the month passes, do we take what we learned from our holidays and just forget about them on Nov. 1? Of course not.
We must appreciate what we did for the past month and how it prepared us to go forward through the next year. What do we take with us throughout the rest of the year?
Q: Why are apples dipped in honey?
A: The simple explanation we learned in grade school is: “So we can have a sweet new year.” This is a good answer and always a winner, but there is more. In our sukkah this year, we tried to capture them all.
At Rosh Hashanah, we dip apple in honey from bees, not the honey from dates referred to in the Bible as Israel’s “Land of Milk and Honey.” We use bee honey because of the duality of its creators. We know bees have two sides: one that can sting you and one that makes sweet honey.
We know life is full of stings. We are not so Pollyannaish as to believe that if we wish a sweet New Year, all we need is kindness. We are realists. We need to work throughout the year to make our New Year’s sweetness last. We must think of the words we use when speaking to others as well as to ourselves. Offer consideration to those with whom we interact on a regular basis. Smile at the cashier who has worked a 10-hour shift. Tell your child it’s fine to have the occasional bad test score.
Jews have come to understand that even if we experience life’s stings, we are blessed to taste the sweet honey that is the flipside of such a sting. Perhaps you must work overtime to finish a project at work; after it’s done, you have the satisfaction of knowing it is complete and done to the best of your ability. At Rosh Hashanah, we ask to grow spiritually and emotionally, and recognize the blessings that come from experiences — even the “bad” ones.
Q: Why is the challah round?
A: During Rosh Hashanah, the Almighty is compared with a king who humbly comes to us in the fields and asks us to crown Him. It shows the love and respect and interpersonal relationship we have with God. Round challah reminds us of the Divine characteristic of malchut, “kingship,” where we crown God as our King, and we ask Him to return us here the following year, “in full circle,” so we again may experience a new season, new fruit and new blossoms.
Q: What is the meaning of the sukkah and Sukkot?
A: My family and I used a round table in our sukkah to symbolize the malchut, and our hopes and aspirations. Sukkot is “The Feast of the Harvest.” It reminds us of the times our ancestors needed a place to stay when gathering their crops. Sukkot is a time to reflect on the bounty from the earth God bestowed upon us during Creation. Share what you can with a local food pantry throughout the year, not just during Thanksgiving or major religious holidays such as Passover.
Many decorated their sukkah walls, yet we follow the teachings of the Rebbe of Chabad, leaving our walls bare because the true ornaments in our sukkah are the guests surrounding our table. Each guest brings a world of experiences that grace us with the most beautiful and priceless adornments.
The schach (foliage branches) overhead in our sukkah bore the sweet smell of eucalyptus. Every year at this time, we trim our trees. The halachah is that the schach should only sparsely cover the top, enough that you have some refuge from the elements, but so you still see the stars above, allowing rain to come through. This is to remind us we are here only under God’s protection. While one might look at the sukkah and think it is a fairly stable structure, all you need to do is bump into any of the poles or walls to know everything around you is flimsy and temporary. This is the lesson we are supposed to learn from our time in the sukkah — that in life, we may think all that is around us is permanent, but in truth, it is all temporary. God placed us in this temporary world for a purpose.
On Sukkot, the very act of sitting in the sukkah is fulfilling the mitzvah of the holiday. We stay in the sukkah for seven days and seven nights, eating every meal in it and sleeping in it. Why the seven days? There are seven days of the week for our physical existence. We recognize that every part of our existence is temporary, and we are tasked with a mission to leave this world a better place than when we came into it. That lesson is represented by the pomegranate.
Q: What is the significance of Shemini Atzeret on the eighth day?
A: The eighth day is when Jews leave the sukkah and reenter their homes. Why should we celebrate this? Well, while we sat in the sukkah for seven days, we took to heart the lesson that the sukkah is our temporary existence; now, it is time to take the meaning of the sukkah, place it within us and go back into our “permanent” homes.
We realize that even those walls that seem much more durable are likewise temporary. This helps us realize that others may not be so fortunate, that even a sukkah somewhat exposed to the elements and without electricity is more shelter than others have. Take the time to remember those not as fortunate, and share the compassion with which God blessed us throughout the year. When the weather turns cold, take up a collection of hats, coats and blankets to donate to a homeless shelter.
We are alive to fulfill our mission of doing good on Earth. As seven days represent our creation, eight is a level above and exists only in the realm of God. We reenter our homes, ready to take our lessons from the sukkah and apply them to the remainder of the year, full circle, returning next year, as we thank God for that privilege.
Q: What is the meaning of Yom Kippur?
A: Yom Kippur is a time of reflection on oneself and on our personal relationship with God. Have we done what God has asked of us? Have we been compassionate? Have we followed His commandments? Have we been the best Jews we could be?
No one is perfect. We make mistakes and we learn from them. This is the message we should take away from Yom Kippur. We ask God and mere mortals for forgiveness for our transgressions, small or large. Perhaps you’ve never said, “Sorry, I was wrong” to your children, not wanting to upset the notion that parents are supposed to know everything and always be right. Yom Kippur is the time to acknowledge your faults and promise to try to do better.
This is not to say we won’t repeat some mistakes, but the memory of Yom Kippur and its tradition of fasting for 25 hours will carry on through the year. Remind yourself that it’s not just in October we should be good Jews and remember the positives for which our religion stands. Remember the lessons taught and learned during that month, and observe them until the next October comes around.
Dina Leeds is the vice president of Fred Leeds Properties in Los Angeles