November 21, 2018

Apples and honey

One of the most meaningful customs at each Rosh Hashanah meal is the dipping of apples into honey. By doing so we make a sweet fruit, the apple, taste even sweeter.

Obviously this symbolizes our yearnings for a very sweet year for us, our loved ones and, indeed, for everyone.

The use of two sweet objects may echo the biblical use of doubling for emphasis and the later rabbinic interpretive use of plural forms not merely for emphasis but also to evoke multifold and even untold multiplication — in this case, the multiplication of the realization of our unspoken hopes for the coming year. Nonetheless, we gain more insight by examining the specific choices here.

First, the apple: We received the Torah at Mount Sinai, which the midrash compares to an apple tree. Our sages comment that just as the apple tree ripens its fruit in the month of Sivan, so the Torah was given to Israel during Sivan. Indeed, when the Bible states, “under the apple tree I awakened you” (Song of Songs 8:5), the Talmud claims that this refers to Mount Sinai (Shabbat 88a). The apple, then, connotes all the mystery and majesty of the Sinai experience, all spiritual wisdom and insight we can glean from Torah, and the possibility of a relationship with God.

The rabbis further suggest a comparison of the apple tree to the Holy One. They cite Song of Songs 2:3, “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my Beloved.” The mystical tradition expands upon this, suggesting the various ways in which the comparison is apt (Zohar, Leviticus 74a).

The apple, compared to the Mount Sinai experience and to Hashem, thus symbolizes the “spiritual,” the search for God, for Torah, for meaning, for holiness, for spiritual encounter, for direction for our life’s path.

Honey, on the other hand, symbolizes the search for the “material,” for security, for comfort, for home, for livelihood, for physical health. As the psalmist writes, “They will be fed the best of the wheat; and with honey from the rock, I will satisfy them” (81:17).

This week we read Nitzavim, the portion always read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah, where the Holy One assures us that the possibility of holy living is not unattainable, but is “in our mouth” (Deuteronomy 30:14). On Rosh Hashanah,  we dip the apple into honey to symbolically fulfill this verse, a verse that also hints at the possibility of the fulfillment of our deepest spiritual yearnings.

So we dip the apple, symbolic of the spiritual, into the honey, symbolic of the material, and thereby sweeten that which is already sweet. But notice that the material blessings of honey mean nothing unless and until they attach themselves to the solid, pleasing, emotional and spiritual core of the apple, one of the hardiest fruits. Our spirituality, like the apple, must have a nurtured core, for it, not our accumulation of material goods, is what truly and enduringly sustains us.

Our dipping thus expresses our hope that we can combine our more immediate concern for comfort, for home, for livelihood and for health with our more primal quest for the spiritual, for God, for Torah, for connection, for meaning. A full life combines both while recognizing that the spiritual is primary.

And since each person dips his or her own apple into the honey, we symbolically declare that we shall each take responsibility for our own spiritual direction and for our personal sense of wholeness. This dipping into our own potential to chart our lives thus raises the act beyond a mere hope: The charting of our lives this year, the potential for spiritual moment, holy encounter and balanced living is “in our mouths,” a project whose realization is attainable — a challenge, surely, but one that grants us our dignity and the sense that life is precious.

Yehi ratzon mil’fanecha Adonai Eloheinu veilohei imahoteinu va-avoteinu, she-t’chadesh aleinu shanah tovah u-m’tukah um-lei-a v’rachah.

May the Holy One grant you and yours a year in which you will feel spiritually as hearty as the apple tree, where through seeking God and Torah, your branches grow rich fruits of holy connection and deep spirituality. And may your souls be drenched in the honey of home, comfort, health and livelihood. And finding the apples of your souls drenched in the sweet honey of your surroundings, may you experience this year — and all of life — as one of goodness, sweetness and blessing. Amen.