As I prepare for the coming Jewish New Year (5776), I am engaged in my typical practice of looking back at past teachings. Here is what I shared last year with the community members of Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, FL. Others who read this may recognize it from a sermon I gave at my former congregation in Texas. I am grateful that I may adapt my own words without recrimination of plagiarism, and I am grateful to be returning to Kissimmee this year.
Award winning Israeli writer Shai Agnon once told a story of a young boy and his father engaging in a little game. Standing over his son, the father held onto the most beautiful red apple. The boy, wanting the apple, attempted to take hold of it, each time having the apple playfully snatched away by his father. This continues back and forth for a little while until, finally, with the apple in his father’s hand, the boy smiles. He retreats a few steps and makes the bracha (blessing) over the fruit – borei pri ha’etz. The father, not wanting his son to make a blessing in vein, quickly gives his son the apple.
Each year prior to Rosh Hashanah, the image of an apple creeps into my mind. Tasting the apple with honey is a significant association with Rosh Hashanah for many, and the honey itself has a rightful place in other parts of our lives as well. I remember my first year of marriage, when each Shabbat my wife and I drizzled honey over the challah on the Shabbat table instead of salt.The moment in this story when the father gives the child the apple may be about ensuring that the child does not make a blessing in vain. It is also, I think, about the child in each one of us who, at one time or another, wants something so badly that we would do well to stop and take a few steps back before realizing what we must do to obtain the object of our intention. Is it a moment of self-awareness that the child possesses or perhaps a more manipulative and child-like behavior that the kid is behaving like, a kid?
The story does something else extremely important that is timely to the New Year and in line with some of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. The tale illustrates the role each of us plays in giving something of value to another person. We can pay attention to others and recognize their greatest moment of need and help them. When we can act like the father in Agnon's story, we possess the potential to enable the joy of another person or quench their thirst. We don’t seize those moments enough, when we can act like the father, and give a gift that is so sweet, so tasty and fulfilling on both a physical and spiritual level to others who need it.
I view a passage in the mahzor as demonstrating this and pulling us forward in a new direction in the year ahead. The prophet Jeremiah, within the traditional Zichronot portion of the service, states "Zacharti lach hessed neurayich, ahavat kelulotayich. “I (God) remember the affection of your youth, your love…when you followed Me in the wilderness, a barren land.” (Jeremiah 2:2) Jeremiah proclaims, on God’s behalf, what many see as the beginning and foundation of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. We must build our relationship with God and each other on a charitable base. We are meant to enable and empower others.
The title of the service, Zichronot, shares the root word "zeycher" (memory) or the infinitive "lizkor" (to remember) and presents a metaphor of God with a memory. At the most simple and literal meaning, God remembers us. On a deeper level, God impresses upon us a sense of accountability for our deeds. (Mahzor Lev Shalem, 133) God takes note of our actions and our past, something we tend to link to the Book of Life (sefer chayim). As Jeremiah indicates, God remembers us because of our affection toward others – the hessed that we complete. Agnon’s story, together with Jeremiah, shows that only we can close the gaps, the empty pockets that people feel.
Are we literally meant to follow God (or others) into the wilderness, as Jeremiah’s words would have as us? Watching or reading the accounts about the Syrian refugee crisis as thousands of people escape their home in order to find comfort and refuge in a place unknown to them is deeply troubling and somehow familiar. And our response as Jews is not without its own struggle. Some would quickly open their arms while others question are we doing enough for our own people before we bring in others? Can we find a way to let people in or ensure safe passage for them?
Jeremiah portrays a Jewish people that follow God into the land "not sewn", led by nothing more than a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire demonstrates that these moments may not be without risk or anxiety. Maybe this is part of what makes gemilut hassadim more significant. Zacharti lach hessed neurayich… Simple as it sounds and perhaps more profound than we realize, hessed is intertwined with our hearts and souls. When we may not physically be able to stand side by side someone who is suffering or follow in their wilderness, we can explore charitable acts that see to their safety. Engaging in acts of kindness transform spaces that might otherwise be empty – a space where someone reaches out his or her hand and there is nothing.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, once pointed to these words (Zacharti lach hessed neurayich) as the embodiment of faith. The Jewish people acted and followed God with the unknown before them. “The whole of life is facing the unknown,” Sacks said. “We can know everything, but there is one thing we can never know…what tomorrow will bring.” “Every single course of action we take has an underside of doubt.”
God loves us because we have the courage to act and help each other, to go to a place where we are needed most. As the verse suggests, there are times we go to a place we may have never seen before. We follow without a map, without clearly paved roads, and we have no choice but to act. When we can follow the unknown and help someone who is facing the unknown, we are at our greatest. The reward, whether loyalty, love or a simple thank you, is not ours but that which we provide to others. Yet without our actions, we end up as Jeremiah describes, in a wasteland, barren and unknown.
The great rabbinic sages taught that before God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, the Torah was offered to other nations of the world. Each nation rejected the Torah, saying that it was impossible for them to observe it. Ishmael had a problem with "You shall not steal.” Esav had a problem with "You shall not kill." (Sifrei, Devarim 33:2) Often faced with the claim that it is difficult to observe Torah, it is in fact easier than we think to live a life of Torah – a life of good deeds. Discovering moments like the one between father and son – where we are all at one time or another the fathers and others are our children – will yield the greatest hessed.
May we conclude, as Agnon concluded, that on the high holidays we are each the child who stands before the apple. We do not simply look and gaze at the apple but we do more. We are the parents. We see other people who desire and are reaching out their hands and heaven forbid their actions and words are in vain. On the High Holidays, we call on God as Avinu – our parent – to forgive our wrong doings and assist us in finding our way. We call to God Malkeinu – the wise Ruler – for us to be full of wisdom and courage that we may redeem and rebuild God’s realm through love and hessed. Hopeful that our prayers will reach fruition, we look toward God that we might offer something simple, elegant and fulfilling like the love that a parent gives a child or a friend gives to another. May we find in the New Year something in our hands and our hearts the ability to give to others in need. And, when we are the child who can eat the apple, may we give pause to bless the moment and taste the sweetness.
Parent, Partner, Teacher and Coffee Enthusiast, Rabbi Rafi Cohen enjoys helping individual students and families find Jewish meaning in their lives. Rabbi Cohen is the director of admissions for the Rabbinical & Cantorial Schools at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.