Five hacks for the best Rosh Hashanah ever
(JTA) I can’t help but wonder why Hallmark and the retail world at large haven’t co-opted the Jewish New Year. True, while there may “only” be about five million to seven million Jews in the United States (depending on who’s counting), Rosh Hashanah is a particularly important holiday on the Jewish calendar.
Many Jews spend Rosh Hashanah at synagogue immersed in prayer, self-reflection, and repentance, kicking off 10 days of “awe”. But it’s a family holiday, too, usually celebrated at home with a big family dinner.
So why aren’t there any light-up shofars or tasteful Happy New Year banners to be found leading up to the big day?
Of course, depending on where you live, you may come across a dusty box of matzah on the shelf of your local grocery store in a well-intentioned, if misguided, attempt to acknowledge Rosh Hashanah (along with every other Jewish holiday).
But fear not. In lieu of tacky, ready-made accoutrements, you can design your own Instagram-worthy Rosh Hashanah celebration. Keeping in mind that the goal is to create joy and lasting memories, I have tried and tested a few ideas to make your Rosh Hashanah celebration personal and memorable.
Conduct an apples and honey taste test
Not all apples – nor honey – are created equal. So here’s a fun way to see which varieties your family really prefers. Procure as many types of honey as you can (but remember, this is not a reality cooking show, so don’t go crazy). Put out a variety of sliced apples to dip and create your own voting method. For a bit of extra flair, add a blindfold. The honey with the most votes will receive the honour of the blessing for a sweet new year.
Create a Rosh Hashanah craft museum
Remember all those New Year’s crafts your kids brought home over the years from school? It’s time to unearth those boxes filled with clay honey pots, handcrafted Happy New Year cards and paper apple mobiles. Bonus if you can excavate the childhood Rosh Hashanah relics from your own youth. And if kids never made them – or you tossed them years ago – you can always make new Rosh Hashanah crafts, like a honey jar or shofar. Cluster these items in a special museum-style display for all to enjoy. Heart strings will be tugged, guaranteed.
Throw a birthday party for the world
Rosh Hashanah isn’t just a Jewish holiday. According to the Talmud, it’s the birthday of humankind and the world. Considering that the universe is a pretty significant creation, some special treats to commemorate this day hardly seem like too much effort. Whether you celebrate with a spherical cake frosted to look like planet Earth or a candle on a single cupcake, or even just a Happy Birthday banner, let it spark a conversation about what each individual’s part can be in making the world a better place – the ultimate birthday gift.
Make a Rosh Hashanah tablescape
If you are overwhelmed just thinking about setting an elaborate table for the holiday, just remember that you are going to want to eat at some point, so it might as well be at a striking and impactfully set table. But that doesn’t mean an overwrought one. Small touches can go a long way, like an apple-print tablecloth; a few carefully placed honey or bee-themed items; a decorative tray filled with apples and pomegranates; a shofar as centrepiece. Tip: use your imagination, not Google.
Spark meaningful conversation with reflection cards
Rosh Hashanah is a mini workout for the soul, so you should probably break an existential sweat self-reflecting, soul-searching, and resolution-making. Like any good workout, it will transform, strengthen and fortify you for navigating your daily life in the year to come.
Write some open-ended questions on cardboard, and arrange them on your table for your family or friends to select and answer aloud. Some examples: What were your biggest mistakes over the past year? Greatest achievements? What brought you the most joy? Which moments felt deeply meaningful? What have you resolved to do differently next year?
What you write is up to you, just make sure that each question can be answered by a responder of any age, and keep in mind that Rosh Hashanah is not just about looking backward, but is an opportunity to look forward as well.
I hope you will use one or all of these ideas to set the stage for a sweet and meaningful New Year. And, full disclosure: while they are undoubtedly fun, none of these ideas will absolutely guarantee that you will be written in the Book of Life, but they may get you featured in Martha Stewart Living.
- Beata Abraham, a lifelong writer and a Jewish educator, is director of education at a Reform shul in Columbus, Ohio.
Why we refuse to forget
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.
Strength in diversity
The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul
Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.
The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”
The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.
In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.
The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.
And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.
Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health
There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)
Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy
The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?
The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.
What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?
Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.
Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.
Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.
In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.
Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.
The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.
Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.
Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.
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