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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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‘To Be A Bee Or Not To Be, A Bee’

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“Dip the apple in the honey
Make a bracha loud and clear
Shana Tova Umesuka[1]
Have a happy, sweet new year”

An elderly carpenter was eagerly preparing for retirement. When he informed his employer/contractor of his plans, the employer asked him if he could do him a personal favor and build one more house before he left. After so many years of working together the carpenter felt he could not refuse, and so he begrudgingly agreed. It quickly became apparent that the carpenter’s heart was not in his work. He resorted to shoddy workmanship and he used inferior quality materials. It was an unfortunate way to end a dedicated career.

When the carpenter finished the house he informed his employer that the job was done. The employer smiled and handed the key to the front door to the carpenter.

“This is your house,” the employer said, “It is my personal gift to you, with gratitude for your dedication and work for so many years.”

The carpenter was crestfallen! If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have built it so differently. Now he would be living in a substandard home with no one to blame but himself.

We are the carpenters constructing our own lives. “Life is a do-it-yourself project.” The attitudes and choices we make throughout our lives are the nails, boards, and walls that compose the “house” we live in tomorrow. We would be wise to build carefully and adroitly!

One of the most famous aspects of Rosh Hashanah is the universally accepted custom to eat symbolic foods on the eve of the holiday, and to recite prayers which incorporate a play on words with the Hebrew name of the food, to ask G-d for various blessings during the coming year. Arguably, the most beloved is dipping challah and an apple into honey and petitioning G-d for a sweet new year. In fact, along with the shofar, honey is a symbol of Rosh Hashanah and of our deepest hopes for a happy and healthy new year.

Perhaps there is a deeper connection and meaning in the custom to “dip in honey” on Rosh Hashanah than the mere fact that honey is sweet. The very manner in which bee-honey[2] is produced serves as a powerful lesson for our main objective and focus on Rosh Hashanah.

Honeybees use nectar from flowers to make honey. Nectar is almost 80% water with some complex sugars. In North America, bees get nectar from flowers like clovers, dandelions, berry bushes, and fruit tree blossoms. (Different colors and flavors of honey are primarily based on what kind of flowers the bees use to produce their honey.)

The bees use their long, tube like tongues as straws to suck the nectar out of the flowers. Then they store it in their “honey stomachs.” (Bees actually have two stomachs, their honey stomach which they use like a nectar backpack and their regular stomach.) When the honey stomach is full it weighs almost as much as the bee does. Honeybees must visit between 100 and 1500 flowers in order to fill their honey stomachs.

The honeybees return to the hive and pass the nectar onto other worker bees. These bees suck the nectar from the honeybee’s stomach through their mouths. These “house bees” “chew” the nectar for about half an hour. During this time, enzymes are breaking the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars so that it is both more digestible for the bees and less likely to be attacked by bacteria while it is stored within the hive.

The bees then spread the nectar throughout the honeycombs where water evaporates from it, making it into a thicker syrup. The bees help the nectar dry faster by fanning it with their wings. Once the honey is gooey enough, the bees seal off the cell of the honeycomb with a plug of wax. The honey is stored until it is eaten. In one year, a colony of bees eats between 120 and 200 pounds of honey.

Honey is created from a transformation that occurs within the bee. The bee gathers the raw materials and then works intensely to abet the process and ensure that it is completed. The process of teshuva – repentance, which begins on Rosh Hashanah – is not simply about going through the motions. Rather, it is a deeply internal and personal process. It is primarily a transformation that occurs within a person’s heart and mind, and includes a commitment to growth and improvement.

Truthfully, it seems enigmatic that the two days of Rosh Hashanah serve as the first two days of the Ten days of Repentance. The prayers of the day are primarily focused on accepting and declaring the Majesty and Grandeur of the Eternal Monarchy of G-d, In fact, there is nary a mention of sin, repentance, or regret in all of the prayers of the day.[3]

It is obvious that the service of Rosh Hashanah is not only integral to the process of repentance but it is also the vital starting point. How does the theme of recognizing and focusing on G-d’s Kingship relate to the repentance and forgiveness that we so desperately seek?

In order for a person to properly repent he must have an understanding of the severity of sin and the spiritually deleterious effect that it has upon his soul. He must also understand that G-d truly cares about his actions and is waiting for him to repent and draw close to Him. Without that realization, the process of repentance is utterly futile. One cannot repent and return to something which is vague and emotionless. It is for this reason that the Ten days of Repentance must begin with Rosh Hashanah.

The theme of Rosh Hashanah, which traverses all its prayers and customs, is the realization of the greatness of G-d as the Supreme Omnipotent King of the world. At the same time we also relate the special closeness and boundless love that G-d maintains for His elite Nation. We mention that G-d’s kingship was only consummated when Klal Yisroel unyieldingly accepted the yoke of His monarchy upon ourselves, which is in effect saying that we are the progenitors of G-d’s Monarchy, as it were.[4]

When a person has an appreciation of the greatness of G-d and of the meticulous precision of the judgment, and at the same time understands that G-d loves him deeply, then he can foster a desire to reconnect himself with that Supreme Being through repentance. Thus, Yom Kippur has no meaning unless it is preceded by Rosh Hashanah.

Unlike Yom Kippur which is full of external symbols, laws, and customs regarding repentance, on Rosh Hashanah our ‘repentance’ is completely internal. The deep introspection of Rosh Hashanah even surpasses that of Yom Kippur, for it is the service of Rosh Hashanah that sets the trajectory of repentance in motion which culminates with Yom Kippur. The more one appreciates the message of Rosh Hashanah the more he will be able to take advantage of the awesome opportunity granted on Yom Kippur.

Another message to be gleaned from the creation of honey is the bee’s persistence and incredible work ethic to produce every drop of honey. To gather a pound of honey, a bee flies a distance equal to more than three times around the world. Also, it takes two million flowers to make one pound of honey. Those numbers seem inconceivable to us but for the bee it is merely part of its job. It was created to perform those tasks and it has the innate capacity to do so.

The Torah states regarding repentance[5], (Devorim 30:14) “For the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” Sometimes we feel that we have sinned so much and have drifted so far that we can never repent. The Torah tells us otherwise. The ability to repent was built into our essence and therefore no matter how far one has strayed he can always repent. It will unquestionably require a tremendous amount of commitment, but it is within our purview to do it.

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky often repeats a classic thought: “Most people live the life that happens instead of the life they truly want.” Many of us have dreams and aspirations but we often never overcome the initial hurdles and impediments. Time drags on and we sigh as we watch our dreams fall by the wayside.

When we dip our challah/apple into honey we should remember how much commitment, exertion and dedication it entailed for the bee to produce that honey. It was created from an inner transformation that transpired inside a diminutive insect fulfilling its nature.

We are constantly building our own lives! Rosh Hashanah affords us the opportunity to look back at the blueprints and decide if our building is developing as planned. At the same time, we dip our challah/apple into honey and remind ourselves that the building is only as good as its blueprints. Those blueprints are composed with forethought and insight that stem from deep within one’s psyche.

Of course honey is also sticky (just ask my children), but the lesson to be learned from that I leave to you…

* * * * *

[1] (Aviva Staum, Age 3, alternate version > “Shana Tova in the sukkah”)

[2] It must be noted that one may certainly use honey from dates or other types of honey. The thoughts recorded here relate to bee-honey as that is the most prevalent and widely used honey generally and on Rosh Hashanah.

[3] The one exception is the opening stanza in the “Avinu Malkeinu – Our Father, Our King” prayer which states, “Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before you.” Indeed, there are halachic opinions which state that one should omit this sentence on Rosh Hashanah.

[4] Surely an Infallible G-d does not need us. However, “There is no king without subjects” and so, although G-d did not change one iota when He created the world and man, it is only when we accepted His kingship that He could be called King.

[5] See Ramban on that verse

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About the Author: Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW is the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead and the Social Worker at Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch in Monsey. He can be reached at stamtorah@gmail.com. Or visit him online at www.stamtorah.info.


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