I went to Costco, where I bought a new box of coffee pods for my Keurig machine. I love Starbucks coffee, and was thrilled that the 2016 Holiday Blend was available; it’s one of Starbucks’s most delicious blends.
Then I sat and enjoyed my first cup of 2016 Holiday Blend, early in the morning while it was still dark outside. I enjoyed the smell. I enjoyed the warmth. And I enjoyed the taste.
It dawned on me that the holidays, at least those tied to the Starbucks Holiday Blend, were nearly four months away. Yet the company’s marketing experts had determined that the perfect time to release it at the beginning of September. They obviously concluded that people are only too glad to begin thinking about and preparing for the holidays in September – and it may even be good for the holiday shopping industry.
It also occurred to me that our holidays, the Jewish High Holidays, are just a couple of weeks away but didn’t see honey or pomegranates being advertised by or in the kosher grocery stores in June, or even during the past few weeks.
Thankfully, however, we have Starbucks and its Holiday Blend, and from that I believe we can draw inspiration for our holidays.
Let me tell you how I take my coffee. I drink it fresh, hot, and without any cream, milk, or sugar. When people ask me about it, I say: “God made coffee delicious just as it is. Why ruin it with milk or sugar?” Obviously, I wasn’t born liking it this way. Rather, I trained myself over time to drink it in this manner. But having developed this particular taste, I now dislike any flavor or additive in my coffee.
The High Holidays also have that character about them. They are somewhat strong and possess a distinct spiritual flavor. And so, based on the teaching of the Talmud, we eat honey to remind ourselves to pray for a sweet new year and we are quite happy to flavor our Rosh Hashanah with other sweet treats.
We celebrate the New Year in a spiritual way but we complement the spirituality with physical sweeteners. And some of these sweeteners can actually enhance our spiritual experience (although I think it is worth asking ourselves whether we are somewhat relieved not to have to focus entirely on the spiritual side).
But what if we began preparing for the High Holidays four months in advance? What if instead of buying more honey, we bought a new siddur, a new machzor, a new sefer? What if we, very slowly over a period of months, increased our spiritual intake and reduced the physical sweeteners and creamers in our life?
I think we might find – just as I discovered I didn’t need flavor enhancers for my coffee habit – that we have the capacity to become more spiritual and can actually get used to it. We might even discover we like it better that way.
It’s comforting to know this issue is not anything new. The Rambam in his explanation of the commandment to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah tells us that in addition to the biblical directive to sound it, there is also a psychological aspect of hearing the shofar as it calls us to “wake up from your spiritual sleep.”
Certainly, even someone in a spiritual coma on Rosh Hashanah can be awakened by the sound of the shofar.
Our sages understood the importance of experiencing a spiritual awakening and advised us to sound the shofar for the entire month of Elul – not to advertise the holidays or make a profit, but to wake us up. They understood that if we hear the shofar for a month ahead of time, we will come to Rosh Hashanah having become accustomed to the sound, not in a monotonous way but with the capacity to hear it loud and clear – and to experience it without any sugar or honey.
If Starbucks has us spending our hard-earned money on its holiday coffee nearly four months in advance, we too can learn to prepare. Indeed, even more important than drinking it, we need, in the words of that favorite old expression, to wake up and smell the coffee.
That is a true High Holiday Blend.
Rabbi Shmuel Zuckerman