Beyond Brisket: The Soul Of Rosh Hashana

You get up at 6:15 AM to make it from Santa Monica to the Persian kosher market in the Pico Robertson neighborhood of LA by 6:45. They open their doors at seven, and it’s so crowded that even if you get there right on time, you’re probably too late.

You take your too-large shopping cart and collect your feta cheese, squash, pomegranates, kosher chicken, dill, fennel, and lest one forget… apples and honey— and if you want to stay sane, in what is essentially a Middle Eastern souk in the heart of Los Angeles, all of it needs to be purchased by no later than 7:30. I’m happy to say I was largely unscathed by the experience. My bags of groceries were unpacked by 8:30, and I still had a few minutes to record my thoughts before the cooking began at 9:15. This, my friends is what goes down on Rosh Hashana, one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar.

But if you’re someone like me, someone who believes very strongly, not only in the cultural significance of the day, but also in its spiritual significance, you might be aware that Rosh Hashana celebrates and commemorates, not only the creation of the world itself, it celebrates and commemorates the creation, and therefore, the continuing existence of —humankind.

The central theme of the holiday is the act of coronating God, King over all creation. …And with that idea, I have just left the merely cultural, and entered the realm of the profoundly spiritual. For those who can handle it, stay with me. I can already hear some of you saying: “Hey… I’m down with dipping some apples in honey and eating a nice piece of brisket, but this other stuff is way too religious.” Ok, I get it, even the word God is loaded to many people; it has been for me. Not to mention that the notion of a “king” —especially one with a capital K— is confusing, if not downright off-putting. If it helps, I’ll use the word Creative Force from here on in this essay.

The thing is, aside from the celebratory aspects of Rosh Hashana, there is a seriousness and a depth to it that behooves us to consider. I think of it in these terms: Yes, our lives are routinized, regulated. We have our jobs and we go through our days in a more or less organized manner. We have our friends, we seek out our favorite pastimes and entertainments, and we expect it all to repeat itself the next day, and the next. But this kind of thinking, as anyone past the age of twelve knows, is a form of self-deception. There is nothing that’s truly routine or standardized about our lives. Those are just the myths we use to soothe and console ourselves that life itself is knowable and that our paths are clearly laid out in front of us.

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Rosh Hashana rolls around each year to tell us something completely different. Its message is that we know next to nothing about the world, about our lives, and about what is going on around us. It endeavors to show us that the world is indeed a mystery, that our every breath is a wonder and that the things we take for granted should never be taken for granted. Rosh Hashana reminds us that there is a —“Hand” inside the glove— of everything we’ve come to accept as normal and natural. How one defines, or denies the existence of that proverbial hand, is a personal choice of course.

But for me, having experienced the death of my father at a young age, having been at the birth of my four children, having prayed for and been gifted with my true soulmate, and having lost my younger sister in an automobile accident, I came to the belief (notice I used the word: belief) that there is a Creative Force, a “King” if you will, at the heart of everything.

In my teenage years and into my early twenties, I had been acculturated to disbelief. I was lost in the religious metaphors in the Jewish texts I’d read since childhood, confused by the anthropomorphisms, not able or willing to see that these were just poetics to describe the indescribable. But after those events I just described, events both painful and beautiful, it no longer seemed reasonable to me to view the world as something not designed and not endlessly re-created by this Creative Force.

The task on Rosh Hashana then, becomes one of using your intellect to pierce through the veils of materialism to create a kind of hole between the physical and the spiritual worlds. If you accept the challenge of Rosh Hashana, this “hole” that slowly starts to form helps you regain your innate sense of being part of a infinitely complex system that is run by an Infinitely Complex… (You fill in the term).

And when deep in your marrow, you begin to feel that the world doesn’t revolve around you, you will experience a great sense of relief, you will feel hopeful and comforted, and you’ll be able to bring that hope and comfort to everyone around you.