As we prepare to dip that apple in honey and to get into gear for major honey cake baking, I wonder about the theme of sweetness at this time of year. Rosh Hashanah is a time of judgment, introspection and somber reflection. Why the emphasis on sweetness? Why not other more appropriate somber felicitations and sentiments that we could better bestow upon each other?
A problem with sweetness? This is quite the challenge. First off, there are other wishes and blessings that we traditionally bestow upon each other aside from the “Have a Sweet New Year,” usually heard ubiquitously in houses of worship as devotees pour forth at the end of services.
In fact, the customary salutation imparted on the eve of Rosh Hashanah is far from saccharine, and quite sobering. Here is how it goes:
“You should be written and inscribed speedily for a life of peaceful goodness in the book of absolute tzadikim, righteous ones.”
There is much behind this blessing. It is only recited on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, never in the daytime. This is when the Book of the Righteous is opened and then immediately closed because tzadikim, on account of their uprightness, are inscribed without delay. Their judgment does not need to wait for the process that the rest of us will be engaged in from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.
It is therefore a blessing to greet friends and relatives with this particular salutation, for it indicates your belief that they are indeed righteous individuals. For the rest of the holiday the ritual greeting is, simply, “You shall be written and inscribed in the Book of Life.” Pretty serious stuff.
But your question about sweetness intrigues. It urges us to not take for granted what our ears are accustomed to hearing and what our mouths are habituated in declaring. Let’s be deliberate: why sweetness? The nuances of words, the subtlety of just the tiniest tweaking of an expression, is essential to the magical art of human interactions.
We choose our words meticulously. I believe the words that are part of our tradition are never to be taken lightly — they are to be mined for meaning. There is a reason we wish sweetness upon each other at this time of the year and not simply goodness: sweetness is the added ingredient that piques our imagination and encourages associations.
What does a sweet year look like? Is it different than having a generically good year?
Sweetness conjures up the sensual — primarily, what is absorbed orally and by extension only the visual or the aural. In the Torah, sweetness is associated with the consumable: there are no sweet images or people, only sweet water, wine or honey. Sweetness rarely appears without a hint of consumption. What is sweet becomes you.
Each morning in our recitation of the daily blessings we thank the Almighty for the mitzvah of learning Torah and then we beseech God to sweeten the words of Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of our children. This blessing comes under the category of requests or appeals — we ask that the words of Torah be sweet. It is a puzzling request.
But what is the nature of the request? The words of Torah are sweet or they are not. Given that this is a liturgical blessing, it must suggest we not take the sweetness of Torah for granted — it is something we must consciously request.
As threatening as it may sound, if they are not taught with love and kindness or if there is strife therein, the words of Torah have the potential to be bitter. Each morning we intentionally ask that our Torah be a Torah of sweetness.
Again, we ask: why sweet? Why do we not request that the Torah we are to study be discernible, understandable, and comprehendible? Why not demand the intelligence to grapple with Torah? Again, sweetness is very much orally centered. This Torah we study will be read by our mouths. We will feel the words on our tongue and cut the expressions with our teeth. There is a pleasure in the saying of certain words.
Do you ever feel the delight of alliterative words lilting off your tongue? Feel the fun of a playful poem? There is sweetness in the pronouncing of words.
Additionally, words of Torah live in our mouths. God declares of Moshe: “Peh el peh edaber bo” — “I speak with Moshe mouth to mouth.” Words uttered by another generally enter the body through the ear, not the mouth. This peculiarity is repeated when the prophet Jeremiah is told that God will put words into his mouth. The symbolic understanding of words of Torah being transmitted, person to person and from generation to generation, intact, mouth to mouth, prevents them from the threat of infiltration of inaccuracy. That too is sweet.
Sweetness, oral transmission, mouth joy — still no connection to Rosh Hashanah. But Midrash comes to the rescue. What is more sensual than the Song of Songs? There we find this verse, “His mouth is most sweet; and he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend.”
The Midrash asks: “His mouth is most sweet; to what does this refer? For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel: ‘Seek ye Me, and live, Could any dainty be sweeter to the palate than this? As I live,’ saith the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, Could anything be sweeter to the palate than this? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies. Therefore, turn yourselves, and live. Could anything be sweeter to the palate than this? When the wicked man turns away from his wickedness and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Could anything be sweeter than repentance?”
There is much about the upcoming High Holiday season that involves the sweetness of words: there are expressions of repentance in our mouths, the language of appeasement on our lips, the sweet words of prayers offered to God and kind remarks to our friends and family. This is the season of the sweetness on our tongues, the honey, the cakes and the words we choose to use to repair ourselves, our community and the world. Have a sweet New Year.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail to email@example.com.