Freshen up your festival
Here are a few creative twists on some Rosh Hashanah traditions to help you experience the days in a new way
● Stand by a river:
The tradition of reciting the Tashlich prayer by a flowing stream on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah seems to stem from the 15th century (see the New Koren Sacks Machzor p.927; Artscroll p.630). But it is not really about throwing away your sins. Tashlich, literally "letting go", is about letting go of what you have become through your actions and remembering what you could be. It is meant to remind you that you are free, free as the water flowing before you. You are not bound or limited by the choices you have made. So instead of empting your pockets, try sitting down, watching the water and meditating for a few minutes.
● Food for thought:
The pre-meal apple dipped in honey is common practice but is just one of a whole host of symbolic foods that different Jews eat on Rosh Hashanah. There are customs to eat fenugreek, leeks, beets, dates, gourds, pomegranates, grapes, figs, fish, and - for the braver ones among us - the entire head of a sheep. Many customs are based on Hebrew puns that associate the food name with prosperity.
Punning is unique to human intelligence. These traditions marry the mundane act of eating with the lofty sophistication of wordplay in order to heighten our sensitivity. Bad puns can make some people groan, but they do get us thinking. Never underestimate the power of food, or words!
Anyone can try their hand at this wordplay in any language. After all, some Jews eat chicken livers on Rosh Hashanah because the Yiddish for liver is leberlach, which sounds a bit like leb ehrlich, meaning "live honestly". So what could you try? Serve a prime cut of meat so that "we should meet good people this year". Or serve a salad made of lettuce, raisins and celery so that we may ask God to "let us have a raise in salary". The more playful, the better. Encourage your guests, young and old, to come up with some.
● Kneel in shul:
Kneeling is so unmodern. It is an act of total subservience that means admitting we are not in control. Instead we spend our money on all kinds of insurance to convince ourselves that we are protected. Truth is, we are not. Life is often humbling and always surprising. So in the Musaph prayer on Rosh Hashanah, when the Ark is open, we are told to kneel before God (Koren Sacks p.595; Artscroll p.500).
History testifies that our people have refused to kneel before anyone, no matter what the consequences. But God is different.
Kneeling is more direct and more eloquent than pages of words. As Eliza sang to Freddy in My Fair Lady, "Don't talk of stars burning above; If you're in love, Show me! Tell me no dreams filled with desire; If you're on fire, Show me!"
● Say less, feel more:
The Machzor is more like a toolkit than a straightjacket. It is a collection of prayers to help us express ourselves.
Find the few prayers that really speak to you. It might be just one line that stands out.
Unetaneh Tokef (Koren Sacks p.565; Artscroll p.480) is a favourite for many. I especially like Veye'e'atu (Koren Sacks p.587; Artscroll p.494). Look at the commentary and linger on the words.
You don't have to say everything, but try to mean everything you do say.