Recipe for a Meaningful Year
Rosh HaShanah 5770
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria
The cookbooks in our home have been opened for weeks lining the kitchen counters
preparing for the feasts that we call the High Holidays. Sometimes it seems that food is
the most central part of our days and our lives. Food Network, Cooking shows, Iron
Chefs, nutrition and diet experts- all try to share with us and teach us the right way to
cook and to eat.
This summer, the movie “Julie and Julia” made audiences hunger for delightful French
cooking with a message about finding meaning and fulfillment in challenging times. The
movie follows the lives of two women separated by 50 years but in similar situations- the
famous chef Julia Child, as a young newly married American lost in France, and Julie
Powell, a young newly married secretary fielding depressing phone calls for the
government in a very small cubicle next to the site of Ground Zero just months after the
attacks of September 11th.
Julia Child began her quest to find meaning in a foreign land by going to cooking schoolle
cordon blue. She quickly learned that the key to cooking was courage and humor- the
courage to try something new like flipping a pancake out of a frying pan in mid-air. Julia
Child was fearless in the kitchen. And it was clearly evident in watching her cooking
shows, she had fun and truly great joy from cooking. She believed in the basics like
butter or for us kosher cooks pareve margarine and following recipe rules but always
insisting to never be afraid of following your convictions.
Julie Powell on the other hand was timid, stuck in her little cubicle- unable to emerge
from her difficult work. Determined to find fulfillment and meaning, Julie challenged
herself to cook every single one of Julia Child’s recipes in her book Mastering the Art of
French Cooking in the span of one year and to write a blog or internet web log journal of
the experience. In Julie’s opening internet posting- she wrote- “government drone by
day, renegade foodie by night.” Julie was looking for a challenge, a way to assert herself
in new directions and to grow. She found it in 365 days with 524 recipes. The most
difficult recipe and the most symbolic of her struggle was the final one- which was to
bone a duck. Now, this is no easy task- and she needed strength and courage to complete
the challenge. With the recipe guiding her and Julia Child’s words- take your knife and
confront the duck- Julie Powell learned to be fearless in the kitchen and cooked a
delicious dinner- completing her year’s project and finding the true joy of cooking. Julie
learned from Julia Child that to find possibility, happiness and fulfillment- requires the
courage to take on new challenges.
In these turbulent times, where is that fulfillment, possibility and happiness? Our friends,
our family and even our own situations have changed this year. Within our own
congregation, many have lost jobs or been cut-back and others question whether their
jobs will be there tomorrow.
College graduates have returned home instead of moving to New York, Chicago or DC in
search of temporary employment to pay their loans and begin their career in fields they
had not planned. Thankfully many of us are still employed and working hard with
increased pressures to produce and succeed. Sitting next to you, your friend may now be
relying on food stamps or meals from the synagogue, family or friends to fill their
stomachs. Across the nation and world, hunger is an ever-growing problem. In America,
there are over 36 million suffering from hunger including 12 million children. This year
alone, 10 % of all American homes were food insecure meaning at hunger lines or near.
So, how can we find sustenance when hunger is so prevalent? Where do we find
happiness? What can bring fulfillment to our souls and help bring sustenance to the
Our prayers today lay out a challenge for us not unlike the story of Julie and Julia- to
have courage, to deepen our Jewish connection, to lift ourselves up and find fulfillment
this year. What is your Jewish soul food that will nourish and challenge you this coming
year? I will put on my chef’s hat and apron to dish up for you- a savory and hopefully
inspiring morsel- that is not intended for your stomach but for your mind and soul. I
present to you- A recipe for a year filled with meaning.
First you take flour- or in Hebrew kemach: There is a wise teaching in Pirkei Avot,
Ethics of the Sages, “Im Ein Kemach, Ein Torah v’im Ein Torah Ein Kemach- If there is
no food, there can be no Torah and likewise if there is no Torah, there can be no food.”
The simple explanation of this teaching is that one cannot study on an empty stomach.
The rabbis expand the commentary on this line to teach that this is both referring to the
physical sustenance and nourishment we receive from food but also the spiritual
sustenance we receive from Judaism. Without the fulfillment that comes from Jewish
traditions, from prayer and study, observing rituals like lighting Shabbat candles, keeping
kosher, visiting the sick and helping the needy, then no food in the world can truly give
us sustenance. We read in the Torah- man cannot live on bread alone and that is because
we also need food for our soul. Another way to read this passage is that the word kemach
or food can be translated as a job or livelihood- a bread-winner. Without a job or
livelihood, is it possible to truly live a meaningful life- imbued with Torah, community
and connection to God?
Next, slice some carrots: There is an ancient Sephardic custom first discussed in the
Talmud to hold a Rosh HaShana seder- an arrangement of special foods to be eaten that
have a linguistic connection or word play for a blessing for the new year- for example,
one should eat carrots- in Hebrew gezer which sounds like g’zar decree- so that we may
avoid the harsh decree of heaven. It is called the Seder Yehi Ratzon- may it be God’s
will- for just like today’s world of instability not knowing what tomorrow will bring,
what will be in our bank accounts, our health care situation- we eat foods to bring our
soul and tummy strength and security in times of indigestion and emptiness.
Now add some honey (d’vash): To bring joy and happiness for the upcoming year, we
eat honey in all its sweetness dripping through all the days- on our challah, our apples
and our lives. We must always look for the good in a situation and good will come back
to us- live your life with honey tinted glasses.
Platter a fish head: Last year our oldest son- then a kindergartener at Schechter- made a
request- to eat a fish head for Rosh HaShana. Now he is your typical kid into grossities
and the like- but he was teaching us about the Yehi Ratzon seder when some Jews even
use a sheep head on the new year’s table- reciting the blessing- “Yehi Ratzon- May it be
your will God that we will be “Rosh v’lo zanav” heads and not tails, leaders and not
followers.” The custom emphasizes that we should always use our head - praying on this
day of the rosh- the head of the year. A fish is seen as a symbol of fertility and
protection- a fish’s eyes never close even when they sleep- and so too we pray that God
watches over us every day and every night. The custom of serving fish heads is not
prevalent any longer because the Hebrew word for fish- dag- is similar to the word dagah
which means to worry- and we certainly have enough worries. The fish head stands for
courage- Julie and Julia’s kind of courage- the strength to open our eyes to the challenges
of the next year and to use our heads to conquer them without fear and not to turn tail.
Our tradition teaches that we should arise each morning with the vigor of a lion and be
bold to bring justice like a leopard.
Add a pomegranate (rimon): For many years now, I hold a food challenge for our
Confirmation class to count the seeds in a pomegranate. Tradition holds that the
delectable fruit native to Israel has 613 seeds, the same number of mitzvot in the Torah.
So far, the closest we have come is 620 seeds and a lot of red-stained shirts, regardlessthe
pomegranate seeds are sweet inside but protected by a hard peel- similarly- we should
be strong but let our sweetness shine forth. When we eat the rimon at the Seder we pray-
Yehi Ratzon, May we be as full of good deeds as the pomegranate is full of seeds. The
Rabbis teach that learning leads to good deeds. To add meaning to our lives, we need to
open up to Jewish learning, by studying Torah, reading Jewish books, listening to Jewish
music to grow in our rich traditions. Through our Weingold Jewish Learning Series
starting in October, our vast array of books, CDS and DVDs available in our libraries,
Thursday morning classes, and one on one learning with the clergy, we can help bring
you Torah this year.
Throw in some beets- yum- The rabbis advise that we eat leeks or in Hebrew karti so that
our enemies- y’kartu- are cut off thereby letting us strengthen our friendships and be
more loving. We should also eat a beet- selek- so that our enemies yistalku- using the
word play on beets- that those who have beaten us- will beat it out of town this year and
let us laugh and love in peace. Laughter and love start with acts of chesed- kindness. Our
chesed committee which is looking for more volunteers is working hard to provide meals
to congregants in crisis from illness, loss or financial hardships (and if you are in hard
times please come to us and ask for help because we are in this together as a family). The
chesed committee is also continuing to cultivate our relationships with Cleveland innercity
school children who rely more and more on our donations and reaching out to Jewish
American soldiers serving overseas.
The last ingredient in our recipe for a meaningful year is a new fruit you have not eaten
all year so you can recite the prayer shehechayanu. You see the last ingredient is
gratitude. In Jewish tradition, we end a meal with words of blessing- Birkat Hamazonthe
grace after meals. This ritual is based on the Torah’s teaching- “v’achalta v’savata
uveirachta- When you eat and you are satisfied then bless God.” The Torah
acknowledges the satisfaction we can find with food and then prescribes us to not simply
sit in that moment of zen after a delicious meal- but to respond to it by thanking God in
gratitude for the opportunity of achieving fulfillment and satisfaction. The shehecheyanu
prayer is one way we remember that what we accomplish in life- we do not accomplish
alone but with God’s help. Join us for prayer services- or find some time to learn prayers
from Cantor Shifman on CD, mp3, the internet or in class- we daven here every morning,
every evening, Shabbat and holidays- challenge yourself to come to one more service
each month to show your thanks to God for the many blessings in your life.
My recipe for a year filled with meaning- honey for joy, a fish head for courage,
pomegranates for study, beets for lovingkindness and any new fruit for thankfulness.
Does this seem too hard- happiness, courage, Jewish study, kindness and gratitude?
Just remember Julie and her duck. With courage, confront the new year to find meaning
and fulfillment. Shana Tova U’Metukah- Wishing you sweet year filled with satisfaction,
inspiration and meaning and Bon Apetit!