Over all these things, over all these things
Please guard for me, my good God
Over the honey and over the sting, over the bitter and the sweet
—“Al Kol Eleh” composed by Naomi Shemer, 1980
For many people, Rosh Hashanah always seems to arrive before we are quite ready for it. This year, the feeling of being caught off guard is even more acute, because everything we typically associate with Rosh Hashanah is somehow different. Much has already been written about the changes in gathering, blowing shofar, communal meals. It feels hard to wish people shana tova u’metukah, a good and sweet new year, when life does not feel sweet right now. It feels bitter and scary, the words of Unetaneh tokef, the prayer that causes us to ponder who will live and who will die, more than ever on our minds.
I thought about this feeling as my five-year-old daughter and I were discussing Rosh Hashanah. For her, Rosh Hashanah is still sweet. She talked about celebrating the birthday of the world, wearing her fancy clothes, and eating apples and honey. As I listened to her, the words of Naomi Shemer’s iconic song, Al Kol Eleh (Over all these), played in my mind. I thought about the opening words, “Al ha-d’vash v’al haoketz, al ha-mar v’ha-matok,” over the honey and over the sting, over the bitter and the sweet, and finally found a prayer that resonated with me for this season.
We are in a place of bitterness and a place of sweetness. We are preparing to have apples and honey and feeling the sting of not being able to gather with our extended families and communities. The beauty of Shemer’s song is that opposing feelings are held together, acknowledged as happening at the same time, and all of it receives God’s blessing. The song exists in Israeli culture as a modern anthem of embracing the difficulties of Israeli society along with the joys. It is a reminder to never stop working for a better future and never give up hope that we will see that future. It is a message that applies to all Jews, everywhere, as we prepare to leave 5780 behind us and enter a year of new possibility.
May this new year, 5781, be a year of hope, a year of working towards change, toward a sweet future. May our communities be able to return to each other, to return to our buildings and holy spaces, safely and in good health. On behalf of the entire staff of the JCRC of Greater Washington, I wish you and your loved ones a Shanah Tova U’Metukah, a good and sweet new year.