Foods and Symbols Reflects the Similarity and Difference of the Tribes and Communities of Israel

The variety of its foods and symbols at the festive Rosh Hashanah table reflects the similarity and difference of the Tribes and Communities of Israel.

Screenshot: My Jewish Learning
Screenshot from My Jewish Learning

By Aliza Gershon

Men, women, and children sit together around the table, dressed in white. On every table there is a pomegranate, an apple to be dipped in honey, and the head of a sheep or fish, symbols for a sweet new year.

At the same time, the tables differ with regard to the diversity of symbols and foods that express wishes and requests for the new year: that our enemies be eliminated, that our merits increase, that we perform more mitzvot and good deeds, that those who wish us ill be cut off; that the new year be serene and gladden our heart. These petitions are symbolized by foods such as pumpkin, beets, carrots, olives – the abundant produce of the land. Each tribe has its own way to express its wishes, with its own customs, flavors, smells, and colors, as part of the fabric of its life and customs that continue throughout the year.

If we expand our perspective from the physical to the metaphorical table, this is also how Israeli society should work: every view and opinion with its place in the public discourse, making its unique contribution, and expressing its Israeli identity and its Jewish identity in its own special way.

Unfortunately, this year has brought to a head the sense of frustration produced by the deep rifts in Israeli society. What we thought were bygone pains resurfaced: feelings of ethnic discrimination came to light in the battle over culture and the arts; the issue of Shabbat in the public sphere erupted in the controversy about weekend maintenance work on the railroad, in a stark dichotomy of “yes!” or “no!!” The right and the left fought over organizations such as “Breaking the Silence” (Shovreem Shteeka) and “Im Tirtzu,” and other conflicts raged as well.

Civil and religious disagreements continue to claim our attention. I do not see them as an inevitable obstacle to unity, but in fact, as a path for working out disagreements while discovering what is shared and strengthens our bond.

Debate is a keystone of Jewish culture. It pushes us to dig deep within ourselves and reexamine the values that motivate us. It enriches our experience as Israelis and Jews because it requires us to probe, think, and employ sound judgment. Disputes and dissent can be an expression of an intellectual approach and of a bond forged by principled negotiation.

We do not want to lose these benefits. We will always walk the path of life with unsolved questions, say the Jewish sages, and they know why this is.

Those who are always so sure they are right, who are not willing to taste the dishes on another’s table, will remain shallow in spirit and experience.

But the disagreements must be kept within bounds, with strict rules for how they are conducted, without injuring or obliterating our opponents or ridiculing their position. Those who dispute their interlocutors’ right to express their opinions, risk being silenced themselves when a different group achieves power.

Rosh Hashanah teaches us that there is no advantage to being aggressive. It invites us to an encounter through our senses – smells, flavors, and colors.

This is the true way to become close to one other – through direct contact, day-to-day interaction, sitting together around the same table – whether in the classroom, at the Shabbat table, or in a roundtable discussion of Israel’s character.

What is important is that all views be served at the table, presented in an attractive way and free of ill intentions and preconceptions.

Aliza Gershon is CEO of Tzav Pius.