L’Shana Tovah. Besides this greeting for Rosh Hashanah, we also wish one another a “sweet new year”. In a little while we will be celebrating the new year with sweets of all kinds, including the very traditional apples and honey. Now the origins of our tradition of apples and honey is debated but there are a few facts we know. Scholars trace apples back to medieval times among Ashkenazi Jews, which were considered a rare treat. Honey is connected to the Land of Israel and so this may be why it was chosen along with apples.
But what does it mean to have a sweet new year? What is it we are wishing each other?
In general, I think we are hoping the new year will be positive, that it will be pleasant for us and that we can experience some pleasure in it as well. We are also hoping it will be easier than the last year and that we will be able to find joy in it. So, we connect sweet foods with joy in our Rosh Hashanah greeting. This connection is probably not very surprising. Ask any kid what food they want to eat, and it will usually be something sweet. If I were to remove the animal crackers from the nursery and the graham crackers from the preschool room, I would have a very cute but possibly very serious riot on my hands.
It is a medical fact that sugar triggers the release of the pleasure chemical in our brains known as dopamine. It’s part of the reason why many people will crave sweets like chocolate after a particularly sad or stressful day. We have been designed so that sweet foods can literally make us feel good, and that can be a great thing. God created us to enjoy responsibly the things in His creation which include delicious foods like apples and honey, or drinks like wine. Taking joy and pleasure in God’s creation is not a sin when it is done appropriately.
But the key word there is “appropriately”. As sinful human beings we have a strong desire to abuse the good things the Lord has provided us. We take what God designed to be good on this planet and turn it into something sinful and destructive. For example, while wine makes glad our hearts, we can take the use of alcohol too far. We can become addicted to substances like alcohol and most of us have seen the destruction it brings.
Another example is that while sex is a beautiful act designed to bring close a married couple, it also is heavily abused in our culture. Many are addicted to pornography or all sorts of unmentionable sexual acts, and through this addiction hurt themselves and others. Rabbi Loren spoke on this in his message last night about our culture.
We can also become addicted to people. Becoming co-dependent and smothering those we love and care about with overwhelming needs. Using them to try and satisfy ourselves in a way only the Lord can.
Even sugar can be abused by human beings as well. We may not think about it as much, but it is true! Natural sugars, like those found in an apple, act on the body differently than refined sugars. Natural sugars cause the release of pleasure, of dopamine, in a more moderate way. In contrast refined sugar causes a more intense reaction and can create addiction by affecting our bodies chemistry. I know of one Rabbi that has called refined processed sugar of the devil because of the issues that it can cause.
I mention these things not to argue for some life lived as a monk. That we need to destroy everything good and enjoyable. This sort of extreme self-denial is warned against in Scripture as well. But we do need to be aware how as fallen creatures we can abuse and seek after the wrong sort of pleasure, the wrong sort of sweetness. We will seek and become addicted to the pleasures of this life instead of focusing on Adonai and the next.
When we talk about seeking after the pleasures of this world, I tend to picture cotton candy. Cotton candy is literally brightly colored spun refined sugar. While it tastes good it has no real substance or nutrition to it. But it is incredibly attractive to the eyes and to our tongues. There is a reason why we find it at most carnivals and attractions with lines waiting for some. But if you tried to live on cotton candy you would probably be dead in weeks. You would have to consume bags and bags to even begin to satisfy your hunger and it would create an addiction in you very quickly.
Like cotton candy, the destructive sinful “sweet things” of this life are very attractive. Things like extreme physical pleasure, power, riches, or being loved by many people. Much of our society is designed for us to consume these things to the point of addiction. We are told if we buy a certain thing or pay money for a certain program people will love us or we will be powerful.
But the deceptive things our society tries to sell us just lead to pain and destruction. We run and run trying to fill holes in our lives with nothing to show for it but time slipping away. Becoming more addicted and spiraling out of control until we are either forced to confront the issues in our lives or in many cases die. So, if the pleasures of this world are corrupted and lead to pain and death what should we be chasing after? We should be seeking after the Lord, and the sweetness found in Him alone.
Did you know that celebration is a spiritual discipline? Not the celebration or joy found in a bar, but the joy found in properly enjoying the good things God has given us. Appreciating a beautiful day and the Creator of it. We celebrate the holidays with joy remembering how the Lord has saved and preserved us. This is the joy of freedom such as during Purim and Passover. We party, we have a great time eating delicious sweet foods, but we do not go to excess and we focus on the Lord, not ourselves.
One of the best example in scripture of a person who understood both kinds of sweetness was King David. King David was a man who understood the pleasures and addictions of this world. He struggled with sexual sins along with many others. But he was also a man after the Lord’s own heart. He loved the Lord and loved the things of God like His teachings. In Psalm 34:8 written King David we read, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” We also read in Psalm 119:103, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” King David understood that the Lord was sweeter than the things of this world. We are invited to taste and see how the Lord is good. To seek out God and discover how He is better than the sweetest things of this life, like honey.
So, what is the sweetness of God? It is all the blessings the Lord pours out on us every single day. Blessings like peace, Shalom, that goes beyond our circumstances. When everything is falling apart around us in our society, we can grieve the destruction but have peace knowing that God is in control. It is a knowledge that eventually true Shalom will be restored to all creation and it is a peace that no one can take away from us.
The sweetness of the Lord also involves joy. A joy that does not just spike and leave us like a sugar rush, it’s a joy that can never be destroyed. It is a joy knowing that we are heading to eternal life, that the Lord will satisfy our longing to be in His presence. The joy in our sins forgiven through the lamb of God, Messiah Yeshua. It is a joy in seeing God working in the world around us, bringing people to Himself and building our communities. In seeing lives transformed, addictions broken, wounds healed, and each of us maturing and growing. It is a joy in experiencing the power of God, seeing how He has saved us, and prayers being answered.
The sweetness of God is also the sweetness of wisdom. There are many great books that have been written by human beings. But complete truth and pure wisdom is found in God’s Word alone. While we as human beings can write about some truth, it requires the Bible to experience the author and source of Truth.
Finally, the sweetness of God is taking refuge in Him. It is getting close to the Lord and staying close through Messiah Yeshua. By accepting the sacrifice, He has provided we can be healed from the broken sinfulness in our lives so that we can get close to our heavenly creator. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit, given to those who take refuge in Lord, that the chains of addiction and sin can be broken. We are then transformed day by day to be more like our heavenly Messiah, experiencing the sweetness of God in this life and even more in the next.
As we enter a hopefully sweet new year, we need to seriously consider what is making this year sweet. Are we seeking after the sweetness of a fallen world, or the sweetness of God? The journey of leaving sinful pleasures for joy of the Lord is the story of the prodigal son. He spent much of his life seeking after pleasure and spending his money recklessly. When the money ran out and the pleasure train ended, he was forced to confront everything he had been running from. The son came to his senses, then swallowed his pride and went back to his father, admitting his sin and asking to be forgiven. The father forgave his son and was overjoyed to have him back.
Each of us are born into this life like the prodigal son, seeking after the wrong pleasures until the suffering of this world is overwhelming. Each of us need to turn back to our heavenly Father through Messiah Yeshua, who welcomes us with joyful open arms. Then we can begin to experience the sweetness of God as we are transformed by His Holy Spirit.
May each of us experience the sweetness of God in our lives. May we all let go of the addictions and brokenness of this world and experience the Spirit of the Lord that brings true freedom. May each of us taste and see that the Lord is good, taste and experience the goodness of God in our lives.