One of the more widely known Rosh HaShana traditions is the custom of eating a pomegranate when sitting down to the holiday meal Rosh HaShana evening.
This beautiful custom is a personal favorite of mine; and various reasons have been offered to its meaning. On a simple level this custom symbolizes our wish to have a year full of mitzvot and good deeds just as a pomegranate is filled with luscious seeds. A lesser known explanation makes reference to a story in the Talmud [Chagigah 15b], involving the great sage Rabbi Meir.
Rabbi Meir had a teacher who became a heretic. This notwithstanding, Rabbi Meir continued to study Torah from him. People questioned his behavior: “why do you continue to learn from him, how can you study from a heretic?!” To which he would reply: “well, it’s similar to eating a pomegranate. When you eat a pomegranate you discard the peel and enjoy the juicy seeds. When I go to my teacher and I study from him, I discard his sinful behavior – his peel – while drawing out his essence – those ‘juicy seeds’ – his wonderful Torah teachings that he has to offer.”
Recent scientific discovery of the natural properties of the pomegranate may give us additional insight into this meaningful metaphor. A pomegranate has an unusually high level of antioxidants which are very powerful in fighting the free-radicals floating throughout our bloodstream. Perhaps what is alluded to in the pomegranate analogy of Rabbi Meir is how the pomegranate is a material representation of two fundamental Rosh HaShana themes:
1. The first step in seeking forgiveness before G-d is looking beyond the exterior, and perceiving the inner beauty within our fellow man.
2. Ridding ourselves of our spiritual free-radicals by connecting more deeply to our own essence: the spark of G-d, the Neshama, which G-d has placed within every single one of us.
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A man once approached his Teacher with a dilemma. “Rebbe”, he exclaimed, “I’ve been perplexed by a particular passage in the Talmud for some time now. All my efforts to understand it have been to no avail”
The master listened silently as his disciple continued: “The Talmud [Brachot 57a] relates a tradition in the name of Reish Lakish: ‘Even the empty ones [i.e. the sinners] among you [the Nation of Israel] are as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate [is filled with seeds]’. If they are indeed sinners – as the Talmud says they are – how can they possibly ‘be filled’ with so many good deeds?”
The Rebbe sat deep in thought with a far away look and the hint of a tear in his eye. After a moment, he shook his head softly as if awakening from a trance, looked deeply into his follower’s eyes and replied: “My son, I too have been greatly troubled by this particular passage, but my question is of a very different nature than yours. For if indeed all the children of Israel are filled with so many mitzvot – as the Talmud says they are -, how then can the Talmud possibly refer to them as ’empty sinners’….
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And so, on Rosh HaShana we ask of G-d that when He looks at us, that He discard our sinful peel and see the inner goodness that lies deep within every single one of us.
And we make the powerful resolution within our hearts to do the same to our fellow man.
May we all be inscribed in the book of life for a year of happiness, health and prosperity.
(Photo: wikimedia commons)