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Symbols and Reality

Rosh Hashanah is an awe-inspiring holiday replete with mitzvot and customs such as blowing the shofar; eating sweet foods such as apple dipped in honey; and tashlich—a prayer recited at a waterfront with live fish, symbolizing the throwing of our sins into the depths.

As a rule, Judaism has many such symbolic customs and rituals, which at face value don't seem to fit with the philosophical depth of Judaism. The basis of Judaism is the faith in the One G-d as the Creator of the universe, Who directs the world and all that is in it with His personal Divine providence. This faith must be deeply rooted in the heart. If it expresses itself only through symbolic rituals, these would seem to be superficial and lacking in depth and understanding.

The question could also be asked from the opposite direction: G-d, Who is so great and powerful, surely has no use for our silly rituals, particularly on a holy day such as Rosh Hashanah. Eating sweet foods; blowing the shofar; emptying our pockets to the fish; indeed, what do these acts accomplish?


Indeed, this is an excellent question. G-d is certainly great and powerful, and seemingly, our actions should have no effect on Him. In addition, our faith and knowledge of Him should likewise have no effect. Regardless of how deeply we ponder into His greatness and infinity, we will never be able to grasp it. In the final view, we are limited and He is not, to the point that our very existence takes up no room in His mind.

The question could be asked not only on our symbols and rituals, but on our very existence. Why are we here? What benefit does G-d have from having created us, if in any event we mean nothing to Him and have no real importance in His eyes?

In response to this question, our sages state, "G-d desired a dwelling place in the lower worlds." He created us in order that we should transform the world around us into a place where G-d can feel at home; a place worthy of the Divine revelation. We accomplish this through our study of Torah and fulfillment of mitzvot.

Exactly how do Torah and mitzvot exert this effect on the universe? We cannot understand this exactly. This is an effect that G-d instituted upon the creation of the universe and wove into the very fabric of creation. These seemingly superficial rituals, the multitudes of symbolic acts that make up the daily life of a Jew, from the most insignificant to the weightiest action--all of these accumulate to transform the world around us into a home for G-d.

If so, then it is not the dipping the apple in honey that gives us a sweet year; nor is it blowing on a ram's horn that crowns G-d as our King. However, G-d has established that through eating sweet foods, we draw down a Divine light that will grant us a good and sweet year. Through blowing the shofar, we draw down G-dly light that expresses itself in a renewed coronation of G-d over the world. Each deed and ritual that we execute according to the Torah's instructions results in a spiritual process that brings about a desired effect. The ultimate effect, of course, is when all these deeds accumulate to finally bring about the purpose of creation, the complete revelation of G-dliness with the coming of Moshiach.


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