It takes some stings to get a jar of honey

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One of my favorite foods during Rosh Hashanah is honey. Dip an apple in it. Spread some on bread. Bake it in cake. It’s all good.

Not only is honey tasty, but it’s a powerful symbol for Rosh Hashanah, representing our desire for a sweet new year.

This lovely tradition is an ancient and universal Jewish custom. It is recorded in the works of the Babylonian sages of the seventh century. In truth, the tradition dates back to even earlier times.

Honey certainly adds sweetness to recipes. But according to custom, it also represents something deeper that we are meant to realize at Rosh Hashanah: transformation.

Honey, which is produced by bees, is fragrant and sweet. At the same time, bees cause pain when they sting. This paradox represents an inner theme of the Jewish New Year.

To understand this idea, consider what we refer to as the sweetness in our lives. The times of the year when we’re successful, things go easily and we’re prosperous. We think of those times as sweet.

Then there are other times when we feel the sting associated with challenge and hardship. An average year is made up of lots of sweetness and many stings.

Eating honey on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes our God-given capacity to transform negative experiences into positive ones, and ultimately turn them into blessings.

Judaism calls on us to acknowledge failure and misfortune without diminishing it — it happened and it was bad, but we have the ability to transform negative energy into a force for healing and blessing.

For example, you’ve worked hard at something that you accomplished. You hope that people will praise your work, but no one does. You feel hurt. Take that pain and learn that when you see someone else putting in effort you will go out of your way to praise their work.

The creator of the world’s finest violin, Antonio Stradivarius, crafted his most beautiful violins from piles of broken, waterlogged oars he found on the docks of Venice. He understood that in those shattered ruins lay the potential for great music.

This is true of more than violins. It is true of all that is broken in life.

Indeed, the word Yisrael (Israel) also means Shir-El, God’s melody. To be a Jew is to take the fractured shards of history and turn them into music, so that every day, every act, every mitzvah contributes another sweet note in the divine symphony.

So as we dip the apple in honey this Rosh Hashanah, let us bless each other and all people that in the year to come there will be only sweetness, and if there are any “stings,” may we turn them into blessings.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg is the executive director of Chabad House at Stanford University. He can be contacted at [email protected].