You are probably wondering what the Attia family is going to eat on the two nights of Rosh Hashanah. The righteous Jewish women of Tripoli (where my husband was born), in their wisdom through the centuries, have removed the burden of menu planning. Every holiday has its specific menu, from which we must not deviate, neither to add nor detract.
My husband, Yehuda, however, has improved upon the tradition. Before the main course there are hors d’oeuvres of seventeen types of food over which all Sephardic Jews say a blessing beginning “May it be Your will . . .” The blessings are both puns on the names of the foods and reflections on their meaning. Over beet leaves (selek) we implore G‑d that our enemies should vanish (yistalku). Over the lung, we beseech a year light as a lung. If you are interested in the benedictions and the recipes, I'd be happy to send them to you, but that’s not the point I want to get to. I would like to use this forum to reply to my mother.
The improvement that my husband has made to the Rosh Hashanah banquet is that he discards the main course (couscous and mafrum, naturally) and instead serves a full course of each “May it be Your Will” hors d’oeuvres. This way our twenty guests can drink their fill of the homemade kiddush wine, eat plenty of the home-baked challah, and fully enjoy: the Golan apples dipped in honey; the raisins and bananas; pumpkin jam, apple jam and quince jam; leek, dates; pomegranate seeds; candied carrots; beet leaf and sunflower seed patties; piquant fish; heart and lung cooked with black-eyed peas (rubia); and the tongue cooked in tomato and leek.
“But honestly, Eileen,” my mother always remonstrates. “Why so much work?”
Why, indeed, so much work? What could be a more appropriate way to bring in the new year than to work hard to celebrate it? On Rosh Hashanah the universe was created. G‑d did not stand over boiling pots to do this. His energy transcends our understanding of what energy is. He willed everything into being through divine utterances. Yet the creation is a tremendous work, a phenomenally incomprehensible enterprise designed and executed for us to live in. He gives us freedom of choice. How do we wish to live our lives? We were created in the image of G‑d. But how can we live up to our image?
Between being a passive consumer or an active creator, we resemble G‑d more by doing, making, giving. Our creativity is not His creativity; and our hardest or most sophisticated labor cannot produce His handiwork. Yet still I believe that working, creating and giving with the right intentions are analogous to G‑d’s ways.
Cleaning the house and cooking for guests is not the sum total of the effort needed, though. The housework and cooking only set the stage for higher action—mitzvot commanded through the Torah. Every mitzvah requires willpower, energy, time. These are the hospitality gifts we give our Maker for giving us such a wondrous world.
Of course, I shall never deliver this speech to my mother, but perhaps you, dear reader, will forgive my excesses and judge my intentions for the good! May your year be as sweet and full as our table laden with the banquet of life.