Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Symbol, Not the Act

Simana, la milsa

Gil Student brings a piece from R' Arnie Lustiger's new Machzor Mesoras HaRav for Rosh Hashanah, on the significance of the symbolic foods. The Gemara in Horayos 12a talks about anointing a king at a spring as a portent that his reign should continue as the spring pours out water. This example serves as the basis for the symbolic foods eaten at the seder.

This, to me, sounds like sympathetic magic - do an act in small, so that the Power[s] That Be will yield a similar blessing in large. That does seem to be the basis on which many eat the symbolic foods - that the act of eating the food be linked, through its name in a Yehi Ratzon prayer, to absorbing a blessing from Above with a similar-sounding name. Sympathetic magic, however, is largely an idolatrous practice. We are a people of Words - the Book, the Tannaim, the Amoraim, etc., so our non-causal link is through punning words. But the motive and spirit still seem the same.

The Rav (YB Soloveitchik zt"l) remaps the Gemara into a purely symbolic act. Eating the symbols reminds us of the Divine Judgment by the King of the Universe that takes place on Rosh Hashanah. It is meant to inspire thoughts in us, rather than influences from Above. This mapping seems a bit difficult to me:

1) it takes the king part of the Gemara, rather than the symbolism part, as being the determining factor - if the symbol reminds us of the King of Kings of Kings, it's useful.

2) it removes the specific symbolism of the food pun, which seems an integral part of the ritual. One item should suffice for this (as we personally do - only apple and honey).

I found some explanations in a similar remapping vein, in the new Machzor Avodas Hashem for Rosh Hashanah, an incredible snippet collection on all aspects of the chag. Apparently others among our Acharonim were also uncomfortable with the semi-magical aspect of this ritual, even those who normally wrote in a kabbalistic vein.

The Shelah haKodesh tells us (in Mas. Rosh Hashanah, ch. Ner Mitzvah, sec. 22) that the symbolism isn't in the eating of the food, but in its power to arouse associations in ourselves towards the idea with which it is associated. It is to arouse us to teshuvah in that area, so that we pray for improvement in that area. So it is not an act of sympathetic magic meant to influence the One Above, but an act of pure symbolism meant to arouse us to teshuvah in a variety of areas. This preserves the variety of the foods, but avoids the magickal aspect.

So what about the Yehi Ratzon? Generally, they seem to ask for Divine aid in that which we ourselves do. E.g., the Yehi Ratzon for the sick in the Amidah - we have to make our efforts to heal the sick, but God should help the healing to work. So too here, we're not asking God to do the work of giving us the pun-things, but to help us to succeed in them as we engage in our own hishtadlus. After all, the Torah is the expression of God's Will (Ratzon) in the world. By following Torah we make ourselves into instruments of God's Will. So by asking "Yehi ratzon", may it be Thy Will, we ask that our efforts fit His Will.

This approach agrees with R' SR Hirsch's ideas about symbolism - the symbol is not efficacious in itself, but in how the ideas of the Originator, inform our thinking and actions with those ideas. The originator and the target of the symbol are equally important.

May it be Thy Will that we work on ourselves this and every year, to better fulfill Thy Will.

May all of us be written and sealed for a good and sweet 5768.

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