[These events are true — or they could be. They took place in the town of Chelm, whose residents famously claimed that they themselves were not fools — it’s just that foolish things always happened to them.]
It was crunch time in Chelm. Or at least, it was supposed to be. Rosh Hashanah was scheduled to arrive early that fall, and the townspeople feared: what if the new crop of apples would not be ready for the holiday? How would they dip apples in honey for a sweet year?
The Chelmites arrived at what they considered a wise solution: to store apples from the previous fall in their root cellars. “We will certainly be blessed with ample apples for the New Year!” they thought.
But when the Chelmites went to their cellars on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, to their dismay they discovered that the stored apples had turned to mush. They had plenty of honey. But there was not an apple fit to be eaten in all of Chelm — only beets and potatoes and, as everyone knows, it would never do to dip those in honey.
The whole town was in a panic. “Yucky, mushy apples!” the children cried. “This will be a terrible, horrible, no good year!” Everyone ran to consult with the town’s foolish but brilliant rabbi, Reb Ashira Chaya, who sat drinking tea calmly in her study.
“Rebbe,” cried the whole town, “we have no apples for the New Year! Rosh Hashanah is so early, we knew the new apples on the trees would not be ready! But the apples we saved are mushy – and if we don’t have apples and honey, this will surely be a terrible year in Chelm!”
“My friends, don’t worry!” replied Reb Ashira. “Do you really think the Holy One of Blessing would let us begin the year without appropriate apples? Heaven forbid! Come with me – tonight, let us begin the New Year praying outside, in the apple orchard itself!”
With that, the rebbe led everyone out to the apple orchard of Chelm. The sunset was magnificent. The first sliver of the New Moon of Tishrei was rising. The stars were emerging. The air was clean and fresh and cool.
“Now,” said the rebbe. “Let’s slow down and just breathe together. Take a minute right now. Stop speaking; start listening. Place your hand over your heart. Remember how much God loves you. Breath that in. Embrace yourself.”
Everyone did so. They stopped. They breathed. They fell silent. Each Chelmite placed a hand over their heart and offered themselves the love they imagined coming towards them from the Holy One. Not a sound could be heard; just a breeze moving through the orchard. In the silence, in the stillness, they felt loved. They felt renewed.
“And now,” instructed the rebbe, “honestly ask yourself: how did I do as a human being this past year? How many mitzvot did I do for others? How many times could I have been more generous? Could have said the right thing? Could have stood up for others, tried to make peace, set things right?”
Each person took a moment to think of how they had missed the mark this past year, how they might have done better. Everyone felt a deep, palpable sadness and regret – and a desire to do things differently.
“Now,” she said, “take one more minute. Whisper to yourself: ‘I wish I had done better this year. I am sorry for anything I did that hurt another person. This year, may I be the best me as I can possibly be. May I be guided to do the right thing. May I do teshuvah, may the Holy One help me change my ways.’”
And everyone did as the rebbe said. Each and every Chelmite went over to someone they had hurt and said they were sorry and they would try to do better this year.
“Now,” said Reb Ashira Chaya, “take a look around.”
And to everyone’s shock, all the apples on the trees of the orchard — the very same apples which until that moment had looked too green and too small to eat — had turned beautiful. They were shiny, full, perfect for picking and eating. Everyone was amazed at what was, indeed, a Rosh Hashanah miracle.
“My friends,” said Reb Ashira Chaya, “everyone knows it’s impossible to keep apples crisp all year. They just keep getting mushier until we can’t even call them apples anymore. But even apples can turn. And when Rosh Hashanah comes, it’s crunch time! Tonight, we remember that we all have a chance to start over again, to have a fresh start. And suddenly the apples are hard and crisp, and when you take a bite, there’s a crunch.”
“These apples are a lot like we are tonight: crispy and crunchy. When we start a new year, on Rosh Hashanah, we try hard to be the best person we can be. But when the holidays are over, it’s tough to keep that going. We slip back into bad habits. Our best intentions, our clear ideas about who and how we want to be, begin to get a little bit softer. We start making mistakes. Just like the apples, we begin to get mushier.
“But the Holy One knows that we’re just human beings,” she said. “None of us is perfect. We all make mistakes. We already know that we’ll probably do some things this year that we’ll be apologizing for when Rosh Hashanah comes around a year from now. But tonight, let’s try to keep our promises to God as long as possible – let’s be as crisp and crunchy as we can, for as long as we can.
“Now, everyone, pick an apple, and take some honey. Let’s lift up our fresh apples, and our fresh promises, and let’s pray together that we can take the crispness, the firmness of our resolve and carry it into the New Year as best as we possibly can. May we in our humble village, may our people everywhere, may the whole world be blessed with a year of sweetness, of healing, of justice, of shalom!”