From Rosh Hashana through Sukkos, honey features prominently at the festive meals. Honey is sweet, and it functions as a symbol for the sweet new year we yearn for.
But think about it for a moment, using honey is odd. Honey is sweet, but it comes from bees, which have a painful sting and are not kosher creatures.
Honey is a complex sugar; why don’t we use simple cane sugar, a naturally growing plant that metabolizes into the energy that fuels all living things?
The universe operates on fundamental laws of physics that express empirical facts and describe physical properties of how the natural universe works. One such law is the law of entropy, which describes how natural states tend to undergo increasing decay and disorder over time. Eventually, all things break down.
The Midrash suggests that the notion of Teshuva predates the universe, which suggests that it is of a higher order that transcends its constraints; Teshuva is above space and time, and therefore not subject to entropy.
Creation is an environment where humans can make choices. The nature of a test is that it is challenging; you can pass or fail. As much as God can want us to pass a test, the objective fact remains that tests can and will be failed. But God is not gratuitously cruel and does not set us up to fail; the fact we can fail necessarily requires the existence of Teshuva, so failure is not the end. A person can learn from their mistakes, put it behind them, and move on.
R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld explains that the supernatural aspect of Teshuva is that it unwinds the effect of time and entropy; we can repair our mistakes, removing the decay, leaving only the lesson we have learned. Teshuva is not an after-the-fact solution; it’s baked into the fabric of the creation process, so redemption is structurally possible from the outset.
Existence without Teshuva would be static and stagnant – there would be no recovery from failure or setbacks, no growth, and therefore no life. Teshuva must predate existence, because that’s the only way life can change and become.
With Teshuva, sins and transgressions can be recategorized based on motivation. When Teshuva is motivated by fear, sins are downgraded to accidents and oversights; when motivated by love, sins can become merits. It’s intuitive; the way a person adapts their past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.
It’s a bit like learning to ride a bicycle. The first time you lose your balance, you fall and hurt yourself. Maybe next time you wear a helmet and pads, and you slowly learn how to keep your balance. If you focus on how bad falling hurts, you’ll never learn to ride the bike. But once you learn to keep your balance, you forget about falling, and maybe you don’t need the pads anymore. You now know how to ride a bicycle.
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that this is why the Hebrew word for “year” – שנה – is cognate to the words שני and שנוי – “secondary” and “change” respectively. Today’s achievements are built on the foundations of yesterday; a repetition would be no different from what came first, and a fresh start can’t carry the lessons along the way. This may help explain why we temporarily behave more diligently day between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – a reliable foundation is the precursor of a strong building.
R’ Meir Shapiro teaches that this is why specifically honey, and not sugar, is the centerpiece of the holiday imagery. Honey is kosher, despite being a product of non-kosher origins, and maybe you get stung. It’s complex, not simple. But doesn’t that sound a lot like Teshuvah? You made mistakes that weren’t so kosher, maybe they stung a little, and they weren’t so simple, but you can learn and grow from them all the same – you’ve made something kosher from something that’s not.
As R’ Nachman of Breslov taught straightforwardly: if you believe you can break, then believe you can fix.