A few days ago I was busy in my kitchen preparing a double batch of honey cakes for the upcoming Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. In between measuring out cups of honey, sugar, and flour, I found myself thinking about the traditional blessing for a happy, healthy, and sweet new year that Jews around the world wish each other in the weeks and days leading up to the holiday.
Mostly, I rattle off the words without much deeper thought as to what I am actually saying. Naturally I want my loved ones and the Jewish people as a whole to be blessed with health and happiness. Sweetness sure sounds like a good thing, too. But, as I peered down into the bowl of gooey cake batter, I started to wonder what type of sweetness I was talking about and whether it was such a good blessing to be doling out after all.
It is customary to eat honey cake on Rosh Hashanah because the sweet cake is supposed to symbolize our desire to be blessed with a spiritually sweet year. But, from my perspective as a Jewish mother trying to make my own way while paving a healthy path for my family in a society of sugary excess, it seems that the holidays have become defined more by the treats they are associated with rather than by the deeper meanings those treats are supposed to represent. The aforementioned honey cake and other delectable holiday delicacies—Hanukkah donuts, Purim hamantachen, and Shavuot ice cream and cheesecakes, to name just a few—all have symbolic reasons for appearing on my table throughout the year. But once the fried, baked, or frozen treat is plated I am not sure whether anyone is actually paying attention to that deeper meaning or just enjoying the “freedom” to indulge for a seemingly holy purpose.
Throw into the mix the weekly helpings of Shabbat desserts and rich dishes at kiddushes, lavish spreads at life-cycle celebrations and parties, and the generous amounts of candy doled out for endless reasons at school and camp, and there is no doubt that sugar has established itself as a staple in my family’s daily diet as well. In fact, it is hard to find an occasion or a reason that does not call for a sugary treat: sugary “Shabbat cereal” to celebrate Shabbat, a neon-colored lollipop as a prize for davening (praying) well at school, a taffy for correctly answering a parsha (Torah portion) question at camp, an ice cream cone as a reward for good behavior, or a piece of candy to console an upset child.
As a believer in the Rambam’s call for moderation in most areas of life, I am not opposed to a sweet treat on a truly special occasion and believe that a lollipop can have its rightful place in a child’s overall healthy life-style. But our society’s overdependence on sugar comes at a steep price. The undeniable connection between the foods we eat and the way it negatively affects our bodies’ ability to optimally function has been proven long ago.
Just as detrimental but less spoken about is the spiritual damage that ensues from consuming too much sugar. Each Rosh Hashanah I set goals for myself as to how I want to improve as a person in the coming year. But when my diet is laden with sugary foods I have no energy to garner up the enthusiasm needed for serious spiritual growth. On the other hand, when I make healthier choices I feel better and become empowered to transcend the limitations of my body so I can focus on the nourishment of my soul. While a candy bar usually leaves me feeling drained and depleted, when I nurture my soul and feel that I am coming a little closer to reaching my potential in life then I am rewarded with a sweetness that far surpasses any candy I have yet to taste; I feel calmer, more centered, more in touch with myself, my family, and my God, and more empowered to find meaning in the clamor and chaos of daily living.
When I reflect on the past year it is clear to me that sugar has undoubtedly overstepped its boundaries in my family’s life. The easy access to all things sugar and its use as a quick reward, fix-all, and distraction is essentially derailing my efforts to nourish my family with wholesome foods, arm them with healthy habits, and provide them with enduring non-food praise and comfort. Moreover, the steady stream of sugar has created a reality where my kids’ cravings and whiny appeals for the sweet stuff have become increasingly harder to satisfy and quell.
This New Year, I hope to take a different approach to sugar with the metaphor of the apple and the honey as my guide. I have noticed that the delicately tart flavor of the apple is best enhanced when the honey is sparingly drizzled on rather than when the apple is dipped in and dripping with the sweet liquid. When faced with the holidays, celebrations, and the happenings that make up daily life this metaphor will remind me that when it comes to sugar, some is fine, but less is usually more.
This year I am tweaking my New Year’s greeting to convey my belief that distinguishing between fleeting sugary sweetness and enduring spiritual sweetness will go a long way in helping us to lead healthier and happier lives. May we all be blessed with a healthy, happy, and spiritually sweet New Year. And let’s all enjoy our honey cakes, too—but in moderation, please!