“What We Learn from Bees”

By Rabbi Yael Splansky.

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We’re stocking up on jars of golden honey for Rosh HaShanah. What can we learn from bees, famous for their honey and their sting? Cooperation, hard work, planning ahead, effective leadership and effective follower-ship. In many ways, the complex social structure of bees in and out of the hive is more successful than any human social structure. Bees are impressively adaptable. They can live in a range of climates and landscapes, travel great distances. But I’ve recently learned that bees don’t know how to find their way out of glass jar that has no lid. The bees fly in for the honey at the bottom of the jar and then they think they are trapped, because they never look up to see that the jar is open. They can’t see their way out. They can’t imagine their way out. They can’t sense the openness. As remarkably resilient as they are, when alone, bees surrender to limitations that aren’t real.

Too often, we are like those bees. As hardworking and adaptable as we may be, we can easily find ourselves spinning, buzzing in circles at the bottom of the glass jar, feeling trapped in our repeated actions and inactions, despite the wide open possibility for change. Seeing no way out, we exhaust ourselves, spinning through our days, even years, without noticing the very real and very near way out. The High Holydays instruct us to do what the sophisticated bee can’t — stop, look up, and see the open possibilities, which await us. We can break from bad habits; we can break from frustrating or shameful patterns and find our way to something fresh and new. This is the blessing of a new year. We are given the gift of time to reflect, to choose well, and set out again. In this week’s Torah portion God says, “I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse. U’varchta BaChayim l’ma’an tichyeh. Choose life, so that you may really live.” Look up, God says. I created you with the ability to choose and the ability to change. I’ve given you free will to chart your course. Now go.

Tomorrow night we will welcome to Holy Blossom Temple someone who is unhindered by limitations and unafraid of change. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the new President of the Union for Reform Judaism, is described as “A Catalyst for Change.” He has identified our three most pressing tasks: congregational change, youth engagement, and extending circles of responsibility. In recent interviews with Reform Judaism Magazine and our own Canadian Jewish News, Rabbi Jacobs says: “In this era in which people have multiple Jewish options, synagogues must transform themselves to speak to the human soul… They need to exude excellence and always search for new ways to do their holy work better…. Only then will our synagogues be the central address for modern Jews who wish to cultivate a deep, nourishing Jewish life…. We must replace a ‘serve us’ approach with ‘service.’ Synagogues are not clubs, which cater to our members. Synagogues are places where serious Jewish commitment is ignited. This shift in focus will be a magnet for Jews seeking purpose and meaning in their lives.”

I am eager to hear Rabbi Jacobs’ challenging call. “Change and Challenge: Reform Judaism at a Crossroads” will be his first address in Canada. I hope you’ll come and be among those who take up his challenge. The stakes are high and the possibilities are endless. 

Congregational renewal. Personal renewal. This is the hour. It’s time to prepare. The High Holyday melodies wash over us, stir the soul, tug at the heartstrings of longing to be a better version of who we are. The poetry is rich with imagery; every word is weighty and deliberate. The prayer-themes ready us for the serious tasks at hand — reflection and repentance. Now on the eve of a new year we look inward, consider our regrets, and begin to clear away a path forward. We ask God to help us with this task.With one medieval piyut, Ki Hinei KaChomer, we call upon God to shape us, to turn each of us into a masterpiece. Some of the metaphors are gentle: “Shape us the way a potter molds a lump of clay… Guide us the way a helmsman turns the rudder.” Some are harsh: “Give us form the way a mason chisels at the stone…Thrust us into the fire the way a glazier does with glass.” When we sing this prayer-poem, we ask for criticism and correction; we open ourselves up to God’s influence. The High Holydays help us to remember that more than we want to be right, we want to be good. We acknowledge that we are still works-in-progress. Let these days stir in us our deepest desire: that our life can yet become a work of art.