Except for the shofar, there is no symbol more intrinsically connected to Rosh Hashana than honey. At the holiday meals, we not only dip our challah in honey, but we also dip apples in honey. The special prayer that accompanies the dipping of the apples asks God to give us a good and sweet year, and the honey presumably symbolizes that sweetness.
But though honey is sweet, it is not the only sweet substance imaginable. We could have dipped our challah in sugar or in some other sweet substance instead. Indeed, since apples themselves are sweet, we could simply have made them the symbol of sweetness. And even if we chose to dip apples in honey as a tangible symbol of the sweet year for which we yearn, that still wouldn't explain why we also dip the challah in honey.
During the rest of the year, the prevailing custom is to sprinkle salt on our challah. Since the Torah prescribes (Lev. 2:13) that salt should be sprinkled on the korbanot (offerings) brought to the altar, the custom of sprinkling salt on our challah symbolizes the sanctity of our table. We no longer have a Beit haMikdash (Holy Temple) to which we can bring offerings, so we substitute what we do have: the synagogue, which is a Mikdash Me'at (minor sanctuary) and our table, which is often equated to a mizbeach (altar).
But the Torah (Lev. 2:11) expressly prohibits offering honey on the altar, and offering chametz (leavened bread) is also prohibited. Thus, If we wanted to express in the most emphatic way that our table is not an altar, the best way to accomplish that would be to take a piece of the round, puffed-up challah that we customarily eat on Rosh Hashana (think of it as chametz on steroids) and dip a piece of that challah in honey -- which is precisely what we do.
Why should we begin the new year by making so emphatic a statement that our table, however sanctified we try to make it, is not an altar? Before we can answer that question, we first need to understand why the Torah prohibited offering chametz and honey on the altar. Ramban explains that it was the custom of the idolatrous nations of that time to offer honey and chametz on their altars. Thus, the Jewish people were commanded to distinguish themselves from those nations by not offering to God those substances that pagans most frequently offered to their idols.
The distinction that the Torah is commanding us to make between Israel and the pagan nations of antiquity is not merely an aesthetic or symbolic one. Rather, that distinction goes to the heart of what distinguishes Judaism from pagan nations. Pagans brought honey and leavened bread to their altars as part of what was essentially an effort to bribe their gods. They believed that by offering delicious food to their gods, they could earn their gratitude and thus obtain from them whatever favors they were seeking.
The Torah commands us to stay far away from that pagan attitude. Our service of God, whether by offerings when the Temple stood or by prayer today, are not bribes that will earn God's gratitude and favor. Rather, they are symbolic acts through which we deepen our understanding of our utter dependence on God and further our life's work of seeking to come closer to Him. Introducing into the divine service any element that might create confusion on that point -- that might suggest that God needs our offerings and prayers for His pleasure -- is prohibited.
But no matter how hard we try to serve God as the Torah commands us, we are still, unavoidably, fallible human beings. And while we would never fall into the pagan trap of imagining that the offerings we once brought to the Temple were intended to provide God with sustenance or physical pleasure, we can -- and all too often we do -- imagine that the lives of Torah that we try to lead in our synagogues and homes somehow earn us God's gratitude, that they are primarily for His benefit rather than ours. How can God not forgive us when we not only frequent the synagogue but even make our homes and tables into sanctuaries and altars dedicated to His service?
The season of teshuva that begins with Rosh Hashana is a good occasion to remind ourselves that God is beyond the bribery of words as much as He is beyond the bribery of food. We serve God because we need Him, not because He needs us. However much we strive to make our tables like altars, we need to remember that they are not the real thing. Our service of God is unavoidably imperfect, not just because we do not have the Beit haMikdash but because we ourselves are unavoidably imperfect.
By dipping our Yom Tov challah in honey, we are acknowledging that our table is not really an altar, merely a symbolic reminder of one. We cannot make that symbol closer to the reality by the quality of the food we place on it but only by the quality of the people we place around it. As we begin the ten days of the year that are most unambiguously dedicated to the process of self-improvement we call teshuva, we dip challah in honey as a potent reminder of the vast distance that separates the nobility of our aspirations from the reality of our lives -- and recognizing that distance is the first step toward helping to bring about the good and sweet year for which we so fervently pray.
May all of us, and the entire people of Israel, be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year, a year in which all of us make strides toward fulfilling our aspirations of sanctity, and in which all of our people -- and all the peoples of the world -- will experience the blessings of peace.
Ketiva vechatima tova to all.