Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784
September 15, 2023
The Swiss cheese Incident
Rabbi Alan Cook
I hope that many of you know Oren Akresh. Oren celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with us in July of 2022. Throughout his preparations for the day, we had a few meetings together, of course. At the conclusion of one of those meetings, I asked Oren if he had any questions. He responded that he did. I might have anticipated that he would ask about some commentary on his Torah portion, or about the flow of the service. Instead, he inquired, “Why does Swiss cheese have holes in it?”
Now, I had a few options. I could have shrugged off the question as impertinent, changed the subject, and never spoken of it again. I could have Googled an explanation, presented it to Oren, and moved on. Or, I could have designed a sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah aimed at addressing the question. By now, many of you are beginning to figure out which path I chose.
You see, as we prepare to enter a new Jewish year, it so happens that there is much that we can learn from a piece of Swiss cheese. These lessons, I pray, will not only serve to enlighten Oren, but will allow us all to examine how we think about the world, and our place in it, as we begin the year 5784. As we consider the holes or gaps in Swiss cheese, let us consider where there are gaps that we find in our own lives, and how we might work to manage them in the coming year.
There are nearly 500 varieties of cheese produced in Switzerland ; what most of us traditionally think of as “Swiss cheese” that we’d order from a deli counter in the supermarket here in the states is generally Emmenthaler or Gruyere, or some approximation thereof. And there are a number of reasons why or how these cheeses obtain their holes.
Some Swiss cheese has holes due to natural processes of fermentation. Three bacteria are used in Swiss cheese production: Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacilius, and Propionibacterium. The Propionibacterium consume the lactic acid produced by the other two bacteria and release carbon dioxide, creating gas bubbles that eventually lead to the familiar holes. During much of history, cheesemakers sought to reduce or eliminate the holes or gaps in their cheese, for fear that they would be viewed as flaws. It is only in modern times that the holes were embraced as a means of identifying Swiss cheese.
We human beings are not always perfectly shaped and fully formed. We, too, may experience gaps in our lives, places where we feel inadequate or incomplete. Like the cheesemakers of old, we may be inclined to be discomfited by these gaps and view them as unfortunate imperfections. Alternatively, we can look at these gaps as opportunities that we’ve not yet embraced for ourselves. Experiences that we’ve not yet undertaken, skills that we’ve not yet learned, places to which we’ve not yet traveled and so forth—these can all be things that we aspire to undertake in the coming year. As we engage in cheshbon hanefesh, the account-taking of our souls that we are called upon to do during this High Holiday season, we can ask ourselves: how do we wish to grow and broaden our horizons during the coming year?
Jewish tradition teaches that every individual is born with two inclinations: The yetzer tov, the positive inclination, and the yetzer ra, the evil or rebellious inclination. One might think that we should be continuously striving to subdue our yetzer ra, to eliminate any “badness” or “evil” from our midst. On the contrary, however, the rabbis teach that it would be a mistake to fully destroy the yetzer ra, stating that if it were not for the yetzer ra, we would not have any drive to build a home, seek a spouse, procreate, or engage in commerce. In each of these actions, we are driven, consciously or unconsciously, by a sense of competitiveness with our neighbors which, in turn, is guided by our yetzer ra. If this yetzer ra had no hold within our psyche, we would lose our urge to “keep up with the Joneses,” and we might fall into a state of complete inertia. So the rabbis underscore that the trick is not to put an end to the yetzer ra, but to keep it in balance with the yetzer tov.
In a similar vein, as desirable as it might seem, at first analysis, to fill in all the gaps of our lives, we probably would not want to do so; that would leave us no room for learning, growth, and self-improvement. I would argue that it is part of the human process of aging to engage each year in self-analysis. We assess what we have accomplished in the past year, and what we hope to achieve in the coming year: skills we hope to acquire or habits we hope to break or goals we hope to fulfill. We pray that such efforts may fill our buckets, and in so doing, that we may start to attend to at least some of our gaps.
As in traditionally-produced Swiss cheeses, these gaps in our life occur naturally. Despite our best efforts, we find ourselves falling into certain behaviors, even though we know they are detrimental to our well-being or our relationships with others. Or we put off tasks and goals, or avoid making an effort to excel in a newfound interest, because we fear we lack the time or talent to tackle them in an impactful manner. But when we expend the energy to address these gaps, we often find a great deal of happiness and fulfillment. Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not say, ‘I will study when I have free time; perhaps you will never have free time.’” It’s the Jewish equivalent of the aphorism, “Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” Whether you prefer the Jewish or secular version of the exhortation, the point is the same: even when gaps occur naturally in our lives, we have the opportunity to engage with them and tackle them.
As I noted, some makers of traditional Swiss cheeses have tried in recent decades to move away from having holes in their cheese. They have added refinements to the cheesemaking process such as pressing the blocks of cheese as they are aging in an effort to eliminate buildup of carbon dioxide bubbles. No bubbles means no holes.
But here’s the thing: consumers want holes in their Swiss cheese. So, mass-produced domestic Swiss-style cheese sold in American grocery stores sometimes has to fake it. Holes are punched into the blocks of cheese after the aging process is completed, giving the Swiss cheese its distinctive look.
And just as the cheese has had gaps or holes introduced by others, so do we occasionally find that the gaps in our lives seem to be beyond our control, the result of actions by others. There seems to be no shortage of those who seek to interfere in our lives by telling us we can’t rise to our fullest ambitions because of our age, our gender, our race, our sexual preference, our religion, our politics, or our connection to any of a myriad of other categorizations that society seeks to use to define us. But humans are fortunate to differ from cheese in that we have some say in the matter.
Please understand, by the way, that I am well aware that many of us feel the pain of gaps in our lives due to opportunities we longed for that did not reach fruition, or loved ones who are no longer with us, or illnesses and hardships we or those whom we love may be facing, or relationships that have dissolved, or trauma we have experienced, or other forms of loss. I do not mean in any way to diminish such hurts. The gaps that are left by these experiences can be tremendously painful. They are not easily filled—in some cases, they may never be, and we would not wish to attempt to do so. But as uncomfortable as such gaps may be, they too help to define us in important ways.
The gaps I have in mind at the moment are those created by those whom we encounter who don’t believe in us, and question our potential. They tell us that we are not capable of overcoming our gaps. But we don’t have to believe them. Long ago, I memorized and internalized a poem by the late Shel Silverstein:
Listen to the Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me,
Anything can happen, child, anything can be.
It would do each of us tremendous good if we could learn to tune out the “cant’s” and “don’ts” and other negative exhortations that are leveled against us so that we might approach and address our gaps with the self-confidence required to make a change.
Additionally I have in mind those gaps imposed by people in positions of power who seek to subjugate and demean those who are different from them. But we have often been reminded in recent history of Dr. King’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” When others try to exploit gaps in our lives or in the lives of our friends and neighbors; when they seek to create new gaps by minimizing our voices or depriving us of opportunities, it is incumbent on each of us to stand up in firm protest. These artificially introduced gaps should stir us to take to the streets and to fill the voting booths to ensure that our best interests and our inalienable rights are being upheld. Words, and actions, and elections all have consequences, and the consequence of our inaction when we are faced with such challenges will be that the fabric of our lives will be riddled with gaps like, well, a piece of Swiss cheese.
In the early 2000s, a theory known as “intelligent design” was suggested as an addendum to grade school curricula. This pseudoscientific theory was seen as a backdoor means of adding religious teachings about the creation of the universe to science textbooks to stand alongside teachings about evolution. As the debate raged in a number of school systems, Nobel Laureate in Physics Eric Cornell penned an essay for Time magazine addressing the subject. He sought to answer the question, “Why is the sky blue?” Cornell offered two possible answers, “1) The sky is blue because of the wavelength dependence of Rayleigh scattering; 2) The sky is blue because blue is the color God wants it to be.” In his essay, Cornell essentially asserts that one will be primed to favor one answer over the other depending on whether one is interested in the scientific approach or the faith-based approach. But one answer need not be dismissed in order to embrace the other. In fact, the two can be reconciled: perhaps one could say that the sky is blue because of the phenomenon of Rayleigh scattering, and yet Rayleigh scattering is merely God’s way of helping us appreciate the complexity of the universe—including the blueness of the sky.
In a similar manner, we can understand the phenomenon of holes in Swiss cheese: some of the holes are there due to a naturally occurring process, and some are put there artificially during manufacturing. One could even say again that these two possibilities can be reconciled: because Swiss cheese once contained naturally-occurring holes, manufacturers have chosen to now add artificial ones. However we slice it…the cheese has holes.
The cheese has holes because we have come to expect it to be that way. It is, at least in the eyes of American consumers, a quintessential element of what makes Swiss cheese, Swiss cheese. Could manufacturers of Cheddar or Gorgonzola start putting holes in their cheese? Could we enjoy a slice of imported Emmenthal without holes? Both are certainly possible, but they would upend our ideal and visceral expectations of Swiss cheese.
This is true for us, as well. While it is important, as I stated earlier, to resist those who would create gaps in our lives for nefarious purposes, we can nevertheless ask ourselves if we would still be recognizable as ourselves if we didn’t have at least some gaps? What would humanity look like if we were born fully formed, without any opportunity for self-improvement or refinement? The gaps in our lives, while they may occasionally dismay or burden us, become indelible parts of who we are. This is not to say that we should be resting passively on our tuchusesbecoming inert creatures; it is important that we continually seek out growth opportunities so that our brief sojourn on this planet not only leaves this world a better place because of our presence, but improves our personal existence in some manner. Yet some of our gaps are important identifiers of who we are and what we aspire to be. With all due respect to Gatorade and to Mr. Jordan, not all of us can “Be like Mike.” We can’t all be NBA superstars, or Olympic medalists, or world leaders, or NASA scientists. But undoubtedly many of the folks in the aforementioned categories wouldn’t consider themselves so skilled in those areas in which you and I might excel.
For many years, I could not shuffle playing cards. This was an uncomfortable detriment—a gap, if you will—when I was playing in the weekly poker games Rabbi Jody and I participated in during rabbinical school. But over time, the deficiency became an identifying feature—“…and this is Alan. He doesn’t know how to shuffle.” My gap became a part of my identity. Though I’m pleased to report that, at about 46 years of age, I finally figured out the hand-eye coordination and I am now capable of shuffling.
Ultimately, only cheese made in Switzerland can be authentic Swiss cheese. Yet, cheese that tastes like Swiss cheese can be made anywhere. Only wine from grapes grown in Champagne—France, not Champaign, Illinois—is authentic champagne. Yet, the same grapes can be grown elsewhere and wine that looks and tastes like champagne can come from anywhere in the world.
People, on the other hand, can be grown any place, under all sorts of conditions, and none of us can be duplicated or made inauthentic or be made exactly like another in every way. We may be born with some gaps or deficits, we may develop others, but these deficits are only seen as such if we compare our strengths or talents with others. If we work to become the best version of ourselves, then our holes or gaps are merely challenges we set for ourselves to fill or to live with or to view as sources of pride.
May the wholly hole-y nature of Swiss cheese inspire us, in turn, to strive to be as wholly holy as we can be.
 See “Swiss Cheese (North America),” retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_cheese_(North_America) , June 23, 2023.
 See, for instance, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 54a.
 Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:11.
 Hillel, in Pirke Avot 2:4.
 Attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
 Shel Silverstein, “Listen to the Mustn’ts,” from Where the Sidewalk Ends (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).
 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.
 Cornell, Eric Allin. “What Was God Thinking? Science Can’t Tell.” Time, November 6, 2005. Retrieved from https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,1126751-2,00.html June 30, 2023.
 Referring to a 1991 Gatorade commercial featuring basketball star Michael Jordan.
 With gratitude to Rabbi Raymond A. Zwerin for the concepts in this paragraph and the preceding one