For the first time in months, I felt chilly. Walking along the jagged sidewalks in Jerusalem, I noticed a pomegranate tree, exuberant with ripe, delicious fruit.
Each pomegranate held hundreds of tangy, juicy seeds that symbolize the mitzvot (good deeds) we are to perform, as well as the descendants we are supposed to have (please, God, speedily and in our day).
I pulled my light sweater around my shoulders. The mornings and evenings have become crisp and windy, while the day is hot and sunny. Jerusalem is beautiful.
The summer peaches, plums, watermelons, and grapes are still gloriously displayed alongside the traditional pomegranates, bananas, and tart, juicy apples. School has begun. The students are back with brand new backpacks, clothing, books, and sneakers. I asked them about their expectations for the year and we made some "SMART goals" together. SMART goals break things down into manageable, bite-sized pieces by applying these questions to the goal: Is it Specific? Measurable? Attainable? Realistic? Time-based?
Their groans when they heard they had a book report to write in a month were replaced with calm acceptance when I taught them the SMART goal strategy. If, for example, the book they choose is two hundred pages, they can break it down into smaller pieces and read ten pages a day. By doing this, they are able to complete the book in only twenty days.
My students are musicians and dancers. They know about discipline and the time needed to accomplish goals. I took the opportunity to ask them if they thought the SMART goal strategy would work on a personal level as well. What about the need for cheshbon nefesh (an accounting of our souls) when it comes to our personal life? It is, after all, the month of Elul just before Rosh HaShanah.
Mussar, a system for practical growth in ethical behavior through meditations and practices, helps provide an answer. Mussar can help us to take realistic steps to transform our mind and behaviors by setting small, achievable goals.
The fall holidays, or, as they are commonly known, the high holidays, are a time of refreshment, renewal, taking stock of our lives and our goals, and refining who and what we are and want to become. Repentance is the key and the beautiful thing is that it not only involves changing one’s mind but also changing one’s focus, direction and behavior.
I stroll through the open air market in Jerusalem and breathe in the glorious colors and aromas. I am so grateful to be here, among the various shouting and smiling vendors, beggars shaking their cups, young people laughing and old people shuffling with their carts on wheels. There is an anticipatory and festive atmosphere.
We buy yet another white dress or blouse and white clean tablecloth, because it has to be fresh for the New Year. Furniture is polished and the railings outside of the home, paint cracking from the relentless summer heat and winter rain, are repainted. Some plants in the garden are refurbished and soon we will hear the hauntingly beautiful refrain of "Avinu Malkenu" (Our Father, Our King) as we stroll toward the synagogue. No dualistic God, our Father is also our King and our Judge. We stand in awe, confident of His love.
We eat apples and honey to signify and ensure a sweet year. We exchange apple and honey cake recipes. The seeds of the pomegranate are strewn in salads. We bake our challah to be sweet and round, signifying the crown of our King. On many tables there is the head of a fish, reminding us of the promise that we will be "the head and not the tail" (Deuteronomy 28:13). We sing, we feast, and we partake of the wine and delicious food.
It is a New Year in Israel; a year ripe with the anticipatory promise of the goodness and mercy of God. A year ripe with yet another chance!
"Taste and see that the LORD is good!" (Psalm 34:8).
Repent! Return! Renew! Rejoice! This is the time for abundant pardon!