Posts Tagged 'teshuva'

Happy New Year for Trees!

In my last post, I wrote about how I’ve tried to make the secular new year a starting point for developing some healthier habits.  I’m proud to report that a little over 3 weeks in, I’m still going strong!  My husband and I went over our budget, I set aside time and money to dedicate to physical exercise, and I’ve found some great Torah to connect to, some of which I want to share with you today.

Today is the first of the month of Shvat, שבט, and this concept of Rosh Chodesh, or the “head” of the month, a new month, is also in this week’s Torah portion, Bo.  The very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, even before they became Jews!, was to declare new months and to create a unique Jewish time frame.

in the jewish calendar, months are based on the moon's cyclesThe Hebrew word חודש, chodesh, comes from חדש, chadash, which means new.  The Jewish calendar is linked to the cycle of the moon, which waxes and wanes over the course of the month. Like I said in my last post, Judaism strongly encourages teshuva, reconnecting, renewal, and opportunities for new growth.

Last night I attended a shiur about the Torah portion and Rosh Chodesh Shvat, which focused heavily on the commentaries by Rav Tzadok HaCohen, the author of the Pri Tzadik. He says the type of renewal of the moon, a renewal after a disappearance, is actually a new thing – not the same as it is before.  In other words, just because we enter a new month, it doesn’t mean that it has to be the same as last month. We choose whether to carry the same choices and habits with us into this new era.  To clarify the point, he quotes the Gemara in Gittin 43a “A person does not truly understand the words of Torah until he has tripped over them.”  Struggling, learning, and relearning are all part of the game.  If you misunderstand then get it; if you learn something and then forget it – but then you learn it again – ah! Then it really becomes yours.

King Solomon famously wrote in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that “There is nothing new under the sun.” Everything loses its value as it becomes old, because a person has become used to it.  The moon, however, is constantly changing and renewing, and that is how we as Jews are to live.

While this wasn’t brought into last night’s shiur, this concept reminds me very strongly of the laws of Niddah, which regulate when a husband and wife can be physically intimate, and ways which they should act when they are separate. One of the thoughts behind it is that a relationship which is allowed to constantly renew itself can grow stronger.  It’s more exciting to be together after a time apart than to experience what inevitably becomes the same old, same old.  Of course this can’t solve all of the complex problems that couples face, but it’s known that today, just as in yesteryear, that if people perceive a relationship to be stale, they may be tempted to chase after something, or someone, more exciting.

Now that we’ve established how wonderful the new month is, let’s get specific about this month.  The first mishna in Mishna Rosh Hashanah explains that there are multiple new years in the Jewish calendar.  And there is a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over when the new year for fruit trees is.

According to Beit Shammai, the first of Shvat is when the new year for fruit trees is. He relies on when the moon is the most hidden, it is the most dark. And there is a line of thinking that we are most ready for renewal when there is the most obscurity, perhaps we feel further from God, we lack clarity and seek it.

Beit Hillel holds that the new year for trees is on the 15th of Shvat, Tu B’Shevat, when the moon is full.  One could also suggest that when things are most clear, when we feel most connected to our personal and national mission, when we feel closest to God, that we are ready to take on the next challenge.

That is an interpretation given over by Rabbi David Sedley about the possible reasonings behind the two opinions. As usual, the sages side with Beit Hillel, so in this case, Tu B’Shevat is held as the new year for trees.

But today is still Rosh Chodesh, a day of renewal, Hallel, and celebration. Tu B’Shevat is the time of year that we expect to see almond blossoms bud, the sap to begin to emerge in trees, and also for the majority of the year’s rainfall to have landed.  Thank God, it’s been a rainy last two weeks, and I’m glad that we have two more before most of it is locked in.

We know of course, that the moon does not actually go through cycles and that this is merely our perception of the shadows and reflection of the sun’s light on the moon, as viewed on earth.  Jewish thinkers too, have known that the waxing and waning of the moon can be easily calculated.  The fact that this phenomenon is a result of our perception only strengthens the concept, however.  Opportunities for renewal, or the lack thereof are a matter of perception.  Things can be the same as they’ve always been, or they can be different. We can be cynical about things remaining the same, or we can make resolutions to change. It’s up to us.

As we say in the special additional Mussaf prayer for Rosh Chodesh, may we be blessed with good things, happiness and joy, salvation, the ability to support ourselves, rich lives, and peace.

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Teshuvah Disclaimers

We are approaching Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  The last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul, is supposed to be a time of closeness to God, when we do a chesbon hanefesh, a self-assessment of how we have acted over the past year.  Jewish law and thought gives a lot of weight to teshuva, literally, a “return” to God, through a correction of ways we have transgressed.  The 10 days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as Aseret Yimei Teshuvah, the 10 days of Teshuvah, where we ask forgiveness from our fellow (wo)man for our misdeeds and say special versions of the prayers, placing special emphasis on God as melech, the king who assesses us and rules over our fates.

But what does one actually do to carry out this self-assessment?   And how?  It’s mostly about taking an inventory of our traits, much like a storekeeper takes an inventory of his wares.  Ideally a person does this every day.  So what are we to add during this time?  The answer, as I understand it, is that although we are to assess ourselves throughout the year, now is the time to particularly pay attention.

And for people like me, it’s dangerous.

In taking out the scorecard, assessing things that I did well and things that I did not, times that I stopped and helped somebody, and times that I got impatient and rude, my mind tends to block out the good and remember the bad.  Additionally, should someone give me a compliment for a success, I tend to think that it was God that really guided me through it and that I in fact, did very little.  On the other hand, when I struggle, fall short of a goal, or make someone else upset, I think it’s all my fault, rather than letting God have a piece of that too – understanding that challenge was part of His plan for me as well.

I’m accused pretty often of being too hard on myself.  It’s seems like a funny character fault in Western society that is teeming with self-help books and a Jewish culture that emphasizes self-improvement and doing good deeds.  But a lot of mussar, or self-improvement texts are not designed for someone like me, or women in particular, who tend to fall more often into the self-critical category than self-aggrandizing.  If mussar is depressing rather than helpful or uplifting – stay away, I’ve been advised.

The Kotzker Rebbe taught that a person should have a piece of paper in each side pocket. On one should be written, “The world was created (just) for me”. On the other, “I am (originated from only) dust and ashes”. So the key is knowing which piece of paper to take out!

There is another trap that I fall into, and that is to compare myself to others.  That is when it is time to recall a  story about Rav Zushya, an early Chassidic master. He was on his deathbed, and a number of students were there to share his final moments. Rav Zushya told them that he was scared, afraid even, of God’s final justice. “I am not afraid that God will ask me, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you like Abraham?’ but rather, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you a Moses?’ I can answer Him, ‘But you didn’t make me with the abilities of an Abraham or Moses.’ But what if God asks, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you a Zushya?’ What can I answer?”

Being better than someone else is a never-ending challenge, because we have incomplete information.  I don’t really know what someone else’s journey is all about!  I find that as I overcome my own challenges, new ones, and usually more complex ones, crop up.  Being my best self is enough of a game of Whack-a-Mole.

So my blessing to you readers is that you should have the proper intuition to know which piece of paper to take out when, to reach your potential.


ilene

Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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