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A New Year Without the Usual Cues

My favorite thing about living in Israel was living in Jewish time. Not according to Jewish time, but actually in it.

I never needed to look at a calendar to know when Rosh Hashanah was coming; I only had to glance at the pomegranate tree in my neighbor’s yard. As the branches got heavier and the fruit inched closer to the ground, I knew we were inching toward a new year.

It was the same in late winter when the blossoming almond trees told me that Tu B’shevat was around the corner. In the spring, monstrous displays of cleaning supplies in the supermarkets informed me it was time to start pre-Passover cleaning; and when cheesecake recipes started to appear in the newspapers, it meant that Shavuot was near. All year long, the air of Jerusalem had a way of telling me where we were in Jewish time and each new cycle always started with pomegranates.

By the time they were piled high, along with the colorful variety of apples, in Machaneh Yehuda (Jerusalem’s open air market), ready to be displayed and blessed on holiday tables across the country, I knew that the new year was only days away.

In Southern California we don’t have those obvious visible cues. We depend on late summer traditions, like shopping sprees for school supplies, college students migrating back to their campuses, or big Labor Day pool parties, to remind us that the Jewish New Year is coming.
But this year, even those signs aren’t available to us.

The past five months have kept us at home, restricted our activities, and made every day run into the next. We have trudged through a long COVID-tainted summer that didn’t differ much from the spring. Even the Jewish holidays that usually act as seasonal signposts did little to break up the monotonous blur.

Passover zoomed into Shavuot, which zoomed into Tisha B’av. Many of us spent those days inside the same four walls, staring at the same laptop screen that has dominated the rest of our coronavirus-era lives. So by the time Elul (the last month of the Jewish calendar) began, we needed more than a figurative wake-up call.

Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and commentator, described the blasts of the shofar (ram’s horn) that we traditionally blow every morning of Elul as a spiritual arousal. He is quoted in the Mishneh Torah as saying, “Wake up, you sleepers, from your slumber. Examine your ways and repent!” The shofar notes we hear on Rosh Hashanah carry multiple meanings, but the daily Elul blasts are intended to inspire our soul-searching preparation for the High Holy Days.

Again, this year seems different.

This year the shofar has the more tangible purpose of physically jolting us out of our COVID stupor. It is the ultimate alarm clock. Time to get up! Time to push the re-set button, to put some spring back into our step.

This year we need Rosh Hashanah more than ever–not so much to reflect and take stock as we usually do, but to re-orient ourselves. Perhaps we need not concentrate so much on looking back over the year that has passed. After all, we know where we’ve been for half of it: staying close to home, doing our part to heal our sick world, and taking care of each other.

We have even done a good job of identifying the “silver linings” and expressing gratitude for the blessings in our lives.

This Rosh Hashanah, we should look forward. Regardless of our physical circumstances, we must set our minds on a productive year. There may still be guidelines that restrict us, but there will be new goals to achieve, new academic challenges, new professional growth, new friends to make, new good deeds to do. And there will be holidays and milestones to celebrate. Marking time with intention and purpose makes us more aware of the moment we are in, more accountable to ourselves and others, even more creative.

This Rosh Hashanah, when we take the pomegranate in our hand and imagine that it is filled with the number of seeds that matches the number of our mitzvot in the 12 months ahead, let us also imagine that the number matches the possibilities the new year holds for all of us.

Debbie Meline is the Director of the Center for Jewish Life at the Merage Jewish Community Center and a contributing writer to JLife magazine.

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