The “Heart of the New Year 5776”
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
It is customary to begin, prior to the New Year, the challenging search for an exceptional etrog, (an etrog mehudar), for Sukkot. This year’s search is further complicated due to the prohibition of buying the current Shemita (Sabbatical) year’s produce. Fortunately, we were invited to harvest free etrogim for ourselves at the nearby Torah-observant Moshav Tirosh. Sefer HaChinuch (#244) compares the etrog to the heart of man, the dwelling place of emotional intelligence, teaching us to devote our hearts to the service of Hashem. I looked at the arduous task carefully searching for unblemished etrogim in the 90+ degree heat as a form of heart-cleansing, an act of repentance. Finding an etrog mehudar was like finding a needle in a haystack. The search symbolized to us what the Yomim Noraim represent: a search for a revitalization of life energy and a hoped for return to a more spiritual path.
As a therapist, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between what I observed firsthand as the dangers and pitfalls facing the development of the young etrog and the developmental growth of the young human, and especially Jewish, heart. I noticed at least 5 situations that invalidate an etrog: (a) when two etrogim were too close to one another, their area of contact became spoiled and deteriorated, as if to say, if someone doesn’t allow their loved one or friend sufficient space and healthy boundaries they are both bound to rot or decay both of their potentials.(b) I also noticed some beautiful fruits that were fully pierced by the long and sharp thorns of the etrog tree, rendering them unfit. This reminded me of a person who was struck by untimely tragedy or death in their lives that pierced them and either shattered or greatly compromised their energies.
(c) It was noticeable that the fruits towards the interior of the tree tended to be more desirable and
well developed than those on the exposed and vulnerable perimeter. This reminded me of the concept that in order to
thrive, a person needs to feel safe, sheltered and protected from negative friendships and societal
influences. (d) There were many etrogim with severe black dots and discolorations. This reminded
me of those souls who suffer from depression, sadness or darkness, perhaps from abuse and unhealthy secrets, which darken their world. (e) Then there were those etrogim where it was hard to tell whether they were merely dirty with a
white caked-on film that could be easily removed, or whether that film had become part of their
essence and, therefore, rendered them unfit. This made me think of children or adults who lose
touch with their spiritual identity, or maybe never really established one. One needs to see
whether they can be redeemed with a gentle washing or whether we need to acknowledge that
certain aspects of them were very damaged and would need to be healed, or at least addressed.
As a rabbi I also couldn’t help thinking of homiletical associations with all the heartbreak we felt this entire past year, which began shortly after the tragic murder of three young yeshiva students and the Gaza War. This year saw the horrific massacre in Har Nof of four (like the lulav, etrog, etc.) sainted rabbis and community leaders, coupled with the massive escalation of terror incidents in Yerushalayim, Yehuda and Shomron and violence on Har HaBayit. I associated this with (b), the piercing thorns. This year saw unprecedented hatred and anti-Semitism in Europe and in universities and campuses across the globe. I associated this with (d), the black dots and discolorations.
This year also saw the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to redefine marriage
in a way which rebels against the basic tenets of Jewish morality and faith. I associated this with (a), the two etrogim damaging themselves by their closeness, representing a union our Torah severely repudiates rather than promotes. The Supreme Court also decided this year to allow the US President and the State Department to separate Jerusalem from its identity as the capital of Israel and the EU decided to boycott products of Jerusalem, Chevron and Shechem. I associated this with (c), rendering our precious interior sites our “heartlands”—— as outside the perimeter of Israel’s boundaries and officially “detached” from the Jewish people.
Most unfathomable of all was the decision by the United States and other world powers to embrace the West’s mortal enemy, Iran, and to enrich them with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, allowing them to fuel their
incessant campaign of hatred, terror and wars of annihilation. I associated this with (e), the white caked-on film which, many have tried to whitewash in the case of Iran, but whose evil designs are the essence of their actions, not something which can be washed away! It also represented the failure to confront evil due to collective greed and moral decay.
Nevertheless, I see the string of events that has engulfed us in the last twelve months as possessing a tremendously positive and bright upside potential. We should open our hearts to the understanding that HaShem has created these incredible scenarios to demonstrate His guiding the entire world. We are being forced to confront major decisions. Hashem is stirring us and creating conflict. We must daven this Rosh Hashana with all our hearts (avoda shebalev) that these conflicts will envelop Israel’s enemies, causing them to devour each other, while we b”h, experience the shield and the protection of HaShem’s loving hand.
Our challenge is to make sure our own “etrogim” are mehudarim, i.e., to remove whatever blemishes there are in our collective hearts that are standing in the way of Jewish unity, kindness, strength and emuna.
So that Hashem will give a year of blessings and prosperity to Israel, the Jewish people, and all those
who support the ways of HaShem.
Rabbi Jay Yaacov Schwartz, LMSW, and his family live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.