Recently, I bought a tangerine. It was an accident, really. I didn’t mean to buy a tangerine. I meant to buy an orange. They look pretty similar, especially when you’re in a rush and you know you just need to grab one last thing before the check out line. It wasn’t until I got home and put the rest of my groceries away that I even noticed what I had bought. I picked up the would-be-orange from my grocery bag only to notice the blue and orange sticker attached to the peel which distinctly read, “Tangerine.” I immediately thought of the band, The Flaming Lips, and their 1993 hit “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which describes, among other bizarre humans, a woman who dyes her hair using tangerines. While I briefly considered following suit, I had a different realization. Tangerines are like oranges, only a little bit different.
A botanist or horticulturist or chef might disagree with me on this one, but I think for most people who are not deeply immersed in the intricacies and nuances of citrus, tangerines and oranges are pretty similar. The differences are slight, but noticeable if you pay attention. It’s basically the opposite of comparing apples and oranges; it’s comparing tangerines and oranges. As I realized this, I began to think about starting the new Jewish year, 5774. 5774 is, at quick glance, pretty similar to 5773. Visually, the digits are similar. The temporal space between them is miniscule. And in terms of the world around us, the world is still pretty similar on the whole. That is not to say that this year has been an insignificant one in terms of the unfolding events of our globe, quite the contrary, but from a perspective that reminds us that the earth is 5774 years old (and quite older by some accounts), this year is not even a drop in the bucket. And our lives within that not-even-a-drop: even tinier. As I learned from watching the cartoon Animaniacs as a child, “It’s a great big universe/And we’re all really puny/We’re just tiny little specks/About the size of Mickey Rooney.” I find it humbling and comforting to know that I am a “tiny little speck” amongst the vastness of history and among the humans seeking freedom and spiritual dignity this year.
The word for “year” in Hebrew is shanah/שנה. This three letter root also has two other meanings. To repeat. And to change. To change. And to repeat. Both of these concepts are held simultaneously within a year. This too I find comforting. As I think about my teshuvah, about my repentance from this year, about how I want to grow in this coming year, I know that the year will be filled with changes and repetitions. I know that I will still be striving towards patience and giving others the benefit of the doubt. I know that I will be able to strive towards these goals differently with more resources and insight than I had the previous year. In this coming year, in 5774, not so different from 5773, I will change and I will repeat. I do not have to change entirely, suddenly arriving at a new, better version of me. My growth is gradual, filled with the steady repetition of songs from my childhood and teenage years. I will no longer be an orange, but a tangerine. Not an apple. Not radical transformation, but the slow, gentle, humbling work of loving God, loving myself, and loving others. A year of knowing the truth of Genesis 21:22, which we read on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, “God is with you in all that you do.”
Maybe next year, I will be a tangelo, but for now, I am happy to be a tangerine, accompanied by God in all that I do.
Photo courtesy of TQTran, via Flickr.