Monday, 26 September 2011
"I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies" Psalm 119:59
Often the emphasis during the harvest season is one of celebration, and rightfully so. It is, however, somewhat hard for our industrialised society to really appreciate this joy. For us vegetables, grain, fruit and meat are available all year round. Only a few generations ago, the harvest was vital to survival, a matter of life and death even. How appropriate therefore is joyous celebration. But this time of year, as the crops are brought in and the nights begin to lengthen, is also a time of accounting. Farmers and communities would assess what had grown well and what had failed. What could have been done differently and what had worked perfectly. It was a time of resolutions; what to plant for the following year, what practices to incorporate into the life of the farm and what animals to purchase. It was also a time for action; ploughing the fields to prepare them for the sowing of winter wheat. Is it any surprise therefore that the Hebrew calendar, deeply tied to agricultural cycles (of the Land of Israel) has the New Year at this time of year?
Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, takes all of the above themes and applies them to people. Celebration; thanking God for the year that was, and all the blessings bestowed. Self accounting; contemplation on conduct and behaviour over the previous year, with repentance for all that was done wrong. Resolutions for self-improvement over the coming year and finally action; expressed by extra punctiliousness in the performance of religious and moral obligations.
Perhaps it is not coincidental that our political parties have their annual conference during this autumnal season, maybe there is "something in the air" that lends itself to such events. (Although how much honest introspection and repentance for past wrongs goes on at these functions is anyone's guess!)
The Gospels have Jesus saying:
"For each tree is known by its own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth that which is evil: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh".
Our actions do testify to our true nature, especially the smallest, almost unconscious actions. For a stingey person can perform a very large, public act of charity, but when he receives a few pennies more of change than he is owed he may pocket the lot without a second thought thereby eloquently testifying to his true self. Many of us can conduct ourselves with the greatest refinement in public, giving an impression of humility, kindness and gentleness, but in the privacy of our homes speak with sharp, arrogant and hurtful words to our loved ones, again actions that more starkly reveal our true selves. This harvest season gives us ample opportunity to examine the fruits of our behaviour over the year gone by, to see if they match with the view of ourselves that we have or are aiming for. Like the farmer we can ask ourselves where and why did we go wrong, and identify how we were successful.
In honesty however I have some confusion with Jesus' words on this subject. Immediately before the verse brought above he is said to say:
"For there is no good tree that bringeth forth corrupt fruit; nor again a corrupt tree that bringeth forth good fruit."
Is this really so? If I understand the metaphor correctly (and I would appreciate correcting if I am wrong) it means that a good person does not bring forth evil deeds and an evil person does not bring forth lasting goodness. But there have certainly been good people, who have done great wrongs either in a moment of passion, out of ignorance or misguidance etc, just as there have been negative people, even some of histories tyrants, who on occasion have done kindnesses for others and left legacies of goodness from which we still benefit. But in general I agree with Jesus, we are what we do, far more that what we think or what we say. (Interestingly if that teaching of Jesus is taken literally as some denominations do, then how can they deem Judas to be wicked? For according to them his betrayal of Jesus lead to the crucifixion and resurrection which was central to the salvation of mankind. If Judas was evil then how could he have created such good fruit? But I digress.)
Even for those who do not celebrate the New Year at this time, the opportunity for new beginnings is to be found. Fresh back at work, school or the domestic routine after the summer, we can all resolve to walk again the paths of the Eternal's testimonies. To lead a life that produces a harvest of good fruits in abundance.
"I can pick cherries from a tree,
Or break the branch and let it die:
For good or ill, my hands are free.
With fingers I can soothe a brow,
Or make a fist and strike a blow,
Kindness or cruelty bestow.
Then let us now this lesson see:
Like life itself our hands can be
For evil used, or charity."
John Andrew Storey