It is hard to open a pomegranate. There are YouTube videos explaining how to do it, which can come in handy given the pre-eminence given to this luscious, anti-oxidant, symbolic fruit. Not only is it one of the seven species listed in the Torah as native to Israel, it is the decorative motif of the hem of Aaron the High Priest’s robe, per this week’s Torah portion. Per I Kings, pomegranates were also depicted on the top of two columns of King Solomon’s Temple and on his own crown. On the sour side (forgive the pun), there is also a question of whether it was the infamous fruit in the Garden of Eden story.
The pomegranates we are more likely to see, other than in the grocery store, are those on the etzei chaim (staves) of the Torah because it is thought that there are 613 seeds within each pomegranate, and 613 is the number of commandments. However, as noted above, in order to test that theory, one must be able to carefully open a pomegranate in such a way as to be able to count each and every seed. Not an easy task.
This in turn is symbolic of the challenge of going beyond a hardened shell into a sweet, nourishing interior. For some of us, that challenge is becoming vulnerable enough to open ourselves up to a meaningful relationship. For others, it is allowing ourselves to overcome routines and long-held beliefs in order to move forward. Still others need to overcome a challenge in order to reach their potential.
We turn to the Book of Numbers for guidance. In the midst of the wilderness, our ancestors yearned for the pomegranates they enjoyed in Egypt: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?” (Numbers 20:5). Were they mis-remembering and having a rose-colored-glasses moment? Or perhaps, this had nothing to do with food, but rather realizing that when living during the toughest times, our ancestors found the inner strength to symbolically peel back that skin and find spiritual nourishment and fortitude. This they remembered as they complained, once again, to Moses.
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to eat a fruit one hasn’t eaten for a while, and that is often … you guessed it! … a pomegranate. The next time we overcome a challenge, discover something new within ourselves or allow ourselves to open up to new relationships, consider it as a new beginning. And yes, eat a pomegranate to celebrate.
Rabbi Barbara Symons is the spiritual leader of Temple David in Monroeville. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.