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Earth Etude for Elul 14: Turkey Tails and Teshuvah

by Rabbi Marisa Elana James

In the park near my house is a large tree that fell last winter, the trunk slowly falling into decay thanks to four seasons of sun and rain and snow and wind slowly transitioning it back to the soil. When I pass it on walks, I always stop to see what’s new on the slowly-rotting trunk, because I’ve learned that it’s just as beautiful as the living, flowering trees that surround it.

Mushrooms can grow incredibly fast, seemingly appearing from one day to the next, helping break down dead wood while taking nourishment from it. And they don’t need to be exotic to be fascinating. My current favorite mushroom is the turkey tail: a wildly-common mushroom that can be found almost anywhere, in every season, growing in layered rows on dead wood.

The big trunk in the park often has rows of turkey tails popping up, usually dark brown with lighter rings, sometimes tinged lavender to almost purple. And the landscape of the trunk changes regularly, especially after rain.

Every year, as we enter Elul and approach the new Jewish year, I notice what I’ve lost over the previous year, but it’s often harder to see where I’ve grown. Like mushrooms after a night of rain, our growth often starts invisibly, and the evidence of our growth may seem to appear out of nowhere, unexpectedly.

Renewal often depends on decay. The fall of the tree was dramatic, but the growth of the networks of turkey tails has been a slow blossoming, and for me, an unexpected blessing. We may think of teshuvah as only a returning to who and what we have been before, but we are more like trees than typewriters. We don’t reset to an original place; we grow into being fully ourselves in this season, in this year. We become who we are more deeply as we grow in new directions.

This Elul, I’m taking my cue from the turkey tails, looking inside to see what small, beautiful things are growing and being nourished by the things I’m leaving behind. This Elul, I’m going to try to visit the tree daily, to remind myself that the dead wood in my soul can nourish the new growth. And this Elul, I bless us all with the ability to appreciate small miracles that emerge to delight us after a storm.

Rabbi Marisa Elana James is Director of Social Justice Programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she was previously a college English teacher, competitive ballroom dancer, insurance broker, student pilot, bookstore manager, and professional Torah reader. Marisa and her wife, contrabassoonist and translator Barbara Ann Schmutzler, live in New York City.

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