Parashat Sh’mot – Heirloom Seeds, Our Ancestors, and Friendship
by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
My first seeds from the Seed Library arrived in the mail today, part of a gift membership that I had given to myself. Gift packets to my two sons arrived in their mail as well. The packet is artistic, aesthetic, and pleasing not only to the eye, but also to the heart and the soul. Every packet is designed by a different artist. Inside are heirloom seeds, in the one I received are Purple Podded Peas. These are peas that grow 5-6 feet high, have scarlet blossoms, and produce dried peas good for soups and other winter dishes. I am reminded of the scarlet runner beans my father always planted in his garden, also tall pole beans with bright flowers. They were, if my memory serves me correctly, a reminder to him of the garden of his childhood, which was critical to his family for their dinner table all year long.
This week's Torah portion, Sh'mot, begins, "These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household," and then the text goes on to list them.
We are beginning a new book of the Torah this week, and a whole new story. Up until now, in the book of Genesis, we read of the creation of the world and the personal and family stories of our ancestors, from Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, and eventually to Joseph. These were personal stories of struggle and death and survival and connection to the Creator. Now, in Exodus, the story changes. "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph." The Israelites become a people, they are enslaved by Pharaoh, driven hard by taskmasters, redeemed from bondage, experience revelation at Sinai, and wander in the desert.
What did Abraham, Rebecca, Rachel, Joseph or any of our other Biblical ancestors know of this story of enslavement, redemption, and revelation? They knew nothing. They had no idea of what the future would bring. But when the story shifts, and a new story begins in this new book, the first thing the Torah reminds us of is all of those in the last generation of the previous story. We begin by naming those who came before us. We begin by remembering our ancestors. And then the story continues.
I shared a lovely pot-luck breakfast with three Transition Wayland friends last week, and we talked seeds. We shared knowledge, dreams, plans, and hopes. We agreed to share seeds. We deepened friendships.
My new garden bed asleep for the winter
And then, today, in my mail, arrived heirloom seeds. Seeds from generations past. These will go into my garden in spring, and along with them will go memories of my father's garden in my childhood, and the knowledge of memories of my grandfather's garden in my father's childhood, along with a memory of my uncle's garden. Planting my newly expanded vegetable garden is physical, but also spiritual. I work my body, I (hopefully!) will feed my body, but I also, with every shovelful of dirt and every seed that enters the ground, nourish my soul and connect myself to all those who have gone before me, whether related or not, who worked the soil, planted the same (or different) kinds of seeds I will plant, and nourished themselves and their families from the Earth they tilled.
As Thomas Berry tells us, we need a new story, the old stories don't work any more. And as climate scientists around the world tell us, we are entering into a new story (for example), into a new era, an era of runaway climate change, of "peak everything" and beyond, and, like the characters that populate the Book of Genesis, we have no idea what the coming story will be. And so, let us name our ancestors, let us plant their seeds, let us grow friendships together with our gardens, and let us hold in our hearts the faith that if we experience again enslavement, that we will also experience again both redemption and revelation.
May the year 2013 of the Common Era bring you strength, healing, peace, and a story that nourishes your spirit and your soul.