by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
My compost bins are so much more than just a place where compost happens. The area beside the three wire and wood bins is place where I often feel my father’s spirit – he was raised on a farm, and though he became a professional, gardening was in his blood, and he spent much of his spare time in his garden and his orchard.
Yet, it is not just the reminders of my father or the sense of his hovering spirit that gives meaning to my compost bins. They are symbolic of so much – which may be more the truer reason that I think of my father whenever I take out the compost.
We gardeners deposit plant food wastes, garden trimmings, and chopped up leaves into our compost bins. We let the rains come to add water, and from time to time we add a bit of soil. Then we let nature take its course, and before too long, all of that “waste” has turned into dark, crumbly humus that will enrich the soil of our garden. The leaves, the banana and orange peels, the corn husks – all this and so much more has been transformed from something seemingly useless, a by-product, into something good, useful, and enriching.
And when my heart is feeling heavy, and I sit quietly beside my compost bins, I, too, get transformed. The grief and sadness in my heart are lifted, and I find myself once again able to be useful, to myself and to others. I am able to forge ahead into new territory. My relationship with the Holy One of Blessing has deepened.
This, in essence, is what teshuvah is about, turning the excess materials of our hearts and souls – those feelings of sadness, anger, jealousy, and more – into a deeper and closer relationship with G!d – re-turning to G!d – and in the process finding ourselves enriched.
It has been, I believe, through my connection with my father, who passed away almost 40 years ago, that I have learned to grieve. But grief is complex, it is not a one-time endeavor, it is a mosaic, and it returns, often when we least expect it. It shows up in new ways in response to new losses, so that frequently throughout our lives, something new and different needs to be transformed.
Thus it is for all of us, and thus it is in life. And so, our tradition provides the vehicle of the month of Elul leading up to Rosh HaShanah and all the days of the High Holidays, to give us the opportunity to let our compost be transformed, let our grief, fear, and despair be released, and let our hearts open wider, in an ever deepening relationship with the Mystery That Is.
Compost happens. May our transformation also happen.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She is also the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network and the co-creator of Gathering in Grief: The Israel / Gaza Conflict.