by Rabbi Robin Damsky
I am in my favorite place at my favorite time: in the garden, in the morning, before the cars have started up, before the noise of lawnmowers and leaf blowers. The crickets are singing, the birds responding. The rising sun’s light filters through the leaves. A beginning.
It has been a tough year in the garden. An endless winter caused a late start and temperatures have been cooler than usual. A call from critter to critter that I cannot hear lets them know there is bounty on my corner. Maybe it’s because the peach tree lost its flowers in a hard spring rain, but squirrels have eaten a fair amount of my produce this year, taking a bit of a turnip and leaving the rest (yeah, I’m not surprised). Mice, too, have traversed here. I have never seen one, but my garden helpers have. Let’s not forget the birds.
At the same time, the blackberries went wild. Literally. I have cut them back and dug up new plants several times. Cucumbers abound. Arugula sings its symphony. The carrots are fat and rich. I could go on. But what hits me this year is the contrast between disappointment and satisfaction; the moments of wondering why I do this at all, pitched against the incredible feeling of gratitude when I bag up 4 bags of produce filled with veggies, fruits and herbs, for our local food pantry. When neighbors come by and tell me they’ve been feasting on the blackberries. Who wouldn’t?
This is the rhythm of the Elul and High Holy Day season, the time when we take stock. How many things did not turn out the way we wanted them to this year? How many grapes did we plant that turned sour? (Most have mine have been chomped on by critters.) What do we do? Do we become depressed or disheartened? Angry? Do we give up? Or do we plant more seeds?
Perhaps we do all of the above. Perhaps we need to feel the grief and disappointment of our losses and our failures. Perhaps we need to feel the frustration. But Elul and the High Holy Day season tell us this is only part of the process. For us to fulfill the essence of this time of year demands that we somehow find a way to get to the other side. Maybe that includes a change of project, or maybe it means finding a new way in the same project.
I sometimes think that it is all the difficulties involved in growing food that inspired our Jewish ancestry to move away from its agricultural roots. This was revived, however, with the kibbutz movement in Israel’s pioneer days, and is experiencing further revival all over the Jewish world today. As we demand more sustainable lifestyles and healthier, more affordable foods, we are revitalizing our synagogue and neighborhood networks to feed ourselves and the hungry around us.
Even as I write this I observe a critter that has found her way into the grapevines. I go over to see the culprit. A squirrel. She takes her time untangling herself from the vines, climbs up the adjacent telephone pole, and when far enough away from me to rest in safety, turns. I see the bulge in her mouth. She takes out her dessert – a nice, fat purple grape, and eats it in front of me.
Not all of our plans will fruit the way we hope or plan. But this is the season to harvest the best of our works this year, and to plan and plant again, for a fuller, richer, more bountiful harvest in the year to come.
May your Elul and the year to come be rich with new ideas and renewed energy to plant and see them bear fruit.
Robin Damsky is the rabbi of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest, IL, (wsthz.org) where in the temple garden’s first year, congregants donated over 120 pounds of produce to the hungry. Rabbi Damsky educates others while cultivating and donating her own food as well from her organic, edible landscape. She is the mother of Sarah.