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Earth Etude for Elul 6: I Am a Terrible Gardener

by Rabbi Megan Doherty

I am a terrible gardener. But I garden anyway.

I hate weeding. I water my plants too much, or too little.

I don’t know from fertilizer, or mulch, or those fancy cages which keep out the deer and the birds.

I live in rural Ohio, and when I look at the thriving mini-farms my neighbors create and tend, I want to throw my hands up in despair.

But I plant.

One year, my dad showed up at our house with a bunch of lumber and built raised beds in our backyard. The process was a beacon for awestruck kindergartners, who showed up with wide eyes and endless questions and were eventually allowed to ‘help’.

Our next-door neighbor brought us a truck bed full of soil.

So every spring, I select seed packets in a fit of blind optimism. I carefully follow the directions for depth and distance, giving each seed no more than its place and no less than its space.

I even start out mindfully watering. I go out in the cool magic of early morning, or the rose-gold of twilight, to offer what care I can to the thirsty potential hiding under the dirt.

But then it rains, and it throws me off my schedule. Weeds creep in, and I don’t catch them before they put down roots and decide to stay awhile. (It’s hard to argue with them – I also think this piece of land is a beautiful spot to raise a family.) I travel, for work and for fun, and no one else remembers to check on the plants.

I come home to beds that look like jungles, parched earth, and a feeling that I can’t possibly ever get back any control, or make this space more beautiful.

But then one day, in late July or early August, I wander past the vibrant overgrowth of the beds (which I have been looking away from in shame for days or weeks) and I find tomatoes. Giant cucumbers. Purple beans and sweet peas. Just waiting to be noticed and plucked from their vines.

The bounty stuns me. I am in awe of the way the peas and beans are using the weeds for scaffolding. The cucumbers looping and whirling their way over the tops of the beds and almost on to the lawn. Bright orange tomatoes smugly growing over and around the lamb’s ear and crabgrass trying to horn in on their turf.

Every year in Elul I reflect on the distance between who I am and who I aspire to be. And, in a good year, I pull back and reflect even on my aspirations. Is my heart’s focus on the shiny promotion, the dream fellowship, the glorious rows of corn my neighbor grows? Or is my soul craving a chance to shape my community, to deepen my learning and my friendships, to celebrate the miracle of food grown from sunshine, water and dirt.

I am a terrible gardener. But my garden still grows.

Rabbi Megan Doherty (she/her) is the Director of Hillel and Campus Jewish Life at Oberlin College.  She is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is a certified Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Instructor through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and is a graduate of the Hartman Institute’s Fellowship for Campus Professionals. She has an extensive background in facilitation and mediation, and is a state-certified mediator in the state of Ohio. She serves on the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and was a founding co-chair of the Reconstructionist Movement’s Israel Commission. She lives (and attempts to garden) in Oberlin, Ohio, with her partner, their daughter, and their dog.

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