Thursday, January 17, 2013


At the moment, I'm looking at an orchid that sits on the only windowsill in our home. The plant was given to us when we moved in, and it has bloomed faithfully every several months; judging from the plumpness of three closed flowers currently adorning its branches, it is maybe two or three days away from blooming yet again. It has slim company - a pot of mint and aravah branches I am nursing along for a friend. Not much room on this windowsill.

Elsewhere in the house, a gloxinia is hibernating. A cactus I've owned for 23 years is probably alive, although I must admit it's hard to tell. A terrarium lives in a fog. Outside, the ground of a postage stamp backyard contains more than fifty plants I have buried in the rented soil.

I enjoy gardening, but I'm not sure why. Not that it matters much on a rented plot in a shoehorned development in a cold climate, where the chance to really create a garden is fairly limited, but I still think about the day when I'll have more of an opportunity for this sort of growth.

Part of it, of course, is the aesthetic beauty of the plants as they grow. In our home in Allentown, we created a beautiful perennial garden in front of the house, and we kept all sorts of plants in different parts of the backyard. This wasn't exactly a cultivated beauty - in some sense it resembled what happens when I go the supermarket without a perfectly defined list of items to buy. Some purple here, some red there, grasses here, bulbs there, and a motley arrangement of vegetables. Blueberry bush. Aravah bushes. Mint. Horseradish. Oakleaf hydrangea. Impulse purchases galore. But yes, they were attractive to the eye, or to my eye at any rate. Colors and textures and curving silhouettes...

Part of it was the gratification of seeing a result to my labors. I was never that good about fertilizing the soil, but I did the rest of it, from mulch to weeding to watering, and it paid off. Who wouldn't feel satisfaction at crocuses poking up from the soil, or berries emerging on a branch? Certainly, the plants were doomed to an ultimate death, but as Rabbi Akiva said, we celebrate at the time of celebration, and at that moment the effort is worthwhile, more than justified.

And, of course, one could connect this gardening to Torah sources and the redeeming value of working the soil and producing with one's hands. Adam and Chavah. Kayin and Hevel. Noach. Lemech's kids. The sin of the Tower of Bavel, per Ibn Ezra, was a desire to leave the land and move to the city.

And then those first, wonderfully agrarian Hebrews. Ever since rural Avraham declared his suspicion of those big-city Egyptians, the Jew has not trusted a life apart from the soil. Even in our most urban days, even in the beis medrash and synagogue, we understood where the Jew's true display of emunah [Shabbat 31a] was. We knew that Seder Zeraim was calling us, with its myriad complex laws, its kilayim and tithes and offerings and so on, of which much more should be written here. [Note: The suspicion of city life existed beyond the beis medrash. Many Jews who would never crack open a sefer agreed with the patronizing 18th century Europeans who said the children of Israel could become civilized if only we were trained properly; our blight had come from centuries of enforced urban life. Was this only out of desire to ingratiate ourselves with the Europeans? Or was it ideological, born in a yearning for the land?]

But I suspect the greatest benefit of gardening for me, back when I really did it, was the enforced distraction. You can't properly tend plants if you are constantly looking at your watch. Or, at least, I couldn't. I needed to detach from everything else, and "be the garden". I tend to get caught up in things, and having a cause that pulled me away from those things - and that demanded pulling away at regular intervals - was good for me. Clears the head, clears the heart, not a bad thing after a week of funerals or classes or whatever. One can accomplish the effect with a daf of gemara, of course, and that's another option, but one needs more than one way to do it.

Nothing deeper than that here; I'm just looking at the orchid, waiting for it to bloom.


  1. Because of our long exile we often forget that ours is a very agricultural religion. Not for nothing is 1/6 of the Shas about horticulture.

  2. My father A"H got real enjoyment from gardening (flowers and sometimes vegetables) in our Staten Island backyards (2 successive houses) for many decades. After I grew up and moved out, he set up some warming lamps in my former bedroom where he kept potted plants over the winter to be planted later in the spring. I believe he wanted to enter Cornell U's ag school in the 1930's but the Depression made that unaffordable.

  3. I found more info on lamps for plants; it looks like they mimic sunlight to help plants grow indoors.

  4. I've had the same experience in the garden, and I'd say it's quite different from the place one might go while focusing on daf yomi. Focusing on anything with sufficient attention can indeed crowd out the daily minutiae, and that's important and necessary, but the daf requires the intellect to remain active and engaged, even primary. In the garden, especially if one is weeding or deadheading or something similar, one can let the intellect take a break as well. It's not the only place that can happen, of course, but it is one of them. Stepping outside one's otherwise ceaseless stream of thought is incredibly restorative.

  5. Garnel-

    Thanks. Lamps not a great option here, but I appreciate the research.

    Very much agreed.

  6. This is a beautiful post, I wish I could enjoy gardening this time of year. Makes me feel very alive.

  7. That's why gardening is so therapeutic, you have to drop everything and "be the garden."