Judaism comes to my garden (once again)

When I was a student in a Jewish day school in Baltimore, about a million years ago, we had a sixth grade teacher, whom I’ll call Rabbi P, who required us to memorize verses from Pirkei Avot (when he wasn’t busy hurling sacred books at chatty children.)

I’m a strong believer in the value of memorization. I know it’s old-school, but as someone who still remembers my lines from my 1973 Kindergarten play about neighborhoods, I recognize that there is a window in time when children can absorb enormous amounts of information with ease, and even with some sort of joy, and they will consider this cache, if carefully selected, a gift later in life. I’m still indebted to Morah Miriam, my fifth grade teacher who taught me songs to memorize the names of every Torah portion, every book in Tanach, and every book of the Mishna. (I guess I’ve forgiven her for telling us on Yom Hashoah to “never make friends with the goyim,” though perhaps she wouldn’t have fogiven me for going and marrying one.) And I really am indebted to Rabbi P, especially since he never hit me with a chumash.

I’m not sure how Rabbi P selected which verses he wanted us to commit to memory. There was one passage that seemed an especially strange choice for a group of ten year olds – here’s an excerpt.

 ???? ???? – ???? ?????: ???? ??? ????? – ????? ??? ??? ??????:  

Where did you come from? From a putrid drop. Where you are going–to a place of dust, maggots and worms…..

Perhaps he was trying to instill some humility, or terror, in the students who drove him crazy, day after day. I know it scared me silly. But recently, working in our garden, I thought of that mishnah again. I was turning the compost heap, surely a place of dust and worms. (I don’t think I saw any maggots.)
Then I looked over at my garden, which has been nourished exclusively from the same compost. And I saw this:

and this
And suddenly, that mishnah didn’t seem so terrifying anymore. Thanks, Rabbi P.

Shabbat Shalom.
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posted June 4, 2010 at 1:15 pm

What a beautiful metaphor for the garden circle of life! I linked to you in my spiritual gardening blog, thanks for sharing! Shabbat shalom to you too.

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posted June 4, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Can you share the songs to memorize the names of every Torah portion, every book in Tanach, and every book of the Mishna? Songs are the easiest ways for us to memorize anything.

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posted June 5, 2010 at 12:08 pm

What a great vignette, Amy. I tend to say when going to my garden that I’m going to synagogue because my garden is the place outside of my home where I feel most deeply spiritually connected. When I’m out there, there’s nothing between me and G-d except air and blue sky, so there’s nothing standing in my way of communicating with G-d. And when I see the wonderful things growing up all around me, I further realize G-d’s power. Thanks for sharing your unique and humorous perspective.

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Inanna Baskan

posted June 5, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Memory is a gift. The fact that we can “look it up” is irrelevant. Having it stored in the mind means that unlikely elements will bump up against each other chemically and produce something totally new. That is where creativity comes from. So memorize as much as you can, and require your children and your students to memorize too, although passages from Bible and Shakespeare and Talmud and even the periodic table or the Latin roots of unfamiliar English words or the fine points of Hebrew grammar or the structure of the human genome are all better choices than the lines from a kindergarten play.

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posted June 5, 2010 at 11:55 pm

This is the best explanation of this putrid verse I have heard. You should run a Jewish Food Conference in western Mass. All the rabbinical students would come in for it and learn a lot from you.

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Jennifer in MamaLand

posted June 6, 2010 at 12:09 am

Yay! I love my compost pile (click the link to see it). And yes, tending it – and the rest of the garden – does feel like a very Jewish activity.
It says in Pirkei Avot, “If someone is walking on the road and reviewing the Torah he has learned, and breaks off his study to say, “How lovely is that tree; how beautiful is this meadow,” Scripture regards him as though guilty to pay with his life.”
I recently read that it doesn’t mean it’s BAD to look at the trees and whatnot. It means you must see the trees and meadows as PART of Torah study, as part of the unbelievably amazing world God has made.
Thanks for this!

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posted June 6, 2010 at 12:59 pm

did your husband convert..and are u raising your kids with a jewish environment..a day school??

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posted June 6, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Ali, no my husband did not convert. Our daughters are Jewish (he is a devout atheist). One attends day school and one will begin next year.

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posted July 30, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I think, you will find the correct decision. Do not despair.

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posted August 22, 2010 at 11:13 am

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