Some time ago I was sitting in my garden when I noticed a new plant unexpectedly peeking above the black soil of one of my wooden half-barrels. The green folds of the leaves protruded slightly through the surface of the dirt like two hands clasped in prayer. Just weeks earlier I had dug out that barrel with my trowel, taking out various flowers that had bloomed in the fall. I wanted the barrel to lie fallow so I could prepare it for tomatoes. My well thought out plan was to save my coffee grounds from the next few weeks and amend the soil with the nitrogen that coffee carries, yet here in the barrel were two green shoots among the sodden black loam.
“What do I do with you?” I thought. “I don’t know you.” “Whatever could you be?”
The word “weed” in gardening is best defined as a plant that is growing where it is not wanted. It’s a euphemism, really. Any plant can be a weed, even a rose is a weed if it’s growing in place meant for carrots or cactus. What defines a weed is in the mind of the gardener. What weeds represent is both eruption and disruption. Eruption in the sense that what grows comes seemingly out of nowhere, unplanned. Disruption because what the gardner wants or intends for their little plot of land is somehow mocked by the very presence of an unwanted guest.
Eruption and disruption both embody the idea of a weed, and the same is true for everything part of our lives.
We cultivate everything in our lives, from the way we look to the vision of our future. We make plans, we furrow, we plant, we separate, we control. We expect good grades so we can get a good job. We work hard so we can save for a family and a home. Everything we do in life has an element of cultivation, but then life erupts. We lose a job. We get sick. The world changes around us. Life’s eruptions are terrifying mostly because they remind us of how vulnerable we are, but also because it makes us change our plans. Both our sense of self and our sense of the future shifts unto some unknown course.
When life erupts it’s surprising, when life disrupts it’s painful.
Things right now, and maybe forever, are not the same as they used to be. Graduations, proms, early summer getaways — all these milestones and the time we took to dream about them feel stolen from us because of the pandemic. For those who won’t get to gather at a ceremony or put on a nice dress to go to the dance, or get a hug from a professor after years of work -those losses are real. The grief you might feel is real because the moment you dreamed of has passed away. Disruption is very painful.
This week we begin a new book of the Torah called Bamidbar, or Numbers. It’s the grittiest book in the Torah because it focuses on the possibility of disruption and the darker side of life. Bamidbar traces the wanderings of the people of Israel for thirty-eight years as they move from place to place in the desert. Wandering was never the plan. God expected the people to come out of Egypt and arrive at Sinai and, with some planning, make their way home to Canaan. That was the scheme God set out for Moses back at the burning bush in Exodus. Get them out, bring them to Sinai, send them home, but because of a mixture of fear (Num. 13:31), selfishness (Num. 11:10), and the rebellious need for power (Num. 16:1), the generation that saw the splitting of the sea and the fire upon God’s mountain will not be able to set foot on the sacred soil. The Book of Bamidbar teaches us that even God’s plans can be disrupted.
The Hasidic Master, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, also known by the title of his book, Netivot Shalom, writes that the Book of Bamidbar begins with revelation. “The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness (Heb. bamidbar) of Sinai.” (Num. 1:1) Notice, he writes, “that God appears not on the Mountain of Sinai, but in the wilderness.” In Numbers, God comes off the mountain. Here Netivot Shalom remarks that each of us, if we release our inner selves to become like the wilderness and make ourselves open, displacing our sense of the future for a moment, only then can we hear God’s voice speaking to us. That is, if we move our focus, when we are ready, from the disruption of our lives to the openness of the path before us, perhaps something new might grow.
What he is asking of us, and perhaps what the Torah is hinting at in this book, is to move from focusing on the disruption of life to the appreciation of eruption in life. That is, from the death of the life not lived, to the life that can grow before us in this very moment. If you lock your mind into a future that will never occur, then you will miss out on the gifts presented to you now. The lifelong journey of Judaism is one of constant disruption and eruption. We make plans and God laughs, not at us but with us — for as one future fades, it is the holy present that comes into focus.
From disruption to eruption.
As we continue in our evolving lockdown because of COVID-19, maybe it’s time to shift from the disruptive future to the eruptive present. What is coming up? What new relationship is born? What new sense of self is emerging for you? What can a faded future teach you about the precious present?
I decided to let it grow, this little weed. “Well, no tomatoes this year,” I thought. And did it grow. Broad leaves sprouted and piled upon each other in large heaps surrounding a central core. The seedling doubled in size and then doubled again. It took over the entire barrel with leaves sagging over the sides of the barrel. Eventually a stalk rose in the middle, yielding brilliant purple flowers with black and white speckled centers. It’s called foxglove, and while I won’t be eating it or making tea out of it (it can be poisonous) I would never have seen its beauty if I plucked it on the first day. When we let ourselves be open to the present and let go of a future that we know is not possible, what erupts can be beautiful.
Stay home, stay safe, stay healthy and stay loving.