Elul, my Grandma, the Tomato Hornworm, and the Talmud
Nigel Savage's letter to the community was orginally published on August 1st, 2013 on the Hazon Blog.
It’s great to be at Isabella Freedman. Adamah Farm Vacation is underway – parents and kids hanging out here and having a whale of a time. I picked some of the last of the raspberries. I learned about the minimum temperature for a compost pile to legally be certified as safe to use (over 130 degrees, for at least two weeks). And I saw a tomato hornworm for the first time and learned about the wasp larvae that eat the hornworms – and thus enable the tomatoes to grow without having pesticides sprayed on them to kill the hornworms.
And meanwhile, even as it’s the start of August and the middle of summer, it’s also about to be the start of the Hebrew month of Elul.
I’m particularly conscious of the timing because my Grandma died – ten years ago this month – on the last day of Av. Confusingly the last day of Av is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul; ie the day before the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, which is in fact the first day of Elul. That in turn is the first day we blow shofar, and thus the official start of the season of teshuva – of returning to our best selves.
So, in honor of my grandma, and lest the holidays catch you unawares, a few things to think about in the forthcoming season of teshuva.
First: I don’t want to mythologize either our grandparents, or the world in which they grew up. They were human, which is to say no less flawed than we are ourselves. I have no desire to go to a dentist of 60 years ago. I don’t wish to smoke as they smoked. I’m glad I have google maps – even though I know it lessens my already weak sense of direction. I wouldn’t have wanted to be gay when my grandparents were my age now. I don’t mythologize living through the Great Depression or the Second World War – let alone the Great War that all four of my grandparents lived through, and that my father’s father was injured fighting in.
But with these caveats, it’s worth thinking, I think, about aspects of their lives that they took for granted, that many of us need to learn or relearn, and that underpin the building of healthier and more sustainable communities. Here’s one in particular that I’ve been thinking about:
A sense of duty and obligation. I think the single greatest difference between my grandparents’ generation and mine is in relation to a sense of duty and obligation. I don’t think they were all great, and I don’t think that we’re not. And duty and obligation have their downsides. Nevertheless: there is something corrosive and damaging about how we relate to many institutions of Jewish life today (and, indeed, to many institutions in the wider society). Jewish tradition’s foundational questions are not “is this meaningful to me?” or “what will I get from it if I go to services on Rosh Hashanah?” Jewish tradition starts not with rights but with obligations; not with the search for personal meaning, but with ol malchut shamayim – the notion of taking on certain responsibilities, even certain burdens, because the tradition expects them of us.
One of my favorite parts of the traditional morning service is that, very early on, you say a bracha (a blessing) for learning Torah and then – because you’ve said the bracha and you need, as it were, to complete it – you then learn a series of Torah texts. One of them is from the Talmud, 127a:
“These are the things which someone performs and enjoys their fruits in this world, while the principal remains in the world to come: honoring one’s parents; doing acts of lovingkindness; going early to the house of study, morning and evening; welcoming guests; visiting the sick; accompanying the bride; escorting the dead; focus within prayer; and bringing peace between someone and their fellow; and the study of Torah is equal to all of these.”
So I love a whole slew of things about this text, but I want to share just two:
- I love that it doesn’t just say you have to do them. Rather the text is saying: these are really good things to do – they’re so good that you’ll be, as it were, doubly rewarded for doing them. But the obligation to do them is still, in some sense, internalized. We have a choice. Do we choose to do these things – or not?
- I love the mix. Things that divide out very clearly in contemporary life are all mixed up together here. Visiting the sick, acts of loving-kindness – those things are “social justice” – doing good by others. Focus in prayer – isn’t that about my personal spiritual journey? Making peace between two friends who’ve argued – that’s not religion, that’s being a good friend, surely? Going early to shul – whose business is it if I go early to shul or not? The rabbis of the Talmud didn’t draw such sharp distinctions.
And, even as I’m writing this, I suddenly remember something I had learned from Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l, which I’d forgotten. In reference to this text, I once heard him say: “If it’s a mitzvah to accompany the dead, how much more so is it a mitzvah to accompany those who are alive – but really struggling…”
So as the sun beats down, and the farmers pick our food for us, it’s not too early to think about Elul, and your grandparents, and the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish New Year. What are those aspects of your grandparents that you want to emulate? And which are the mitzvot that you choose to take on, or to take more seriously — not simply for what you might get from them — but for what you might give?
Her smile was genuine and warm and I think she smiled so comfortably because her facial muscles were used to smiling so genuinely for so many years. As long as I’ve known her she’s smiled at me with love and happiness. She represents to me a lot that’s good and clear in the world. I hope I manage to smile some of her smile and live some of her kindness after she goes.