To Plant or Not to Plant

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…
— Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

There is a time to plant and a time not to plant. Right now in the Jewish calendar year, we are not supposed to plant. During the nine days leading up to and including the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, we diminish activities of happiness and risk; this includes gardening for pleasure. The sixteenth-century code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh, writes: “As we enter the month of Av, we diminish joy...from the first of the month until the fast, we reduce business dealings, housing construction for the purpose of happiness [like a house a man might build for his son, the groom]...and refrain from planting for pleasure...” [O.H. 551:1-1].

This conclusion is a little surprising since Jeremiah, our prophet of doom and the “narrator” - if you will - of Tisha B’Av writes this in chapter 29 about Jews in exile.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’   

 The very same author who gave us the pathos of Lamentations, also advised us to conduct ourselves with dignity and practicality in exile. Marry, build homes, plant gardens and pray for your host country. In many ways, this attitude has served as a recipe for Jewish success in exile. We mourn our losses and do not believe that life in the Diaspora is our ultimate collective goal as a people yet while we are on foreign soil, it’s best not to cry. It’s best to plant.

And yet, even with this admonition, there are times when our pain is too acute for the pleasure of the garden and the sense of enduring presence that it offers. These nine days are that time.

You may wonder, if you’re not a gardener, how planting gives one pleasure. In fact, you may feel quite the opposite: that digging and plowing and sowing is a source of unnecessary physical exertion and, therefore, permitted and encouraged during this season of Jewish anguish. Freud, however, tells us that flowers “are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts.” Plants are a source of calm; the feast of the eyes is a balm for the restless soul. Cicero believed, not so much in the aesthetic of gardens as the practical sense of security one might enjoy knowing that one’s food needs can be met at home. “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

There is a spiritual side to planting and seeing the fruit of one’s labors quite literally that may also provide joy. Since so many human attempts at change and continuity fail, watching a seed ripen into a plant and then a fruit or vegetable provides a distinctive kind of happiness and sense of self-sufficiency and pride - all wrapped up in one exquisite tomato.

It is this joy that we avoid at times like this. The writer and food activist Michael Pollan, adds another dimension into our understanding of the seduction of gardening: “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.” Gardening sometimes provides us with the pleasure of believing that we have control of nature, even if it’s only a small patch, of forces that are so often intimidating and beyond human control. This, Pollen, hints, is only an illusion. We may think we control nature because our small corner of it is neatly manicured, but we are wrong in the ultimate sense.

These nine days, we reduce our happiness and minimize our risk and relinquish control to the Ultimate Gardner who gave us the very first garden to work and to watch.

Shabbat Shalom