Monthly Archives: April 2021

On the Porch

Immediately after open-heart surgery, my first cardiac rehab assignment was to stand up. I wasn’t allowed to use my arms to prop myself up from my seat. I had to rock back and forth, building momentum to carry me into an upright stance. It wasn’t fun, but at least I got my body moving through space.

During those early weeks of recovery, the doctor’s orders were clear and strict: no carrying anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Don’t overdo it. Get lots of sleep. I was an obedient patient. The days were long and arduous; just doing the simplest things pooped me out. It often felt as though I were living my life in slow motion.

I spent a lot of rehab time sitting on the front porch, looking at people walking by. There were few cars on our street in those days, which isn’t a busy thoroughfare to begin with. As I sat there, I also looked at my garden, slowly making its way back to life.  My eyes were drawn, reluctantly, to a clump of shrubs I’d planted 15 years ago. They were slowly taking over the valuable real estate of my garden, blocking flowers from view, swallowing up the nutrients from other perennials.

Six weeks following surgery, my doctor allowed me to start lifting things. The world around me was upside down, but I felt my strength slowly returning as my body healed. The world was coming back into focus. I looked at those overgrown bushes that I had planted with my own two hands. I had watered them, nurtured them. But now, I realized, it was time to uproot them.

Before I followed through, I wondered. Was it ok to take something I had planted and just get rid of it??  I could just leave it there. What the heck, I thought. Let it be and build the garden around these bushes. No. It was not time for the easy way.

So I walked over to the clump of bushes and started to pull. I had foolishly expected they would come up like a flower or a weed. But as I was to learn, they had rooted themselves deep into the soil. Additionally, they had combined their root systems to become stronger and more resilient. The gardening chore became my cardio rehab. I pulled roots out of the ground, slowly clearing the space, pulling, prying, using a pitchfork and a hoe and a garden saw and a rake and loppers and so forth.

It took me 15 hours of slow, sweat labor to complete my landscaping project. I was exhausted but exultant. I had not succumbed to the status quo. I did not take the path of least resistance. I had a vision, and I made it come to pass.

This experience in my garden last year helped lift my spirits. I was able to do something with a newly plumbed heart and felt terrific doing it. But it’s more than just the exertion that meant something to me. It was, I realized, a Zen activity, a teaching moment. In Ecclesiastes 3, we read that there’s a time for everything: a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to plant, and a time to uproot that which has been planted.

The metaphor is compelling right now as we determine what was and what will be. It’s not like the High Holy Day liturgy, which declares that it is God who decides who shall live and who shall die. No, this is a time for human decisions, our decisions, as to who we will become. What will we abandon? What ways are gone? What new ways are already taking root? What have we learned during this past year of loss and upheaval? What will we choose to remember? What will we choose to forget?

A year has passed, and I look at my garden transformed, enlarged. It is the same earth, but more beautiful than ever. The sweat equity was worth it. It always is when the time comes for change.

“When we get to the end…”

In Stage Fright, one of The Band’s best songs ever, Robbie Robertson tremulously sings about the angst of performing in front of tens of thousands of people. He describes the fear, the physical pain, the dizzying panic that hovers close by. Yet, he declares, “When we get to the end/he wants to start all over again.” Around and around we go…

I was humming the melody to Stage Fright a few days ago. Sometimes a song starts playing in my auditory cortex. I have no idea why. But surely there are reasons… maybe I heard it in the background while on Zoom. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been going to the deep tracks of Passover this year, thinking about themes and paradoxes in the story and the impact they make.

A particular puzzle has to do with the very end of the Seder. I know that very few people make it to the end of their home seder. It’s tough to convince people with lots of wine, food, and dessert in them to return to the Haggadah. But if you do get there, you know that the last thing we do is sing Next Year in Jerusalem!

The message is more than a little ironic. We’ve just finished a long seder. We’ve learned together, feasted together, opened up our hearts and our minds to a collective memory of bondage and degradation. The celebration is all about one truth. We were slaves and suffered tremendously. We journeyed far. And we made it! Avadim hayinu, ata b’nei horin! Once we were slaves, and now we are free. This is not ambiguous. There is nothing opaque about the meaning of the moment.

And yet… when we get to the end, he wants to start all over again. What do you mean, next year in Jerusalem? Aren’t we done? Haven’t we accomplished what we set out to do?

Perhaps Jewish life is summed up in the cyclical nature of our rituals. We do the same things every year at the same time, acknowledging the flow of time and season. We get to the end of the Torah and then roll it back to the beginning. We finally conclude our Seder, realizing it’s a semicolon and not a new paragraph.

Jewish life is all about acknowledging that we are incomplete. We are never done, never allowed to lean back into our accomplishments. The river pulls us forward. There is always work to do: in the world, in our homes, in our souls. We may have arrived after the Exodus. We may rejoice in receiving the Torah. But we aren’t done. There is so much pain and incompleteness.

Listening to excerpts of the Derek Chauvin trial, I am often brought to tears. The stories about George Floyd, a hapless, loving soul, brutally murdered in a world so deformed by racism and prejudice. Is there any more evidence necessary to prove just how incomplete the world is?

Yes, we were redeemed at the Sea of Reeds. But others were not. So, our tradition teaches us, enjoy the feast, have a good time, take a few days off. But after the holiday, it’s time to start all over again. There’s work to do. We’re not in Jerusalem yet.

Shabbat Shalom