Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


I moved back into my lovely East Village apartment this week, after almost a year away. The apartment was clean and in great shape but the little garden in the back – a rare luxury (thank you Steven!) – was a messy mini jungle overgrown with weeds and plants. It’s pretty in a way but I wanted to plant some herbs and flowers. Enter: demolition.

For over an hour, armed with a pair of garden scissors and a small machete-like knife that I got at the hardware store next door, I played gardener, demolishing most of the 8 foot tall hydrangea bushes and some of their unfortunate neighbors. Remorse followed. I guess one can call this ‘pruning,’ but as I was filling large garbage bags with clipped green branches I still couldn’t escape the sense of violence – and the eerie satisfaction I got from it. It felt good to physically tear up the garden, to clear out room for small plants, to clean up the place. But it also felt like I was violating this quiet, messy eco-system, this sample of nature-as-is in favor of some vision of what a garden ‘needs to look like.’ Who am I to mess with Mother Nature’s horticultural choices?

M. rolls her eyes and laughs at me when she comes to visit that afternoon and hears my pangs of remorse. She is an experienced gardener and environmental activist, with a big mouth, and calls me a moron and goes on a tirade about how we need to let go of some things in our lives in order to make room for the new, even when what we let go may be precious, or beautiful, like blue hydrangeas. Even if it feels violent. Harsh times require harsh measures. Pruning is prudent, etc...

Fine. Old houses get demolished to make room for taller ones, parks are replaced by faster highways and files get deleted on hard drives to accommodate new data – I get it. Progress. But when and where do these acts of destruction/clearing/shedding get incorporated into the greedy tireless race for ‘new and improved’? When and how do the desires for improvement get implemented as acts of violence or terror? Where’s the fine line?

I know. BIG leap from an afternoon in the garden to a discourse on cosmic evil and the reasons for violence in our world of so little tolerance for mini jungles of all types; a world torn by conflicting desires and visions of order, too often interrupted by weapons far more dangerous than garden scissors. But it’s not that great a leap. As I sit in the garden later that day, after M. leaves, I flip through the pages of the Bible that has traveled back with me from Jerusalem and I open to this week’s portion, Re’eh, and there, sadly, discover the mutilation of fresh trees in the service of religion. It is a disturbing paragraph that chronicles yet another dry memo in the horrific historical battle between nature and culture, and between different forms of religions and value systems.

The context is still the last speech of Moses, complete with instructions and warnings to the People of Israel on their route to the Promised Land. The big fear is that the people will be seduced by the local pagan religions and turn away from worshipping YHWA. This is not only a theological concern – it is also financial. Later in these chapters the law is laid down plainly – worship is only allowed in Central Headquarters – Jerusalem (as it will be later named) and all gifts, sacrifices and tithes are to go there and only there: one God, in one location. As local worship gets banned in favor of a centralized system, all local deities, altars and sacred spots are to be demolished. Here’s how:

"You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site."
(Dvarim 12:2-3)

Ouch. Makes me think about the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas, the American Colonists melting down George III’s statues into bullets, and Neo Nazis desecrating Jewish cemeteries all over Europe. There are many other examples, equally disturbing in their relation to this Biblical ruling. It is uncomfortable to read and to acknowledge as yet another part of our history – remote and yet so contemporary. (how far the distance from burning books and defacing monuments to the actual shooting of ‘other’ people?)

I can only deal with this text using M’s gardening logic, applying a metaphoric, psychological reading to this painful historical fragment, most likely chronicling actual events. Moses wants his people to be focused, united, diligent in their collective building of community and nation. The local altars, often erected under sacred trees, giant living deities, represented the past, the indigenous memory that had to be repressed in order for the new narrative to form. The altars and trees were taken as diversions, preventing the people from being present in the here and now of their new identity. In the battle between gods, values, options, isms – the winner demanded exclusivity.

Demolish the desires, destroy the distractions – focus on what really matters to your wellbeing – is, in some ultra humanistic midrashic way – what Moses may be saying here. Less leads to more.

I know it’s a stretch. No point in justifying this or other Biblical text when we read laws that once reflected violent human values, interpreted verbatim, and still are by so many today. But, as I sit in my little garden now, noting that the mint is doing fine, and the Jasmine bush (I had to plant one with Jerusalem in mind) is blossoming already, and that new flowers are coming out in the much smaller Hydrangea bush – I think about demolition in the service of higher causes and hope that my violent interruption to this garden, under this luxuriant tree, is blessed by Mother Nature herself.

(Next demolition projects: files on my virtual desktop and 8 extra pounds.)


  1. Amichai, I love the stretch you made. Demolishing the desires, destroying the distractions, focusing on what really matters to my wellbeing--this resonates deeply with me right now.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.

  2. Amichai: "DITTO" to Jake's words!!
    WOW, those words are powerful. We do need to DEMOLISH and DESTROY in order to FOCUS on what REALLY matters. This is how in real life we end up acting especially when we need to be present HERE and NOW.
    Thanks for the powerful reminder.

  3. There is something timely about this with the coming of fall-- Nature seems to let go of the old herself each year. Maybe we need to do the same...

  4. amazing because that what i have been doing suddenly for the last three days in my garden in goa, firsttime in a few YEARS- and feeling same like you=-= amazing to read this now helps me feel CONNECTED shabbbat shalom

  5. Amichai-thanks for the Torah. In feeling the moral choices inherent in gardening you are not alone. Pruning is pruden t becaus eit actually helps the plant, much like we cut our nails or hair,not only for neatness but to maintain growth. Weeding is another matter as we are killing an entire plant in favor of the one we seek to grow. Must something always die for another to live?
    I've found some solace in heavily mulching to keep weed growth down,ergo less moral dilema-a layer of black plastic with some mulch above is aesthetic and lets almost no weed thru. Lets leave the morality of using plastic for another Parsha...
    But a much better solution is to embrace edible and medicinal weeds and use them. I acdtually grow some weeds,like stinging nettle,to eat as they are higher in iron than spinach. Most gardens,even city ones or city vacant lots for that matter, are full of purslane,wood sorrel, dandelion , lambs quarter(better know as pigweed but afterall this is a Torah discussion) and plantain. The first three are delicious raw in salds, lambs quarter can be eaten raw in salads but cooked like spinach it tastes even better, and plantain leaves chewede a bit are excellent for stopping bleeding antiseptic included as well as stopping itching from insect bites.Weeds are the self made people of the plant world,fighting to survive,unlike our pampered(watered,fertilized,pruned,massaged garden plants)and hence a lesser amount provides much more nutrition. Gardeners throw away a treasure of delicious and nutritional food every time they weed! Eat yor weeds and the Torah will love you!!!!! Love you for having the moral dilemma regardless of the outcome-Chuck

  6. Amichai....I apprecitate your work, but it would have been better if the picture can say directly abt demolition......


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