Everything comes together at this time of year. We meaningfully commemorate the Exodus, dutifully begin to count the Omer and then the darkness of Yom HaShaoh slaps us in the face. And after that, this year, the next day is Earth Day. Given the state of the economy and the recent warning by the EPA that carbon dioxide emissions endanger human health, my family and I were tired of abstraction. I wanted to look these holidays in the eye, here and now. This is the story of how a Pesach in the desert inspired us to plant an indoor organic vegetable garden in our NYC apartment.
Let me begin with our departure from NYC. Tired of the endless consumption of too much food and a sleepy recitation of the haggadah, we planned this year’s Pesach in the Arizona desert. We packed matzah, maror, and a haggadah. We inserted candles into the inside pockets of our duffel bags, and arrived at the Navajo reservation on Tuesday evening. The next morning we observed Birkat Hachama in Monument Valley.
We were greeted by a pair mittens, the worshiper in a talit, as well as the bear peering through a bush. Those great rock sculptures tempted our imaginations for hours. After dwelling in the fantastical stories told by stone characters portruding from the rusty buttes we headed toward Canyon de Chelly for the first seder.
We planned for everything except the dust storms. The wind spun the dust into a thick blanket obscuring sun, breath and visibility. It wasn’t safe to remain outside.
We took shelter in the Thunderbird lodge. Then we headed for the supermarket in Chinle, a town that clearly wore the Navajo people’s strife. We had planned to cook our seder meal over an open fire. Now we had to find foods that could be prepared with a swiss army knife. We discovered some chickpeas that could be seasoned with lime, avocados for guacamole, salad ingredients, and raspberries. We laughed, commenting on how much being struck by a dust storm and scrounging for food was more like the exodus than anything we could have planned. Just as we were about to purchase our food, he appeared. You know who I mean.
A man in a cowboy hat with darker, reddish, and worn skin approached us. He asked where we were from and told us that he was a fan of Bob Dylan. Then, he asked, “Can you buy me something to eat?” We looked at each other. Our kids’ eyes grew wide, wondering, could it be? Elijah? An elderly Navajo man with a bit of alcohol on his breath? We quickly procured everything he asked for eager to perform this mitzvah. That’s when things got complicated.
Our seders were beautiful, albeit different. We missed having our loud, out-of-tune family members around the table with us. We loved the chance to really talk about what everything meant. Yet, we couldn’t get that Navajo man, his people’s story, or their reservation life out of our minds. When it was time to count the Omer we looked back on our haphazard, bricoleur first nights of Pesach as authentically wrenching. Every day was another measure of barley, and every hike into the Saguaro desert was another step back in time. We were awed by the thought of our people writing history into land. We were haunted by the legacy of the different kinds of genocide, coating the red sands of the desert, etched into the skin of our people, and maybe embedded in environmental decimation.
We understood the counting of the Omer in a new way, what Michael Pollan has called the “freedom to bother”, as explained by Leah Koenig. These Omer were the steps toward a better life, a life that would protect this planet and all of its people. We call it sustainability.
We returned home eager to manifest our sensory experiences of a Pesach in the desert. How? The image of a vegetable garden pushed against my mind and then desire for it pressed against my chest. Was it an impulse? An inspiration? We live in a NYC apartment. We have no lawn to farm. We decided to build it indoors. We collected advice , books and another book , then went to the local plant and garden shop. Antonio, the proprietor, thought our chances were fairly poor but he helped us choose clay pots, soil, and some seedlings (it was too late to plant our own seeds, except for my daughter’s Morning Glories).
This garden will be a work in progress. It will struggle. It might even fail. The gardening, however, will bring us one Omer closer to the revelation at Sinai, or to hope, or to a time when abundance doesn’t mean opulence, when the earth is our partner, when people of all race and faith share the same right to life. We didn’t explain it exactly that way to our kids who were busy checking out the plants that might one day bear beans, tomatoes, herbs of all kinds, figs, lettuce – and maybe even strawberries. The sight of all these plants framing our windows did however evoke the poetry of a Pesach in the desert.
On Tuesday morning our son burst out of his room. He scolded me for failing to transplant the chili peppers he would grow in his room. He agitatedly made me promise to do it immediately. In the other room, my daughter watered her morning glories. What was this about? I then noticed that my son was dressed in dark pants and a white shirt for his school’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah. This kids would be studying in the shadow of candles today. On either side of every journey there is life and there is death. We don’t always get to decide. Yet, every seedling is one Omer toward sustainability, and that we can choose. About to encounter remembrance and mourning, my kids also wanted to plant.