The greatest triumph of our summer so far is moving 10 cubic yards of gravel. Obviously, there’s a story in this! When we moved to our present house, we knew that the landscaping (along with the plumbing, electricity, insulation, boiler and more) needed work. A previous owner created rock-filled beds in both the front and backyards. This wouldn’t have been our chosen landscaping technique, but, when we moved in, these beds had so many weeds and enough scattered rock that it would be hard to remove them, so we chose to improve on what was here already.
We found an advertisement offering an entire dump truck’s worth of (slightly used) gravel for a low price. I made bad geology jokes about “new” versus “used” gravel after that, but we called them up. Soon after, we received two huge piles of gravel in our driveway, dumped efficiently by a Hutterite colony that found they had too much on hand. We had saved cardboard and put it down to kill weeds. Then the cardboard was covered with the slightly dusty and dirty (used) gravel.
The first pile of gravel, for the front of the house, was moved by the end of May long weekend. Through trial and error, I found a successful system that one mom (me) and twins (age 12) could manage. It involved using beach sand buckets and plastic flowerpots. Each person filled up two of these, and we pretended to do weightlifting as we marched from the pile to the landscape bed, over and over. My much larger partner filled a heavy wheelbarrow full of gravel with a shovel and moved it instead. We also had help from a kind neighbour who loaned us a second garden cart, which could be operated by the twins if (and only if) they cooperated.
The backyard gravel pile took longer. It wasn’t in the way as much, not as publicly in view and, well, some of our enthusiasm for the project had worn off. We finally moved it all into the backyard by mid-July. There are, of course, people who hire landscapers using Bobcats, or workers with multiple wheelbarrows, but we did the physical labour, for free, as a team. It worked for us. As neighbours commented on the hardworking “mama and twins” and the disappearing piles, we felt proud of our efforts.
This gravel experience reminded me of other Jewish traditions around summer, with Tisha b’Av coming. This day of mourning, where we remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, has a lot of upsetting stories attached to it. One reason the rabbis give about why the Temple was destroyed is “sinat chinam” or “baseless hatred.” In other words, there was so much infighting between Jewish factions that it caused the Romans to be able to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple.
The Roman Empire was big and powerful. Probably there were many reasons its leaders wanted to conquer more territory, including Jerusalem and the Temple. Yet, the talmudic rabbis give multiple examples of how individuals’ bad behaviour resulted in the fall of the entire Jewish world. Was every single one of these painful stories of bad behaviour completely historically factual? Well, maybe not. It’s hard to say from here.
Regardless, the personal stories of hatred remain powerful thousands of years later. I thought of this stuff as we trudged back and forth with our little buckets of stones. I also nearly joked with my children about Sisyphus, forced to push his rock uphill for eternity, as they occasionally complained, but Sisyphus was Greek, not Roman, and I didn’t want to mix metaphors while hauling gravel.
What I found most interesting about moving the gravel, or cleaning up construction messes as a family, is that, after initial grumbling, we all settle down into a rhythm together. We put in the work. We all pull in the same direction and, well, with all four of us working, things get done.
This struck me as the absolute opposite of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. We are faced so often with hard tasks – as individuals, as families, in neighbourhoods or in the wider Jewish community. Not every task is physical labour either. It’s easy to fall apart and bicker over everything instead of finding a common cause and working efficiently together. However, if we search for what we have in common, including big goals, it’s amazing what we can accomplish.
Jewish people are like everyone else – we’re all very different individuals, prone to disagreement and conflict. Some of us will avoid haircuts, washing clothes, eating meat and then fast on Tisha b’Av. Others may skip those rituals altogether. Whatever we do or don’t do for Jewish holiday observance, we also might forget that we have things in common, too. If we choose to pull in the same direction to make changes about things that matter to us, we can do it.
I’m not claiming to know what matters for all of us or how to fix it, because in my mind, that, too, is part of our work. The work we have to do together, as people who care about one another, as part of a larger community. Perhaps identifying common goals is a hard part of our task, too.
This summer, my family moved gravel. It wasn’t world peace and it didn’t end homelessness or poverty. It was just a step closer to restoring our character home, which needs so much more done to it. Each time I see my family working together, wiping up endless drywall dust or moving small stones, I think about how much we accomplish and build as a family “team” and how proud I am to be a part of this one.
As community members, we’ve also got a “team” and, together, we can do so much to improve the world if we pull in the same direction. If we base our efforts in love, we can find common ground and work together. It might not bring about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (and not everybody even yearns for that) but it might make the world we live in a much better place in the meanwhile.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.