As I went through my undergraduate and graduate school years, I cobbled together several different part-time jobs. One of my favourites was teaching Jewish music at weekend religious schools. This time of year, Tu b’Shevat (aka the New Year of Trees), songs were part of the lesson plan. Often, the kids I taught were just learning Hebrew for the first time, so I taught in English, too. One of my all-time hits was “The Garden Song,” which started with “Inch by inch, row by row, I’m gonna make this garden grow. All it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground.” My second chart-topper was “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds, won’t you stop and try to see how beautiful they are?”
Now, as I write this, I feel transported to a warm, sunny day in my garden, which is good, because it was -30°C with the windchill when I walked my dog in Winnipeg this morning! It’s good to be in touch with both the long-term hopes and dreams of summer and the realities of where we are. Holding that paradox, of both frostbite weather and sunny heat at once, is a great metaphor for where many of us are these days.
As a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, I’ve been in knots over the unrest “down south” and the U.S. presidential transition. As well, I’m worried about the pandemic and about how poorly vaccine roll out has gone so far in Manitoba, and in Canada overall. I’m both thrilled to hear that all my children’s grandparents have gotten their first vaccine shot in the States, and also so sad to know that our local “adopted” Manitoba grandparents, both over 80, have no idea when they’ll get theirs.
Many people who have been sick with COVID-19 have struggled with challenging effects afterwards, including significant mental health issues. The anxiety and mortality struggles are pretty serious concerns for many of us, even if we haven’t gotten sick. One way my household has succeeded in coping is in burrowing in at home – into learning, good books, art and other DIY projects, building Lego and cooking. Everyone here, from age 9 and up, has kept busy with work and learning. We try to keep positive things in mind as much as we can.
I’ve been thinking about all of this, as I’ve considered what my plans are for the next days, months and even the year. In early January, I celebrated a birthday and the one-year anniversary of starting to study Daf Yomi, a page of Talmud a day. I am proud of finding the time to do this, however brief and poor my attention span may be sometimes. While I struggled with finding good (quick) resources for study, I found an Instagram page, posted by a rabbi, which seemed to summarize each page of study.
Hurray! I thought, I can review this in a glance while I help my kids with remote school lessons. Of course, anything that is in my Instagram feed has to then be kid-safe. Imagine my surprise when my account dumped two Daf Yomi posts with very scary images at me. One showed a person with a plastic bag over her head, struggling to breathe. The other showed someone’s hands, coated and dripping with blood.
Normally, I would simply unfollow this kind of thing without comment. However, these posts about Talmud were written by a rabbi, so I messaged her. “Hey!” I said, “I am so pleased to be doing Daf Yomi. I followed your posts, but I have to unfollow. These images on Tractate Pesachim 57 & 59 are too graphic. I don’t want my kids to see them.”
I got a response that left me, well, reminded that rabbis are just people, and that some of them may miss the mark at times. It was a “sorry to offend” kind of message. She indicated that she was a visual learner, that these posts were meant for those over 18 and that, to her, these seemed essential as an artist/interpreter, and she was guessing others felt the same. While she congratulated me on taking on Talmud study, I was also “othered,” as she, an artist, felt that dedicated followers would prefer this gory imagery in their social media feed.
I was disappointed. Although I am way past age 18, I am choosing, over and over, to focus on what I can gain positively from the talmudic text, even during a hard time. The talmudic rabbis, in parsing what had happened in Temple sacrifice, were trying to understand ritual events that had occurred a long time before. It was a disruptive period in history. Things weren’t stable. In fact, they weren’t actually doing sacrifices or actively harming people who didn’t observe properly. They were ironing out Jewish law for centuries to come, by confronting the past and figuring out the future through discussion, debate and study.
They did this by examining one small thing at a time. Much like the “Inchworm” song, Jewish rabbinic tradition teaches us to examine what is in front of us and to find solutions to challenges. I am distraught when I have to “hold” overwhelming images of rioting in the U.S. Capitol, the pandemic illness and deaths, and even a gory Instagram feed in my mind. Instead, I’m choosing a different path. It’s one that focuses on the next kids’ snack and meal, the next dog walk, and the next time I pick up the warm handknit mitts from the radiator as I face a cold morning outside. Inch by inch, row by row, we will get to sunny days in the garden ahead.
Sometimes, we do best when we embrace the ritual of “one thing at a time.” It’s one wintertime walk and, even, to knit each stitch as it presents itself on the needle to make more mittens. We’ve got a lot on our plate these days. Even so, we must eat only one bite at a time. It’s a metaphor and a paradox that the talmudic rabbis knew well. It might be a cliché but, for us, it also works.
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.