Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5775
Rabbi Benjamin Weiner
This story is based on Genesis Chapter 22:
Vayehi ahar had’varim ha’eleh…
And it was after these things that Efraim woke up from his nap one Sunday afternoon. I heard his voice through the monitor on the table, by the stove, where I was eating a late lunch, having just come in from the field. And I thought: here I am, with two cherry trees still to plant this afternoon. Elise is working in Springfield, and the voice of my son, my only son, whom I love, is calling to me. I’ll have to go up and get him, and take him with me out into the field.
As I climbed the stairs, nearing the door of his room, I could hear him chattering to himself, without making out any particular words, but only the light singsong of his voice. He was waking up sweetly. When I poked my head through the doorway, hesitantly, so as not to startle him, he said, “Abba,” and greeted me with a coy smile.
With the shades drawn, his room was dark. The north side of the house can be cool and night-like even when the sun is up in the sky. Our second floor is cosmetically unfinished, but this one little room was redone—new sheetrock walls and ceiling, new paint and a large area rug—in the summer we were expecting him. We salvaged most of the furniture—a crib and changing table, shelves now holding a growing library of board and picture books, a rocking chair in the corner where Elise nurses him in the morning and at night. I sometimes sit there and rock him to sleep myself, singing Hank Williams ballads, finding the melancholy wail of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to be a good lullaby.
A couple of small, framed photographs hang on the wall, of Elise as a little girl with her father. They’re laughing in one, his arm around here as they lie back against a pillow. In the other, he fixes her with a stern look of concentration as she practices the violin. Above the rocking chair is a strange drawing my grandmother gave us, a page from an old-fashioned fairy tale about a woman who takes refuge in a secluded village from the giant who slew her family, where she lives off the produce of a small vegetable garden, which the picture shows her cultivating. On either side of the room are images of Noah’s Ark, the one a painting behind glass in a green, wooden frame, and the other a cloth wall-hanging with many pockets, each holding a pair of little stuffed animals. The room itself is a kind of ark, or refuge, a-hundred-and-fifty square feet set apart from the rest of the world, where a one-year-old child sleeps, and, on waking alone, is sheltered through his first moments of unguarded consciousness.
As I bent over the rail of the crib to lift him up, he pulled away from me, with a look of concern, and nestled back among his stuffed animals.
“What’s wrong, buddy?” I said. “You wanna stay in the crib?”
“Imma coming?” he asked.
“Sorry, bud,” I said. “Imma’s at work. Abba’s here.”
He started to cry, sad shock puckering his face as the tears began to flow.
“It’s okay, bubby. Abba’s here. We’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna go outside and plant a tree. Two trees.”
“Imma coming,” he sobbed.
At these moments, in particular, he seems to shy away from me, as if the transition from crib to father is too abrupt, and he needs first the redolence of the body he knew from the inside, that knew him from the moment of conception, that has always fed him from itself; the warmth of the womb and the breast. Abba is a world beyond, and that isn’t as safe.
I reached over the rail and lifted him up, a stuffed sheep still clenched in his right fist. His onesy was damp on the left side of his body, from the hip up past his belly.
“Pup, we have to change your diaper,” I said, and laid him down on the changing table. It didn’t take much to make him smile—a few silly faces, a nibble on the nose, puffing up my cheeks and letting him push the air out as I made a raspberry. Laughter overtaking tears like the sun shining through a light shower, as immediate and genuine as his crying–animating the delicate bones of his naked little body like the breathing of a bird. When he was changed, I put another onesy on him, and then dressed him in a pair of jeans and a warm long-sleeve shirt.
“Let’s get you some milk, bud,” I said, “and then we’re gonna go outside, while the sun’s still shining.”
“Outside,” he echoed.
It was mid-afternoon of an early spring day, the sky a chalky blue and the land still bearing an impression of the snowpack of winter, tamped down and drained of color. Winter had been cold, a compelling portrayal of an old New England winter if you didn’t know the backstory—high pressure from the warming arctic shearing off a vortex of polar air and sending it south to freeze eastern North America, while temperatures in the rest of the hemisphere remained unusually high. Still, I cherished the sights and the sensations, a lover of cold, of coming in with wind-reddened face to sit by the fire with some whiskey in my tea; of watching the snow fall steadily through the window, in the glare of the streetlight, and the hush and muffle it imposed on the state highway that runs past our front door. But the adult mind, if it pays any attention, is always doing its dance between what is, was, and will be, between here and elsewhere.
Efraim stood still, where I had set him down on the front walkway. Since he was a little baby, and I would carry him out to the porch in my arms, it has been possible to discern in him a different kind of attentiveness when he is outside, his ears perking to the rush of wind or the sound of a car whipping by on the road, his eyes widening. He is a device for registering sensations that has not yet calibrated to a steady pattern, and so remains on alert, soft and curious, pliable. He took a few steps, and stopped again.
“Moon?” he asked. “Moon?”
I showed him the moon, hanging over the spindly white birch tree in the late day sky, on the wan from Passover, getting ready to preside over the evening.
“Moon,” he said, and stood looking at it while I walked toward the barn, and the tub of water where I was soaking the root balls of the trees. Lowering his eyes, a moment later, he noticed I was no longer beside him, though only a few feet away, and he called out, “Abba.”
“Here I am, buddy,” I said, “Just over here. Getting the trees ready. You wanna come help abba plant the cherry trees?”
He hesitated, and I felt a slight twinge of impatience.
“Come on, buddy. We’ve got to get this done before dark. Can you walk over to, abba?”
He took a few steps and stopped again.
“Should I come get you?” I asked.
“Come get you,” he repeated. I walked over and hoisted him up into my arms.
“Let’s go get the wagon,” I said. “You wanna ride in the wagon?”
He brightened. “Ride in the wagon.”
Leaving the trees soaking beside the barn, I carried him past the coop, where the chickens were scratching in the yard at the bare earth, and the kitchen garden still covered in its winter mulch of straw and leaves, toward the dilapidated greenhouse that I use as a storage shed for planks and fencing, and other useful things. The wagon has two large rubber-tired wheels and a wide and deep carriage made of particleboard, with a sturdy aluminum pull-bar that sticks out a few feet from its body. It was an investment I made after a couple of seasons taught me a simple plastic wheelbarrow would not suffice for carting out the mucky straw from stalls, or ferrying the implements and materials of planting back and forth from the deep reaches of the field.
Efraim was eager to ride in it. I could feel the enthusiastic contraction of his body as we drew near, almost leaping out of my arms as I placed him down on the platform of the cart.
“Ride it,” he said.
“Okay, bud, sit down and we’ll go for a ride,” I told him.
He sat. I grasped the pull bar and angled the cart upwards. But I hadn’t counted on the reaction of his body to the angle of the cart. He couldn’t balance against the steepness. He was sitting in the middle of the cart, a considerable gap between his body and the backend, and when I tilted it up, he fell backwards, knocking his head against the platform. He started to cry.
“Oh, sweetie,” I said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” I lifted him up. He put his arms around my neck, and cried against my collarbone. I could feel no anger in him, only startled confusion, and maybe a little pain.
“Kiss it,” he cried out, through his tears. I kissed the back of his head, and he settled down.
“You wanna try again?” I asked him.
“Again,” he said.
“You’re my brave little boy,” I told him, and placed him back in the wagon, with his shoulders flush against the backend.
“Here we go,” I said. There was a flicker of fear in his eyes as the wagon jolted upwards, but his body braced, and rested securely as I pulled him across the yard to the barn. There, I took him out for a few minutes, as I loaded in the saplings, along with a plastic bucket of composted manure and another, covered tightly, full of water from the rain barrel. Then I snugged Efraim back into the wagon, between the buckets, laid the shovel across his lap, and pulled him out to the field.
It’s been my experience that as soon as you become a landowner, you want more land. On the first day I walked this property, I was elated by how long it took me to stroll from the side door of the house, through the field, and out to the narrow creek just past the edge of the wood line. It was such a large and varied space, and it was all at my disposal. Every time I’ve walked it since, I’ve been surprised by how quickly I got where I was going.
But pulling a loaded cart made the journey seem longer. As the wheels jiggled over the stubble and the uneven ground, the buckets shifted, and the slender trunks of the saplings, dangling over the edge of the wagon, rattled their few leaves. I stopped every few paces, to turn and see how Efraim was doing. There was no particular expression on his face, but neither was it vacant. He seemed to be absorbed in the sensation of riding on the wagon, the noise and the strange rhythm of its movement.
“You okay, buddy?” I called back. He didn’t answer.
The pasture fence was to our left. Since the snow had melted, we’d been letting the goats back out. There was nothing green for them to eat yet, but they had been stuck in the barn for months, and it had taken a toll. My white Nigerian Dwarf, Buttercup, the first goat I ever bought, had miscarried in early February, probably because the larger does were bullying her. She took to crawling under the feeder for safety, and I didn’t notice how thin she had become till it was too late. I bundled her up, and carried her through the snow to the comfort of my workroom, pushed a warm concoction of honey-barley water down her parched throat, even set up a saline drip the vet had suggested as a last ditch remedy. But she moaned once, and died before my eyes.
The other goats, attracted by our passage, came running over, thinking we had something to feed them. Efraim couldn’t see over the edge of the wagon, so I stopped it again, careful to angle the trees so the goats couldn’t nibble at them, and lifted him out to say hello. He was delighted, and when I set him down on the ground he reached his fingers through the fence to pet their noses, and called to them by name.
“Careful they don’t bite your fingers, bub,” I said to him.
As he played, I lifted up my eyes, and looked out to the back of the field, which had been tilled a few days earlier for our first planting. Already, I had scattered a good amount of barley, and put in a few rows of potatoes, but still, from this vantage, the ground seemed only raw and exposed. One of my teachers said that naked dirt is a wound on the body of the earth, but it seemed also like a blank canvas, beckoning the human imagination to impose its taste for geometry and symmetry, contrast and variety. I remembered the winter yearning for planting season—a desire to begin marking my beds and gardens, bringing out the transplants, digging furrows, hilling the corn and squash, setting stakes for the pole beans. This was the moment of highest fantasy, before the season had taught me its lessons: before the turkeys had come out of the woods or the groundhog from its burrow; before the voles had dug their way down to the sweet potato roots, or the weeds risen to choke the barley. Before reality had shown me that the nourishment of my body would be meager compared to the feast of my imagination.
Efraim was still playing with the goats. I looked past him, toward the pasture and the giant butternut tree standing in the midst of it. Everyone who comes here remarks on that tree. It’s so thick in the trunk that it seems like two trees joined together. Its branches, almost trunks themselves, jut out at wild angles, spreading broadly across the pasture, and pushing high into the air. It was still naked, but in previous summers it had grown lush with thick leaves, and set clusters of nuts that dropped heavily as fall came on. I gathered many bucketsful, from where they had fallen into the undergrowth, feeling out the hard oval shapes with my feet when I couldn’t spot them with my eyes. Many were left behind, some even finding their way underground and shooting up saplings in the spring.
The old man across the street, a friend of mine, used to live on this land. He told me that his grandfather planted the tree. I thought of the legend of the old man planting a carob tree he will never eat from, because he wanted to feed his grandchildren. A beautiful, uncertain dream. I looked at the saplings I had loaded into the wagon beside my son, and thought about how there have been mornings when I hesitate to go to him, because I can’t bear the light of his innocence in the heaviness of my knowing.
“Come on, bud,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I bit into the earth with my shovel, and then drove it downward with the force of my boots. The soil here, toward the back of the field, by the southern fence line, was heavy and still a bit cold. I wasn’t sure it was suitable for the cherry saplings, but thought I would just plant them and see what happened. In my mind’s eye, I could envision a row of fruit trees, spreading up above the dead wooden posts, following the lines of wire that were strung between them.
I had pulled the cart across the remnants of last year’s growth, jostling over ruts and hillocks, until we arrived at this place. The house was at a distance, and the rush of traffic was fainter to the ear. I had asked Efraim if he wanted to come plant the trees with me, but he chose to stay in the wagon, a few feet away. As I worked, digging two holes at a distance of several yards, and mixing in compost to fertilize the soil, I kept casting my glance back toward him.
He was playing in and out of the wagon. He would crawl to the end of the carriage, and then slowly work his way over the edge until his feet touched the ground, walk a few steps within the embrace of the metal pull-bar, and then work his way back up. I don’t think I had ever seen him do something so deliberate. A child you see every day doesn’t change at all, but then one day he’s no longer a lump of infant crying on the hospital scale, but a toddler climbing in and out of a wagon, of his own volition.
And I thought: the day before he was born, someone said to me, “This is the last day of your life as you know it.” But it wasn’t like that at all. I never felt any wrenching change, more as if someone had installed a new magnetic pole inside of me, and slowly, day-by-day, my entire being reoriented toward a different north.
He grew tired of his game, after a while, and called out to me. I came over and picked him up, and brought him to where I was working.
“Come on, buddy,” I said, “do you want to help abba plant the tree?”
I picked up one of the saplings and laid its roots down in the hole. Then I back-filled from the pile of dirt I had shoveled out, and started to pat it down with my hands.
“Help abba pat the dirt,” I said.
“Pat the dirt.”
We sat there together with our hands in the dirt, he patting lightly and ineffectually with his little palms, and I pounding away with my fist to work out the air pockets. I got up to go set in the other tree, but he stayed where he was, and began to play with a dry stalk of last year’s foxtail grass. As I was finishing the work, he came over to me with the stalk in his hand. It had snapped in the middle, and one piece was dangling from the other.
“Fix it?” he asked me.
I took the stalk in my hand.
“Buddy,” I said, “I can’t fix this. It’s broken.”
“Fix it?” he asked me again, and his voice seemed a little more urgent.
This is it, I thought. How do you explain to a child that you’ve bound him to the altar of a world of things you can’t fix? I fiddled the stalk in my hand, and pretended to make an effort to fix it, or maybe I wasn’t pretending.
“Fix it,” he was whimpering a little now.
“Efraim,” I said, and I hoped I could comfort him with the sound of my voice, even though I knew he wouldn’t understand what I was saying. “There are just some things in life your abba can’t fix. I love you. I’m doing my best.”
I handed it back to him. I went over to the wagon, lifted off the bucket of water, and poured half of its contents around the base of each sapling. He was still staring at me, with the broken stalk in his hand, but he wasn’t crying.
“Look what we did, buddy,” I said. “We planted these trees.”
I lifted him up, and brought him close, so he could play his hand through the sparse leaves. The frail stem of trunk was sticking out askew from the ground, but I hoped it would straighten when the roots took hold. And I thought: what is it, to plant a tree in this world? A plea. A prayer. A self-delusion. An offering. A promise to my son that I’m always listening for the voice of the angel, even if I can’t always hear it.
“Come on, buddy,” I said. “It’s getting late. Let’s go back in.”
I loaded his body, brimming with life, back into the wagon. As we set off for the journey home, I looked up and saw the broad, old, naked limbs spreading their shadow across the pasture. “God willing,” I said, “we’re gonna gather a lot of butternuts this fall. And we’ll roast them on the stove in winter.”