Musings at the end of vacation (Toldot)

After almost two weeks off, and no school for FOUR WHOLE DAYS (which means kids are at home, yes, and need supervision, but it also means we don’t have to drive them to/from at 7:15, 8:15, 2:15, and 3:30!), it’s starting to feel like I have some room to breathe. The weather’s beautiful today, so we might have a shot at finishing the chicken coop, though I don’t think that we’ll actually get the fencing done today. We delivered meals for Equinox yesterday morning, and around the Thanksgiving table I realized that what I was most grateful for at that moment was having enough to share. Enough money and food and privilege, enough time and space, enough heart. All of which have been drawn upon greatly in the past few weeks. It was nice to feel grateful for having it to give, rather than stressed out from having to give it.

Sharing is a basic litmus test for “enoughness.” But it’s not just about how much you have, it’s about how much it feels like you have. How often do the folks who have little share it the most, because they’re really clear how much others don’t have? Or with time: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac’s shepherds and the shepherds of the King of Gerar (a place in Philistia, modern Gaza) quarrel over wells — that is, over water rights. Isaac’s servants dig a well, but the Gerarese shepherds claim it’s theirs. Isaac doesn’t dispute it outright; he simply names it Esek (Contention) and lets it go. (Doesn’t naming imply the right of ownership? I think he’s still maintaining his rights even though he chose not to fight it. The Gerarese probably named it something else.)

Isaac’s shepherds need to water the flock, so they dig another well. Again the Gerarese shepherds claim it. This one Isaac calls Sitnah (Accusation), and again he lets it go, commenting only “It’s not fair” in his naming.

The third time is the charm; the Gerarese leave it alone, and Isaac names it Rechovot, Wide-Open Spaces (Gen. 12:26-32).

When we’re cramped, it’s hard to share. When we get that protective of our time, space, or resources, we don’t behave well. House too many chickens together, and it’s unfortunately standard practice to de-beak them: That is, to cut off 1/3 of the upper beak so that they can’t pick at each other, peck at eggs, etc. (That’s the suggestion I’ve read for home growers; I’ve read that factory farms cut more.) Chickens apparently can turn into real cannibals in crowded conditions.

But the stress of being too crowded doesn’t go away just because chickens can’t act out on each other. Crowded chickens are still unhappy and — guess what? — more prone to disease. Hence the movement to free-range eggs, pastured poultry, and buying from small producers who can give their hens a normal life. (Ours should start laying in March or April.)

So too in our own lives. Some of us are crowded in space; we live too many too close together with not enough resources (like, no neighborhood grocery store, no safe public space away from gunshots). Others of us are crowded more in terms of time than of space (like, we run around all day trying to keep up with the demands of all the activities we’ve allowed ourselves and our children to be involved with; or, working the system disabled and without a car, we spend all day on busses going from one office to a second office in order to get the paperwork issued that will permit us to go to a third office to apply for a half-price bus pass). Under this stress, we all find ways to de-beak ourselves: to mask the stress levels, to numb ourselves out or to jolt ourselves awake; but the data all say that this is not healthy for us. We end up with addictions, illnesses, neuroses and fractured relationships. Really de-stressing ourselves requires breathing room — rechovot.

Rechovot is not the Garden of Eden, pain-free; it is room to sit quietly to feel what’s real. It’s the sense of “enoughness” that allows you to breathe. I’m going to watch the geese call to each other as they fly past…