This past June, my family moved from New Jersey to Tucson. As we started unpacking and dreaming of our life here, we looked to our yard. We knew that the blessing of rain is scarce in this desert climate. For that reason, we have worked with people who know this climate to help bring native plants to our yard. One integral part of this for us is to create a compost system. We did not want to just take from the earth but wanted to try to bring nutrients back by creating compost.
As we were starting our compost pile, I was reminded of a time years ago when I lived in Jerusalem during rabbinical school. During that year, I volunteered at a local community garden. One afternoon, I arrived and asked how I could help.
One of the more seasoned volunteers handed me a shovel and pointed to the compost bin. “Hafoch oto,” he told me. He wanted me turn over the compost.
I dutifully went about my task shoveling the compost. As I worked, I kept repeating the person’s words in my head, unable to shake the feeling that they were familiar. I turned them over and over again until I caught the spark of recognition.
“Hafoch bah vehafoch bah, d’cholah vah.” These are the words of Ben Bag Bag, as cited in Pirkei Avot 5:26 — “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”
According to our tradition, the author was referring to Torah. Turn it, he urged. Delve into Torah. All that you seek and all that exists can be found within it.
But on that day I wondered — was he actually talking about compost? Turn it in order to release nutrients and to add oxygen. There is Torah to be found in everything, including the ecosystem that our compost ultimately feeds. Turn it over so it doesn’t stagnate, so that it’s always fresh and dynamic.
Whether we are helping to bring nutrients back to the earth through compost, planting a tree or fulfilling other mitzvot, God’s commandments, we must turn it over.
When we care for our earth, we study Torah and when we study Torah, we care for our earth. This Tu B’Shevat, I urge you to examine some part of your life more deeply. How can you turn it over to infuse more life, joy, and Torah? “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”