Wisdom & Worms: the Torah of Compost

Created in collaboration with Jeff Kasowitz

Text Study: the Cycles of Life

Text 1
When Gd began to create the heaven and the earth – the earth being unformed tohu and void v’vohu… (Genesis 1:1-1:2 – JPS translation)

Questions for Discussion
1. How do these translations of Genesis understand tohu and vohu?
2. Do you have other ways of understanding tohu and vohu? What do you imagine when you read these words?

Text 2
In human practice, if an earthly monarch builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage, and one says,” This palace is built on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage,” does he not discredit it? Thus whoever comes to say that this world was created out of tohu and vohu, does he not impair [Gd’s honor]? R. Huna said in Bar Kappara’s name: If the matter were not written, it would be impossible to say it: “Gd created the Heaven and the earth”; out of what? Out of “now the earth was tohu and vohu” (Genesis 1:2) (Genesis Rabbah 1:5).

Questions for Discussion
1. How does this midrash understand tohu and vohu?
2. What seems to be the midrash’s stance towards creating something out of sewers, dunghills, and garbage?
3. What is your visceral reaction to sewers, dunghills, and garbage?

Text 3
Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last ( Walt Whitman, “This Compost”).

Questions for Discussion
1. What does this excerpt from Whitman’s poem add to our understanding of decomposition and creation?


Through the Seasons – a composting meditation

I invite you to close your eyes and take a deep breath in through your nose
Listen to the birds chirping in the trees that surround you
Take another breath and as you do take in the smells of spring
The tulips, you may even catch an early hint of the lilacs.
You smell the fresh soil
Commit this smell to memory

Autumn: Now let’s rewind briefly back to the fall, crisp autumn breeze in the air, changing leaves
You’re in an apple orchard somewhere in New England
You walk the rows of the orchard and spot the perfect Golden Delicious
You reach up on your tippy toes, snag it and place it in your bag
On the ride home you cant wait and dig into the bag, grab the perfect apple and take a big bite
Once you’ve eating everything off the core, you consider throwing it out the window, then decide to place it at your feet
When you get home you walk through the fallen leaves to the far end of your backyard, address your compost pile and throw the core on top.
You look at the pile and see the apple core resting on a bed of orange autumn leaves that had fallen earlier that week, along with a handful of dark green
kale stems, a couple of egg shells, some rotten tomatoes and a slice of moldy bread.
You breathe in and smell the sweet notes of decomposition

Winter: Before you know it, winter has arrived.
Imagine yourself pulling on a sweater and scarf.
You put on a pair of boots and high step it out to the backyard through the snow to throw some leek tops and butternut squash peels onto your compost
You struggle to get the lid off as its partly frozen on.
You breath in and the cold air burns your nose a bit
Your compost is solid and you can’t see your apply core anymore as it has mostly decomposed, yet you can just barely see a bit of the stem that has maintained its form.

Spring: A wind blows and the seasons turn again.
Finally the snow has melted and new life is beginning to emerge from the soil. Picture a day much like today.
Perennial flowers show their bright colors, dancing in the sunlight in their pinks, purples, and reds. The greens of garlic shoot strong through the
ground, reaching out towards the spring sunlight.
Your trips out to the compost pile are a joy this time of year.
Every trip gives you a different look. New buds, new colors, the grass looks higher than it did yesterday.
The compost pile is workable again. You take a wooden pole and move the compost around revealing mostly brown chunky material on top.
Even through the cold of the winter, the pile has been productive.
You feel the heat from inside the pile as the decomposers do their work.
As the base of the pile, is mature humus, black gold.
You scoop some up with a shovel and place it on your beds and around the base of the plum and apricot trees in the yard.
The decomposed apple from last fall nurtures the plum tree this spring.
You think toward the Summer as you imagine the produce that awaits you, and smile at the beauty of this continuous cycle.