Perspectives: Fleeting power of flowers
In my younger days, Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand each helped to popularize a song that I don’t really remember. I vaguely recall that the lyrics established a setting, told a little bit of a story, possibly a slice of life of some relationship. But I do remember the chorus, and I do remember the feeling conveyed in the line: “You don’t bring me flowers ... anymore.”
Flowers, by their nature, are temporary, transient, and a capturing of beauty that lasts only a short while. When you give flowers to a loved one, you are reasserting how you see them: as someone who should receive flowers and have this beauty around them. These feelings and remembrances sometimes fall to the wayside with familiarity, busy schedules and exhaustion. That’s the pathos of the chorus.
To my surprise, Roseanne, early in our marriage, asserted a different view on the status of flowers. She champions the significance of fake flowers. Her elegant interpretation about fake flowers is that they take pre-eminence over “real” flowers because of their permanence. For many years now, the centerpiece of our kitchen table has been a vase of tulips made from wood bark shavings.
Roseanne’s idea about fake flowers is that they “signify our desire for a small type of permanent beauty to companion with us through our daily mundane activities.” For some, fake flowers may look too artificial, or lend an element of almost tawdriness to the table, or room. I have seen them grace restaurant tables, and at times thought this myself. However, for Roseanne, fake flowers symbolize an effort at beauty and permanence; the effort that they provide ornament.
Ornament is something to look at and admire: a small, unimportant flourish that calls for being noticed. The significance of the fake flowers is the effort to remember, almost memorialize, a small beauty around us, that most of us stop wondering at from a young age. The efforts of lengthening the days for real flowers, my wife finds more depressing, so although I bring them to her, the fake flowers win her thoughts, devotion and smile every time. But just the same, I bring both, because while the effort and remembering beauty is touching and human, the transience of the falling petals and fragrance has its own singular power and inspiration about time.
When I see those wood shaving tulips, even though they are wood, I am reminded of the wisdom of a Jewish story about how looking at something can inspire feelings and memories. The story is about a king who has a jewel collection beyond compare. He admires it often. One night he has a dream that out in the world is a magical ring, more powerful than anything he has. It is so powerful that it would make a person who is sad become happy and a person who is drunk return to themselves and a person who is joyful even more joyful.
The king wakes up and is sure his dream is true. He calls for his wise men and servants and offers a great reward for the one who can find and bring the king this ring. Everyone searches but returns empty-handed. But there is one servant so devoted to his king that he continues searching through the years. Finally, after years and years he realizes that he must give up and also return to his king empty-handed.
As he returns home he decides to look in one last shop close to the palace. He approaches to shopkeeper and describes his searching efforts and asks if he has ever seen such a ring. The little old man shopkeeper says “I have the ring! It was given to me many years ago, but no one ever asked about it. I will get it.”
The old man returns with an old, dusty wooden box. He gives it to the devoted servant and the box is opened. Sitting in the box is a simple metal band with no ornamentation, not even silver or gold. The servant is so happy to return to his king with something he says he will pay anything for it. The old man says, “No, bring it to your wise king as a gift.”
The servant hurries to the palace and presents the box to his king. The king opens the box, removes the cloth and pulls out the simple metal band that bears the inscription of the Hebrew words “Gam zeh ya’avor” or “This too shall pass.”
As time passed the king learned the true power of this ring. Whenever he was sad, he looked at the ring and read “This too shall pass” and got through his sorrow. Whenever the king was lost in drunkenness, the ring brought him back to himself, “This too shall pass.” Then, when the king was joyful and saw his ring on his finger, “This too shall pass,” he realized his joy consciously and enjoyed it more, knowing it would not always be so.
The king lost interest in the rest of his collection of gems and never took the ring from his hand.
For Roseanne, the flowers that we keep mean truths about our human search for beauty and wishing for permanence. They are echoes of time and poignancy. But I don’t have to provide the temporary flowers or the wood shaving ones. I may have found a birthday present for her to cherish. There is an artist friend of mine, Barbra Scott, who can make real flowers long lasting, as if in a storybook. To this artistic genius I will turn for my wife’s gift and hope to enjoy the floral art that will continually bring out my spouse’s smile.
Rabbi Mitchell M. Hurvitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom of Greenwich, co-founder of the Sholom Center for Interfaith Learning and Fellowship and a past president of the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy. For an archive of past columns, visit www.templesholom.com.