Ukraine and my garden

Rabbi Paul Plotkin
5 min readMar 29, 2022


We have all heard of the expression, “It is a sign from God…”

Things happen to us that are extraordinary, unexplainable, or just so incongruous to our lives that we feel the need to give them meaning. Sometimes they can be for frivolous things. You are driving to a racetrack and see a truck go by with a logo and a name that you notice because it is so strange and that you have never seen before. You arrive at the track and you can’t believe that one of the horses in the first race has the same name as the company name you saw on the truck.

“This is not a coincidence it must be a sign” you think and you bet that horse. If it loses you quickly discount the sign theory and move on, but if it comes in and especially if it cashes big you will believe forever that it was a sign from somewhere and you were the beneficiary.

People have dreams and then see the dream unfolding in their real life and take action in accordance with the dream. They are convinced that it was a sign. For reasons that will soon become clear I have been thinking about this “sign” phenomenon for about a month and draw no definitive conclusion but it did start me thinking about how this sign business fit into Judaism.

At Friday night services we sing a prayer called Veshamru. It is a passage from the Torah, (Exodus 31:16–17). Saturday morning just before the Haftorah some of us quietly sneak out of the sanctuary to participate in an ancient Jewish rite called making a kiddush over single malt scotch. The kiddush prayer begins with that same biblical passage of Veshamru.

The verses say, “ the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath and observe it throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and on the 7th day he ceased from work and rested.”

There is no physical sign of this covenant, it is the act of observance that is the sign. It is observing a phenomenon and attributing to it the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

At Jewish celebrations like weddings, we sing a song called Siman Tov Vemazel Tov.

It is a joyous song often sung while dancing to celebrate the happy event. Few people, even those who understand Hebrew, ever stop to think about the words they are singing.

Siman tov means literally a good sign, mazel tov literally means you should have a good mazel which is a reference to having a good astrological sign. Rationalize as you will, clearly there is something inherent in Judaism about the significance of “signs”.

One more bit of knowledge is needed until I get to the message of this blog.

In a garden occasionally a plant grows that you did not plant, and you have no idea where it came from. In gardening parlance, it is called a volunteer.

Perhaps the seed packet you ordered had a seed from one plant accidentally fall into the packet of another plant. Perhaps a bird dropped the seed in your garden, or it was a seed from last year that failed to germinate and waited until the following season to come to life. Whatever the reason it happened to me this year.

Right next to the carrots and green beans, a plant began to grow. It did not look like anything I had ever seen before. It grew rapidly and ramrod straight. I had no idea what it was, but it grew and began to develop a round bulbous flower. While it was totally enclosed, I thought maybe it was an artichoke. I had never seen an artichoke grow but something about the way the flower was wrapped tight, gave me the feeling that it would open and behold an artichoke would emerge. It did open and it wasn’t an artichoke.

It was clearly familiar, especially as the petals of the flower began to develop and become a bright yellow halo around a darker center. It was a sunflower. It grew and then dried out leaving fully developed black seeds in the middle. I uprooted the plant but kept the seeds.

As a child, sunflower seeds were a regular snack, a poor man’s potato chips. When visiting Israel in 1970 they were a poor country’s popcorn.

People would go into a movie theatre and eat the seeds and spit out the shells. By the end of the movie the trip to the exit was a crunch fest as the floors were littered with shells. I decided to taste the seed and for a raw, non-roasted seed it wasn’t half bad, but at this stage in my life potato chips do nicely for my snacks.

Rather than throw the rest of the seeds out I decided to plant a few in a small empty strip of land between two tomato plants and see if any of them would germinate. Over a month went by and one day I noticed what I thought were a few weeds growing in the empty land. I was not surprised since I had been regularly watering the area, but these little seedlings did not look like weeds. A week later they developed into what I had seen earlier as the identified plant growing in my yard. They were the next generation of sunflower seeds.

I transplanted them in different parts of the garden. As I write they are doing well and I look forward to their full growth and their majestic yellow collar, looking up to the sun and following it as it travels the day sky from east to west. I see them as a sign, a message of hope because I am writing this four weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and sunflowers are the national flower of the Ukraine.

The unbelievable barbarity of Russia is contrasted with the inspirational defiance of the Ukrainian people who are sacrificing everything for the defense of their country. The liberties that we daily take for granted; the freedom of expression and the ability to engage in disagreements while respecting each other’s right to disagree are what thousands of mothers and fathers and children are dying for every day. They do not want autocracy they have evolved into a democracy that allows people to be free and to cherish their own culture and traditions. Like my volunteer sunflower that popped up out of nowhere, the tenacious spirit of the Ukrainian people has seemingly popped out of nowhere to hold off the mighty Russian army.

Sunflowers look up to the sky for nourishment and direction, the Ukrainians look up to the sky for faith, inspiration, and determination. Regardless of the outcome, like my sunflower that somehow showed up, the Ukrainian people will always show up and will grow straight and tall and will look up, and one day glow in the presence of the sun as does their national flower.

To me the arrival this year of all years, and this flower of all flowers, is a “sign”. I have no idea where my volunteer came from, but it can’t be a coincidence that that flower arrived this year in my garden. Behold the sunflower.



Rabbi Paul Plotkin

I am a retired Conservative Rabbi. I was a pulpit Rabbi for 40 years. I supervise a chain of kosher Delis called Ben's .