Wednesday, September 05, 2007

When the Bible comes to Life

For those of you who are regular readers, my apologies about the relatively sparse postings as of late. The teaching year has started, so I am busier than I have been for a while. In addition, the teaching year (for me - Elul) started 10 days before my own children began school. It is always a bad combination for me to be at school and my kids to be at home. I won't go into all the irritating details, but let's suffice by saying that there was less blogging time!

On with the show...

Yes - last Friday, we picked our grapes. We have a single vine that produces delicious crisp red seedless grapes. I have no clue what genus or type. I do wonder whether they are Cabernet or Merlot or something else. Maybe I can open a "boutique" winery or something. But they always ripen in the last week of August and we have to pick them otherwise the place smells like a brewery and there are a million fruit flies. Yeuch!

So we picked the grapes. The sheer amount was astounding. We had at least 10 enormous mixing bowls of the stuff. I would imagine it came to 40 kilo of grapes. So we sorted the ones which looked nicer - the "grade A" grapes - and my kids took them to the entire neighbourhood - after all, what are we going to do with so many grapes!

Beforehand, however, we had to take Teruma (Tithes) from the produce. It was more complicated than last year as this year - being year 6 - of the Shemitta cycle, is a Maaser Ani year. So, one has to give a tenth to the poor! How do I find a poor person who wants 4 kilos of grapes? So, this is what we do. I need to give it to someone who can accept it on behalf of the "poor". Then I buy the grapes back from him and that money can be given to the poor. It was a relatively complex halakhic process.

And then we could eat.

With all this - which took about 3 hours last Friday - I had a number of religious thoughts:

1. As I was cutting the grapes, I also cut down half the vine in preparation of Shemitta. I was taking off these long strands of vine just weighed down with luscious grapes. And you get this unbelievable feeling of "plenty", of nature's bounty. This plant just produces an incredible volume of unbelievably lush juicy sweet fruit. It is amazing. My son, Avinoam, was helping me, and we were carrying the branches together. It felt like the verse with the Spies as two of the meraglim carry a branch of a vine to testify as to the fertile nature of the Land of Israel. And here we were carrying the evidence! We were the delegates of the Jewish People showing off the Land's produce, demonstrating just how wonderful this land is!

2. The parshat Hashavua kept flashing through my mind repeatedly. The parsha opens with the Bikkurim in which a farmer brings his fruit to God, making a proclamation in the Temple "before God." What does the farmer say? He thanks God! But in his prayer to God the fruits are seen not simply as a source of wealth or sustenance and blessing of God, and the land not merely as a source of prosperity, but the farmer sees these meagre fruits as a connection point with the gigantic idea of the notion of land as a national home. Yes, a simple bunch of grapes, a first fruit reminds us about the significance of a homeland. That our People should not be wanderers and homeless, humiliated victims, but should have their own land. And I felt this deep connection as I took off my Bikkurim, and thinking just how fortunate we are to be picking our own sweet grapes in our own sweet land. Call me a sentimental Zionist. I plead guilty!

3. But the Parsha continues to a second declaration of the farmer: The Tithe Confession. Here the farmer states:

“I have removed all the holy food (truma, ma’aser etc.) from my property and I have given it to the Levi, the stranger, the orphan and widow just as you have commanded me; I have not transgressed nor neglected any one of Your commandments, I have forgotten nothing ... I have obeyed the Lord my God, I have done everything He required of me.” (26:13-14)

Once again, the connection seemed too close to home. I had just taken Teruma and Maaser and the tithe for the poor. And these are acts that I am not practiced at, as I perform them only on occasion, and so they are not routine. They are an "event" for me. Suddenly the parshat Hashavua was alive in my hands!

Of course the parshia ends with the beautiful prayer to God:

"Look down from your holy abode, from the heavens and bless your people, Israel, and the land that you gave to us, as you promised our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey." (26:15)


4. One last point.

The parsha talks about Eretz Zavat Chalav Udvash - the Land that flows with milk and honey. Obviously the question is, what is the honey and milk of Israel? Most commentators, traditional and mdern, agree that the honey is the sweetness of the fruit of Israel. That figs and dates with their natural sweetness are the honey of the land. But grapes too! The arabs here make a honey out of grapes. My son made it at kindergarted last year! They take the grape juice and heat it up until much of the liquid evaporates and it becomes a sweet honey called "dibb'ess" i.e. "devash)! So here as we picked our grapes, my hands covered in the sweet nectar of the grapes, I really felt the sticky "honey" of Eretz Yisrael.

5. Rabbi Riskin once told a fabulous story. It was related by Yaakov Hazan, one of the founders of the "secular" Kibbutz HaShomer HaZair Movement. Hazan had recounted, in a radio interview shortly before his death, the earliest source of his Zionism. As a ten year old child in the Lithuanian city of Brisk, a doctor suggested the best cure for his anemia would be exercise in the open summer air. Hazan's father apprenticed him to a Gentile farmer, with whom he worked from dawn to dusk.

Despite the hard work, Hazan noticed that the farmer always had smile on his lips, which young Yaakov asked the farmer to explain.

"Don't you hear the land singing?" asked the farmer. Yaakov cupped his ear to the ground, but heard nothing.

"I know why you don't hear the land singing", responded the Gentile farmer. " I hear the song because it is my land. But this is not your land!".

Hazan related that at that moment, he realised that he had to move to Eretz Yisrael!

The Bible calls the special fruits and nuts of Israel "the song of the land" (zimrat ha'aretz). [Bereshit/Genesis 43:18] When it is OUR land, our holy land, we can hear the land singing its song. Last Friday, it was singing the Parashat Hashavua to me!

May we all have a sweet and bountiful year!

1 comment:

Dorene Richman said...

This gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes--such a beautifully moving account of how Aretz is alive when we till the Land . . .