Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It is a Tree of Life for those who hold fast to it.

So many of our metaphors and analogies in Judaism are rooted in an agricultural perspective of the world, but I'm afraid that many of us have forgotten or become estranged from the real thing from whence the metaphor sprang. At one time we were well connected with the natural world--we were farmers, shepherds, craftspeople. At this time around 3,000 years ago, we would all be arriving back in our cities, towns, and hamlets after having spent a week celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkos at the Beis HaMikdash in Jerusalem, praying for the coming year's rain and for the strengthening of the land with vegetation. To this day, we pray for salvation for "the cattle from miscarriage[,] the granary from the palmer-worm[,] the olives from rotting[,] the wheat from the grasshopper[,] the wine cellar from the canker-worm [...]" (Siddur Tehillat Hashem, 2003, p. 372).

And yet, last week, when it started to rain, many of us grumbled. Why should we care about cattle, granaries, and wine cellars today? The supermarket shelves are always stocked with food, more food than we know what to do with. Meat comes in a nice plastic package. Who still knows how to do melicha on their own, much less raise a sheep and have it slaughtered (how many people today have even seen or touched a live sheep?)? And yet we still can throw around a good sheep metaphor. It is noted in the Alte Rebbe's biography that when he was a youth, he would "encourage his brethren to engage in agricultural pursuits." (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: A Biography by Nissan Mindel, p. 7). Undoubtedly, when he compared a certain personality type to the sheep, it was because he had observed how a sheep acted (for instance, see the ma'amar in Likkutei Torah, Vayikra, which begins "Adam ki yakriv mikem"). For many of us, we only have the archetypal sheep - the sheep itself has become a symbol, a caricature.

"And what's the matter with that?" you might ask. Afterall, whether or not we have known real sheep, we still "get the idea." But that's exactly it, maybe we don't completely get the idea. On a number of occasions, I have overheard the bemoaning of our generation's ability to learn, or rather lack of it, compared to previous generations. But maybe it's because we have been alienated in large part from the substance of our great Tradition? For example, when we learn Perek Shishi in Brachos, page 36a, when Shmuel says, "Oh yeah, it's like the raddish that becomes hard in the end," how many of us understand that comment immediately which was so rational to Shmuel? Presumably, not many of us. Shmuel, on the other hand, lived in an agricultural world and he applied his knowledge of how things function in the natural world to his study of Torah. We are exactly the opposite: we learn about the natural world from Torah.

Obviously there is what to be learned about the world from Torah, but Shmuel (which is just an example of any pre-Industrial Age Jew) came into his learning with a certain appreciation for how things work. So what does it mean "a raddish becomes hard in the end"? Most root vegetables and many fruiting bodies of other plants (e.g. beans), become hard and woody and lose their flavor if left to their own devices. But if we grew up on ripe red bulbs from the supermarket, how do we know what happens to that plant later in its life? Many of us would not even recognize a raddish still in the ground.

One of the poet-farmer Wendell Berry's well-known quotes is that "eating is an agricultural act." Once a person realizes what that means, she will begin to realize how distant she has grown in state-of-mind from her ancestors, and will begin to return; and that is truly living the age old wish "to renew our days as of old."

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