Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How Much Hashem Loves Trees

This story is printed in "A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Festivals," compiled by Rabbi S.Y. Zevin, translated by Uri Kaploun.

Depends who Your Great-Uncle was

"For man is a tree of the field" -Devarim

An epidemic raged through Nadvorna as Sukkos was approaching, and the physicians warned the towns-folk to take all possible hygienic precautions for fear of contagion. The local judge, an unusually evil man, was told that Reb Mordechai of Nadvorna had just built himself a sukkah. He at once dispatched a messenger with a court order to demolish it forthwith, because it supposedly contravened the municipal health regulations. Reb Mordechai ignored the message.

Within minutes a squad of police arrived at his doortep to warn him of the consequences of his defiance. He replied: "I built my sukkah in order that it should stand, not in order that it should be demolished."

This time the judge sent the tzaddik a summons. When this too was ignored, the judge decided to descend on his victim himself. He ordered the tzaddik in harsh terms to dismantle the sukkah immediately, and warned him of the severe punishment which any further disobedience would earn him. These threats and warnings did not shake the tzaddik's equanimity in the slightest. He simply answered coolly in the same words that he had told the policemen -- that he had built his sukkah in order that it should stand, not in order that it should be demolished.

The judge was incensed.

But the tzaddik merely added: "I would like you to know that Reb Meir of Premishlan was my great-uncle."

At this the judge flew into a rage: "Who cares who your great-uncle was? Just demolish that thing, and that's all!"

Reb Mordechai now repeated what he had just told the judge, then asked him calmly to wait a moment; he wanted to tell him an interesting story.

The judge obliged, and Reb Mordechai began: "Once there lived a priest who had ten sons, all of them as robust and strong as cedars. He owned a beautiful big park, full of trees that delighted God and man alike. One day he decided that he would add grace to this grove by planting a little flower garden next to it. So he uprooted a few of his trees, and in their place he planted fragrant flowers. But no sooner had he finished this work than his sons fell ill, one after the other. First the oldest weakened and died, then the second -- and so on, until the very youngest fell ill. The priest was at his wit's end. He summoned the most expert doctors, and even consulted sorcerers -- but to no avail. At this point several people advised him to make the journey to visit Reb Meir of Premishlan. Who knows? Perhaps salvation might come through him, for he was reputed to be a holy man. By now there was no alternative open to him, and he was desperately eager to save the life of his last surviving son. So with a heavy heart he traveled to Premishlan.

"Arriving there he told the holy man of all the trials that had befallen him -- and now even his last son was mortally ill, and no physician could cure him. Heaven alone could help him now.

" 'You had a beautiful garden full of goodly trees,' Reb Meir told him, 'but because you wanted a flower garden as well, you chopped down the trees of God. And that is why He has now chopped down your trees, for 'man is a tree of the field.' But since you have already come here, and your time has not yet run out completely, I promise you now that your youngest son will be helped from Above, and will soon be cured.'

"The holy man then prayed that the Almighty heal the priest's son, in order that His Name be sanctified wherever people would hear of his story. This prayer was accepted, and the son grew up to be a man.

"I want you to know," Reb Meir concluded his story to the judge, "that you are the son of that priest... Tell me, now, is this the way your repay the kindness that my great-uncle showed you by saving your life?"

The judge fell at his feet, and wept.

"True, true, I know it all!" he sobbed. "Forgive me now, rabbi, for what I've done to you. You can build even ten of those things -- but only promise that you will forgive me!"

The promise was given, and the judge went his way in peace.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Maaseh About Raw Goat Milk, From the Besht

I recently read this story in Yitzhak Buxbaum's "The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov," and the rendering which I have included below is from (full story available here). One of the reasons this story stood out most to me is the explicit acknowledgment that raw goat milk from healthy goats has the power to cure. Obviously there is more to that going on in this story, but that's what I wanted to point out.

When I [the Baal Shem Tov] was a young man of twenty, recently after being accepted as a member of the society the hidden tzaddikim, several of us came to the city of Brody.

It was there in Brody that I saw the most amazing thing. I was standing in the market place speaking to a large group of locals when I noticed from the corner of my eye an older man walking in the distance, bent under the burden of a large sack he was carrying on his shoulder. His face was covered with sweat and there was nothing unusual about him except for the fact that over his head floated a brilliant pillar of spiritual fire!

Obviously none of the other townspeople saw it. A few of them even yelled jeeringly, "Keep going Herschel Goat" and, "Carry, Herschel, Carry!" And he called back with a smile "Thank you! G-d bless you!"

I could not believe my eyes. I called two of the elder tzaddikim who were with me, Rabbi Yechezkel and Rabbi Ephraim. They, too, saw the pillar but also couldn't explain it. For all appearances this Herschel was just a simple old Jew trying to make a living. What connected him to such a great revelation?

For several days I observed him and tried to understand the reason for this holy fire, but I still had no idea. The people told me that he was a widower, his wife having died some ten years ago. He earned his meek living by carrying things on his back and doing odd jobs, and as far as everyone knew he used all his money to feed a few goats he had because he loved goat milk. That is how he earned the name "Herschel Goat".

So I decided to fast the first three days of each week, only drinking water at night, until I understood what this man did that was so pleasing to G-d.

I had just finished the first three days and was leaving the Shul when by Divine providence, there was Herschel walking down the street. He had a big smile on his face as I approached him. I told him I was very weak from having fasted and asked if he could give me something to eat.

"Of course! Of course!" He said joyously. "Please, just follow me to my home! I'm so happy to help."

We walked for about an hour till we came to an old run-down hut near the woods. Nothing seemed unusual until he opened the door and we entered.

Suddenly four or five goats jumped from all corners of the hut at him. They lovingly licked his hands and literally pranced with joy about him.

I had never quite seen the like of it. Herschel quieted the goats told me to sit down, took out a large metal pail, milked one of them, and poured me a cup to drink.

"Nothing's more healthy than goat's milk! Here, have another," he said with satisfaction as he handed me a second cup.

When I tried to pay him he refused. "G-d forbid! Money? No! No money, no money! It's my pleasure! I'm the one that benefits! What, I should take money too?" he said with a smile on his face.

Then he looked at me seriously and said, "I want to tell you a true story. You have no idea how happy I am that you came here. Please listen." He sat down opposite me waited a few moments collecting his thoughts, and began.

"My wife, of blessed memory was a truly righteous woman, always helping people. Any time anyone lacked anything she was there, doing everything she could to help. She collected money for charity, cared for people when they were sick; everything she did was for others. Shortly after she passed away, after the seven days of mourning, she appeared to me in a dream.

"She told me that after she died, instead of going through the painful and frightening purification processes of 'the slingshot' and 'the trashing of the grave,' she was received warmly by the souls of all those people she had helped and led directly to one of the highest heavens.

"She told me that nothing is valued in heaven more than brotherly love and beseeched me to also begin a life of charity and good deeds.

"That is why I bought these goats. I give free milk to whoever needs it and it has done wonders for people, simply wonders, and I am so happy I can help.

"Since then my wife never appeared to me again. It's been ten years since then, but today, just before I woke up, she came. She told me that this morning I would meet a holy man and he would change my life, and I'm sure she was talking about you. Please stay with me for a few days and teach me Torah."

I stayed with Herschel for several days and watched the way he lovingly cared for his goats and how he dispensed their milk to dozens of people that needed it, everything done with a simple, contagious joy and with no egotism whatsoever. But on the other hand he was a complete ignoramus and could barely read.

I discussed it with the tzaddikim and we decided to take him under our wing and teach him Torah. For three years we taught him the most basic books and then one day his mind simply opened. He suddenly understood and remembered everything we taught him, even the most difficult concepts in Talmud and in Kabbalah, but he never lost his simplicity.

After five more years he became a great hidden tzaddik and mystic in his own right, moved to the city of Ostropol, and for the next ten years helped and even saved hundreds of Jews with his prayers and blessings.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lacto-Fermented Borscht and Pesach

When my grandfather, alav hashalom, was nearing the end of his long and fruitful life, I had the opportunity to make dinner for him once (usually my mother cooked dinner for all of us). He requested borscht, a dish that I was altogether unfamiliar with, but which was an essential part of the Eastern European Jewish food tradition my grandfather had grown up with. In my good intention to fulfill his request, I opened a jar of sterile canned borscht from the supermarket (Ingredients: Water, Beets, Sugar, Salt, Citric Acid) and served it with sour cream, and love.

Flash forward to 2010. Today I avidly lacto-ferment in my spare time and am very interested in traditional Jewish foodways. And I've come to learn that, traditionally, borscht is not a sterile and denatured product sold in a jar, but a lacto-fermented, probiotic food produced in the home.

Now, I have realized from my conversations with people that lacto-fermentation is a generally unknown and mysterious process in modern society, and yet it is one of the oldest, safest, and most nutrient-enhancing forms of food preservation on Earth. Jewish mothers used to lacto-ferment various vegetables the way they toss food in the microwave today. It was just a part of living.

However, as Pesach approaches, those who want to be well-prepared are stocking up on overpriced, over-processed packaged foods from the ubiquitous "Passover Section" at the local supermarket, jars of sterile "borscht" included. (As an aside, please be informed about the ingredients in those kosher-for-Passover products. Avoid disease inducing ingredients like partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils, vanillin, and MSG--heimish companies love to add these ingredients to their products.)

But a generation or two ago, as part of that preparation, Jewish mothers would have been putting up a jar of beets and water to lacto-ferment for a couple weeks before Pesach, to be enjoyed either cool (like gazpacho) and probiotic, or hot and sour with meat and spices. That was the dish that nourished my forbears, that my grandfather's body would have intuitively recognized as nourishing and good.

It is approaching ten years since the dinner I served, and I wish that I could have made the nourishing, delicious, live-culture meal that my grandfather must have grown up on. But I am grateful for the renaissance in traditional Jewish foodways that is just beginning, and hopeful that I will be able to pass these traditions down to my own children some day.

Here is a recipe for "beet sour" adapted from Leah Leonard's Jewish Cookery, published in 1949. It can be drunk in small quantities as a digestive aid, used as a salad dressing base, or used as a borscht soup base, as it was traditionally:

BEET SOUR (Rossel) (renders one quart)
Remove tops and scrub beets thoroughly. Cut in halves or quarters and place in a glass quart-sized pickling jar that has a cover (you can buy these at your local hardware store). Add about a tablespoon of sea salt per two medium or three small beets. Fill the jar with lukewarm purified water (or the water should at least be chlorine free). Screw on lid and let stand, covered, in a warm place (64-74 degrees F) from one to four weeks to form soured beet juice for Passover borscht. Unscrew lid slightly about once per week to release pressure. A white mold bloom may grow on the surface of the rossel... this is completely normal and may simply be skimmed off. The liquid underneath will be unaffected.

Also, here is one of Leah Leonard's borscht (Rossel) recipes:
Meat Rossel Borscht (Serves 6)

1.5 lbs brisket of beef
4 cups cold water
1 onion
2 bay leaves
3 cups beet sour
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon juice (optional)
Sugar to taste
6 egg yolks

Cook the meat, onion, and bay leaves in water at a slow boil until meat is tender when pierced with a fork. Add the other ingredients, except egg yolks, and boil 15 minutes longer. Serve hot with 1 beaten egg yolk per serving (depending on taste), for thickening, and garnish with parsley, sliced hard cooked egg and plain boiled potato.

This post is part of the Real Food Holidays Passover Recipe Blog Carnival.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains

A couple weeks ago during Shabbos I read "Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains" (Indiana University Press, 1995). It is what the title suggests, the memoir of Rachel Calof, a Jewish woman who "took the road less traveled," literally. She left the Old Country in 1894 to meet her husband-to-be in America, and they moved to North Dakota prairie land to stake a claim, start a farm, and raise a family. Needless to say, it's almost impossible for me to imagine the difficulties the two of them and their children experienced on the frontier. They arrived with only the shirts on their backs, but they eventually prospered. One passage moved me deeply, and I want to share it here. I know it's a little long, but it's worth it:
My spirits rose with the promise of spring and the improvement in my health. I began casting about for something to do which would improve our lot. One of our big problems was our water supply. We had dug three wells, each to a depth of seventy-five feet with poor results. Now our water supply was so scant that I decided to find some usable water in some low place on the prairie where the snow melt might run together. I did discover such a place about a mile away. I carried two pailfuls from that place, but when I got back to the shack I saw that the water was full of worms and grass. The water would have to be boiled to be usable. The solution to the problem was not so easy as we had just run out of fuel. There was nothing with which to start a fire. I was determined though, and again went out into the prairie which held many provisions if one only knew where to look. I took with me only a rope and my huge [pregnant] belly.

About two miles distant I came across a place where new grass was growing through a bed of dried-out grass. The dried grass was plentiful and looked dry enough to burn. I was delighted with my find. My pleasure, though, was tempered with a certain dread. I knew little of the wildlife of this country, and i became fearful that I would encounter a snake in the beds of dried grass. I hesitated, but soon my stomach informed me how hungry I was, and the child within me needed food too. My husband labored in the field removing rocks and I knew that he too must be hungry. I needed that boiled water to prepare some kind of a meal and I said to myself, "Don't be a spoiled person. You must risk it. Even if there is a snake there, you must try." I stepped into the area. No snake bit me and soon I was enthusiastically gathering the dried grass. Quickly I gathered a great bundle and tied it into a compact bundle with my rope.

According to the sun it was already midmorning and Abe would be coming in from the field not long after noon. I had to get home quickly but the food left in the shacks was only a little flour, some barley, some soured milk, and a little butter. A really daring idea came to me. I decided to spend a little more time looking around the place to see what else it might offer. Promptly, my further exploration brought results. I found what appeared to be wild garlic. I was delighted and ate a kernel. It tasted wonderful and didn't seem to harm me, so I gathered quite a number of bunches. My ambition by now was really on the rise. Bread and garlic alone make a poor meal. I enlarged my search area and before long I came across plants which unquestionably were wild mushrooms. Now I knew that some mushrooms were deadly poisonous. Still I thought that this was a good time to take a chance. I bit into one and held it in my mouth. It didn't burn or taste bad, so I swallowed it. I waited a while for something to happen. Nothing did, and I gathered an apronful of the mushrooms, and with my garlic and the bundle of dried grass on my shoulder, I started for home happy with my accomplishments and eager to see how I could put them to use.

Arriving at the shack, I immediately began my preparations. First I sieved the water through the fabric of a flour sack. I kneaded the dough and put it in the oven. I cleaned the mushrooms and steeped them in hot water. I then chopped up the garlic, put butter (we had our cow back) in the pan, and fried everything together. This meal made in large measure with food gathered from the wild prairie was simply delicious
. . .
My husband would soon be coming through the door. I was so happy, truly in seventh heaven, and very proud. I had used my brains an my nerve and as a result my husband would soon sit down to a fine dinner, just the two of us alone.
. . .
Never was there a more delightful dinner than that one. The food was delectable and our shanty was filled with happiness. After we finished our meal, Abe insisted on knowing all the details of my accomplishment. As he listened, his gladness became tinged with a sadness that our condition was such that I was reduced to searching the prairie for food. But nothing could destroy the magic of that hour. . . So ended a charming interlude in the harshness of our lives. It was a great moment for us and its memory has been a sustaining treasure to me over the years.
pp. 41-43
Talk about eshes chayil!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Potential for Growth

Two weeks ago I learned a Tu B'shvat sicha from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. One of the lessons the sicha focused on is what can be learned from the fact that the regalim correspond to the crop cycle (Pesach is the time of barley, Shavuos is the time of reaping the wheat, and Sukkos the in-gathering). While the Rebbe analyzed the spiritual insights to be gained from the physical growth of crops, I personally took a powerful message on physical soil management out of his spiritual analogy. Here is the excerpt from the sicha:
[I]t's possible to learn about the manner of avoda of Neshamos Yisroel from the growth process of crops.

The growth of a grain crop does not originate from the wheat seed itself which is planted in the soil; rather, it comes through the decay (riqvun) of the wheat seed which is planted. By way of planting, the seed decays and becomes botel to the potential for growth (koach ha'tzomeach) in the soil. This, in turn, arouses that very potential for growth which is in the soil to cause stalks of wheat to grow. And from this another concept is understood--that the addition which comes about through the growth is not strictly an addition in quantity (that from one wheat seed comes about quite a number of seeds), but rather it can be said that it is like a new creation, something wholly different.

The yerida and aliya of the soul is a similar process. The way to achieve "growth" of the soul through "being planted on the earth" is that through a person being in a movement (tenuah) of bitul (similar to the concept of decay)--like we say in davening, "May my soul be like dust to all," which means avoda in a way of kabalas ol (which is "the beginning of avoda and its principal and root," as is written in the holy Tanya)--and then through the subsequent ascent of the soul and its "growth" it achieves an aliya completely beyond measure, and then that soul becomes like a new existence, literally.

(Likutei Sichos Chelek 36) (translation and adaptation for readability my own).
In other words, the process of a seed being planted down in the soil and then arising out of the soil, strong and bearing fruit, is analogous to the descent of the soul in this world and the potential for "spiritual growth" (a concept encapsulated in the chassidic maxim "yerida l'tzorech aliya").

But what caught my attention was the concept (as I understood it) that there is something in the soil that a seed needs in order to realize its full potential (which was referred to in the sicha as the "koach ha'tzomeach"), and that the soil "reacts" to the desire of a seed to grow. The Rebbe is presenting a piece of traditional agricultural wisdom as a matter of fact. I wonder how many people who learned this sicha completely glossed over this idea. This touches on the argument I made in my first post that there is a whole layer of understanding that we're missing in our learning because we've become separated from the land, despite the fact that the Torah and much of Jewish thought throughout the ages is rooted in an agricultural view of the world. Sure, there is a lot of content to absorb in a single sicha, and this was probably not the most important concept. It's true, there are many lessons to be learned and angles for each person to connect with. But the point is, an idea like the koach hatzomeach and similar themes in Jewish thought are not amorphous, lofty concepts. They are very real facts of life, and without knowing and understanding something so basic, like the Rebbe did, how can we really expect to plumb the depths of any Jewish literature?

So that we can start to appreciate our traditional wisdom, I will start to break down what I understood the Rebbe to have been referring to. "One tablespoon of soil contains more than one million living organisms . . . Soil isn't just dirt. A square meter of topsoil can contain a thousand different species of animals." (Keith, Lierre. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. PM Press, 2009, p. 18.) Ecologically speaking, soil is a living organism that interacts with plants and helps them reach their full potential. The community of microorganisms in soil "slowly breaks humus [topsoil] down into the chemical elements plants need to grow, elements including, but not limited to, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This process is as much biological as chemical, involving the symbiosis of plants and the mycorrhizal fungi that live in and among their roots; the fungi offer soluble nutrients to the roots, receiving a drop of sucrose in return." (Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma. Penguin Books, 2006, p. 147.) In fact, some plants, like many legumes for instance, have clearly-established symbiotic relationships with these microscopic communities. If you pull up the roots of, for instance, a lupine plant, you'll most likely see little white clumps interspersed on the roots. Those are nodules where bacteria are working to fix nitrogen from the air and make it accessible to the plant. Without those bacteria, in other words, without the soil reacting to the needs of the plant, it would certainly not grow to its full potential, and it is doubtful whether it would grow at all.

A counter-argument might be: "But plants can grow without soil! What about hydroponics?" It's true, a seed can grow without soil. However, a plant that grew in rich, active soil is more complete, in a deeper way, than one grown with chemicals in a sterile hydroponic medium.

As farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka writes in his opus The One Straw Revolution, "Gravel culture, sand culture, and hydroponics are getting more popular all the time. The vegetables are grown with chemical nutrients and by light which is filtered through a vinyl covering. It is strange that people have come to think of these vegetables grown chemically as 'clean' and safe to eat. Foods grown in soil balanced by the action of worms, microorganisms, and decomposing animal manure are the cleanest and most wholesome of all." (New York Review of Books, 1978, 2009. p. 66)

The same can be said of the soul--A soul can exist basking in G-dly light without coming down to this lowly world, but you can't compare the completeness and advantage it attains in this world to before it came when it was basking in G-dly light.

Throughout history, plant agriculture was conceived of as more or less a magical and miraculous process (which, in fact, it is). Indeed, as Yidden, every single day we acknowledge that plant growth is beyond our power when we daven that G-d should bless us with "all the varieties of [the year']s produce for good." (Siddur Tehillat Hashem. Merkos L'Inyonei Chinush, 2003, p. 48.) But farmers work hard, don't they? Shouldn't we give them a lot of credit? Well, they do work hard, but they have no control over the fact that a seed wants to grow and the soil wants to help it. A very hard-working farmer I know once wrote, "Nothing we do has anything to do with the fact that a tomato grows. We may seed, transplant, hoe, water, thin, sucker, tie up and clip, and harvest--but ultimately, the fact of a tomato at all is completely beyond us."

But today, in large part, we don't think about agriculture. We don't think about where our food comes from, and as a People, many of us have forgotten about facts of life like the koach hatzomeach, and when, for instance, the Rebbe refers to that concept (or the Gemara or Halacha), we lose out. We also lose out when we use our money to support agricultural practices that either kill the soil or deplete the rich topsoil layer that has been built up by hardworking microorganisms for hundreds or thousands of years. That should suffice for the discerning.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Tu B'shvat and is getting excited for Adar, as I know I am.