[I]t's possible to learn about the manner of avoda of Neshamos Yisroel from the growth process of crops.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").
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).
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.