Gifts and Gleanings

We are blessed to have a variety of fruit trees (which my husband lovingly calls ‘our orchard’) and a huge vegetable garden in our yard. While some of the trees were established when we moved in 7 years ago, we have added some variety over the years, one each year on Tu B’Shvat (the New Year of the trees). It is truly joyful to go out there in the morning for a piece of fruit or a handful of strawberries for breakfast, or in the evening to gather much of our salad for dinner. Mostly, we grow far more than we need. To be sure, we never go anywhere empty-handed; our friends and family are the happy recipients of bunches of kale and lettuce, bags of lemons or limes, onions or tomatoes, bottles of pomegranate juice, or just an extra apple, fig or plum pie. It brings great satisfaction to share the work of our hands and the ‘fruits’ (and vegetables – pun intended) of the land. For me and my family, growing as much as we do is about more than just sharing our harvest with those we know.

This week, we read in Leviticus 23: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger; I am the Lord your God.”

As I have taught and discussed this passage many times over the years to children and adults alike, the first thing we try to do is bring these verses into the present – ‘we are not farmers anymore, hungry people don’t wander around coming to the corners of your field…..’ and so we talk about what it means to ‘leave the corners’ of your pantry, donating food to food banks. While that is a certainly consequential and current response to these words of Torah, I think that there is a more profound experience for which Torah is striving here, when you become an active part of the cultivation of your food. The the cost of seeds or plants, soil, nutrients and water combined with the hours of activity to plant, weed and prune with give us a more substantial connection to our food as we watch it unfold each day. We understand gleanings in a powerful way – it is so easy to knock off an extra apple, a tomato. When I go to the store, I buy what I need; I do not consider what would be ‘too much’. The idea of leaving the corners of your field inherently means that I have more than I need, that as a mitzvah – a holy obligation – I have to make do with somewhat less than the entirety of what I grow. Additionally, even as we may do everything ‘right’ in our processes of planting and growing, there is still a powerful and unpredictable element – God (nature) – that works in partnership with us to bring forth the harvest, sometime in concert and sometimes at odds with us. We work very diligently in our garden, yet some years may have much less to show for it than we anticipate. Therefore, our harvest – each pea, each pepper – becomes very exciting and very precious.

Our ancestors understood this relationship to the land; our Torah’s instruction becomes that much more meaningful in light of that relationship. While we don’t live in a world where it is acceptable for the needy or the hungry to wander through my yard, I can bring some of my home-grown produce to our local food pantry where it is distributed to those in my town whose bellies are empty. While it is important to continue to participate in stocking your local food pantry, it evokes a powerful mindfulness and depth of gratitude for what we have in sharing the actual sweat of our brow and toil of our hands, giving from actual food that would otherwise be on our table. There is great satisfaction in actually growing your own food – remember the simple project in early grade school years of planting a bean in some soil in a cup, and eagerly anticipating its gentle sprouting. Recapture that awe and take the time to plant something, anything that will offer you some sort of harvest. You don’t need a big garden; even one little pot will suffice. Savor the time and effort that it will take for that plant to grow and to bring you sweet or savory sustenance – and be sure to know that in partnership with God’s creation, you facilitated the amazing growing of a fruit or vegetable, some of which is to then be shared with those in need.

[Kedoshim 2014]

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Put On Your Mask First Before Assisting Others

Picture the last time you heard these words: “Please be sure to securely fasten your mask first before attempting to help others.”  Did you even notice the flight attendant speaking (assuming it wasn’t a video presentation)? Did you actually watch the video?  While possibly in denial about the risks of air travel (though not the point of these musings!), this is perhaps the most cogent piece of instruction in the pre-flight litany.  It is really a very selfless teaching: you won’t be any good to anyone else if you become unconscious.

We don’t always have to pass out from lack of oxygen to be ‘living unconsciously’.  Progressing through our day mindlessly we may be alive and moving, but not really paying attention to all that crosses our path and our awareness.  For me, the reading of the passages of the Book of Leviticus – seemingly dry, problematic, difficult, uncomfortable, messy, awkward, and/or outdated – I try to dig deeper, beyond the chaotic rituals of burnt offerings or the complex layers of prohibitions to seek lessons of mindfulness and of Mussar (Jewish spiritual-ethical practice) to inspire me through my week.

Returning to the pre-flight instructions, I think that is the principle underlying a thread of this week’s Torah portion, in chapter 16 of Leviticus.  Aaron, the High Priest, is called upon to perform rituals to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. However, before Aaron can perform the rituals on behalf of the people, he has to make offerings of atonement for himself and his own household.  The Talmud teaches: ‘Improve yourself first, and then you can improve others’ (Sanhedrin, 18a). Put your own mask on first; attend to your own spirit, in order for you to be most effective in your life and the lives of those around you.

In Leviticus 16:30 we read: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Eternal.”  This, then, is the intent of this set of rituals.  It is the purpose that we still hang on to, in our observance of Yom Kippur, its nascent beginning also described in this portion, in the prior verses.  Of course, the mask analogy is invoked only in the case of an emergency; I contend that this is a valuable principle for daily living.  We need to reach for those things that will anchor, sustain and enrich us in order to be the best that we can be for those we care for and care about.  As we prepare for Pesach in the coming days by removing the chametz – the physical and spiritual crumbs that muck up our homes and ourselves – perhaps you can envision that ritual to be your own oxygen mask, sustaining you, so that you can be ready to assist others to be sustained and inspired by our people’s story of redemption.

[Acharei Mot 2014 – Shabbat Hagadol :The Shabbat before Pesach]