Turning to the Land

The warm weather brings us outside, and for many of us our thoughts turn to gardens and planting. It is time, once again, to till the soil.

Looking at the small section of the earth that is under my care I can’t help but sigh. For the decade I have lived here I have engaged in a somewhat losing battle with the forces of nature, the perennial blackberries make their approach, ready to consume all if just given the chance. The bindweed pokes up from the ground ready to pounce. Yet in spite of it, I look over and see how I have in part transformed this landscape, and made the land arable. With much digging and pulling, and with the help of a few scratching and pecking chickens, I have made space for growing food and flowers.

This is the time to turn to the land, for we are in the middle of the Omer period in our calendar. We count each day between Passover and Shavuot, linking the Festival of Freedom and Liberation with the Festival of Torah, Law and Wisdom. But the Torah origin of this period is agricultural, counting the days between harvests. Shavuot, which we will mark in two weeks, is called the Festival of First Fruits, when our ancient ancestors would take the first fruits of their harvest and bring them to the Temple as a dedication, a gesture of thanks for the forces beyond our control which resulted in a bountiful crop. We can plant, water, weed, tend and till–but nature will determine what grows. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate gratitude.

This is the time to turn to the land, because this Shabbat is parashat Behar. We read as part of our weekly Torah reading cycle the section in Leviticus which discusses shmita. Just as humans have a Shabbat every seventh day, the land is to have a Shabbat every seven years. On the seventh year the land goes fallow to renew itself and regenerate, to take a break from production, to just be. Just as we need a break, our Torah teaches that the land needs a break as well. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate humility.

This is the time to turn to the land, because also in parasha Behar we learn of the Jubilee, that every seventh turn of this seven year cycle is the Jubilee year, in which a complete remission of debts is announced, land is returned to its original holders. We are reminded in our dealings with one another that we must not wrong one another, be fair in business dealings, assist  those who are in dire straits and not take advantage of another for our own financial gain. That our redemption of the land is to also remind us of our redemption of one another. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate compassion.

[It is the time to turn to the land because in our Olympia community this week we draw the connection between land and poverty, between agriculture and sustenance, between sustainability and hunger with the CROP Walk, the annual interfaith event in which TBH participates to raise money for hunger relief in our community and around the world. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate joint action.]

This is the time to turn to the land because next week is a minor, “unofficial” holiday–Rainbow Day. Tuesday is the 27th of the month of Iyyar, which the story in Genesis tells us is the day the flood waters completely abated, the land was dry, Noah alighted from the Ark and God made a covenant with him that the world will not again be destroyed by flood. Noah was to follow simple guidelines–to live in peace with the earth and with others–in order to form a just foundation to the new society he will build after the previous one was destroyed. The rainbow serves as the symbol of that covenant. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate peace and justice.

We are told in the Noah story that God made the covenant not just with Noah, but with the earth. (Genesis 9:13) In parashat Behar, we learn “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”(Leviticus 25:23) We are reminded that we are of the land, that we are in relationship with the land, and our connection with the land is a path to the sacred. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate holiness.

Remember this as you get your hands dirty.

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