This week, we read parashat Behar, a section of the Torah which deals principally with agricultural traditons. While thinking about the parasha, I considered once again a sermon I gave two years ago when this parasha coincided with Yom Ha’atzmaut: Israel Independence Day. I realized that I had never posted the sermon on my blog so it was worth doing so even though we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut a couple of weeks ago. It is one of those sermons which brought together so many of my interests that I thought it appropriate to post it today.
SERMON FOR PARASHAT BEHAR
CONNECTING WITH THE LAND
May 10, 2014
My sermon this morning is inspired by several different sources. It certainly is inspired by the agricultural traditions spoken of in Parashat Behar. But it also has its source in this week’s celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, and my fascination with American History. Finally, it is inspired by one of the most unsettling moments I have experienced in my life. I will describe that event in all of its not so gory details in a few moments.
But, before I begin, let me tell you one thing my sermon is not about. It is not to be viewed as a veiled reference to any political position regarding Israel. I remain a staunch supporter of the two state solution which I believe would mean security and stability for Israel and self determination and an end to the occupation for Palestinians. God willing, it is still an option and will occur in our day. But, today’s sermon is not about political conflict or solutions.
I want to begin by teaching you an expression from the Talmud. After an exposition on a point of textual interpretation, the Talmud often includes the question: Mai Nafka Mina?. This literally means: “What comes out of this?” “What are we supposed to learn from this?” Or, as we might say today: “What is the takeaway from the story?”
When a particularly impactful incident has occurred to us, we might ask: “Mai Nafka Mina?”This past week, I realized that there may be a different “nafka mina” from a personal story that I have told many times from the bima and in print.
The scene: kibbutz Mishmar Haemek, a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley in Central Israel. The date: October 1979. The participants: a 15 or 16 year old ideologically passionate kibbutznik and a naïve, idealistic 24 year old third year Rabbinical Student. This student had never been to Israel before arriving 10 days earlier to begin a year of study in Eretz Yisrael. Still somewhat jet lagged and still unsure how the year was going to go, he stands facing the kibbutznik.
In case you haven’t guessed, the student is me.
So, the young man asks me: “Why would you ever want to be a Rabbi?”
My answer: “I want to be a Rabbi because I want to teach Torah and help people understand the significance of Jewish tradition for their lives.”
The young man’s response: “Stick out your hand”.
I dutifully stick out my hand.
He reaches down, picks up a clump of mud from the field we are standing in, shoves it into my open hand and says: “Zot Hatorah kulah”. “This is the entire Torah” and he walks away leaving me with my hand dripping with the mud of Eretz Yisrael.
I was stunned and quite angry to say the least and immediately came up with my nafka mina, my takeaway. Immediately, I recognized that my fears in going to Israel had been confirmed. I feared I would be surrounded by people who thought that all one had to do to live a good Jewish life was to live in Israel. Values, Torah, holidays, Jewish law- none of these would be important to them. All one has to do is stand on the ground-the rest is superfluous and meaningless.
And, that interaction with this young man bothered me for weeks. I began to resent being in Israel and I couldn’t wait to get home to my promised land of American Conservative Judaism and Camp Ramah in New England.
Fortunately, after a few weeks, I began to realize that not all Israelis thought like this young man. And, while I still couldn’t wait to get back to Camp, I realized I might learn something from my year in Israel and opened myself up to other experiences and realized how much Israel had to offer me. I also realized how much I might gain from talking with people who expressed their Zionism in equally passionate if not so disrespectful ways. It turned out to be a very good year and my 12 subsequent trips to Israel have been unforgettable.
But, this week, as I mentioned, I began to think of another takeaway from the story rather than just remembering a young man’s denigration of the importance of Torah. And, that takeaway is critical for all of us.
Today, we read about the Sabbatical Year and many other agricultural traditions. We read about how to treat those who work the land for you. And, there are other laws in Behar most of which highlight connection with the land. Reading between the lines of the Torah we find an exposition of the importance of a connection of a people and the land they stand on and dig in.
As I thought about the parasha in this way, I thought of another area of personal interest. I have been doing quite a bit of reading about American History in the last few years, especially enjoying biographies of the presidents and I thought about the marvelous biography of John Adams by David McCollough. I remembered how he wrote about Adams as a farmer before and after his presidency and how his passion for independence intertwined with his commitment to farming.
Then, in looking for a quote from President Adams to use for this sermon, I came across another book which I have ordered but haven’t read by Andrea Wulf called Founding Gardeners about the dedication of so many of our founding fathers to farming. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, the author said: “On an ideological level, the founders believed America should be an agrarian republic of virtuous citizens who were connected to the country because they worked the soil.”
Even this city boy can understand how much we’ve lost by not connecting more to the soil and why it is so important to regain that connection. The connection leads to an affirmation of values and of feeling part of a society.
Perhaps that is why so many have chosen to help the future of urban areas by urban farming. I know this is happening quite a bit in Detroit and our madrichim, our high school students, have helped with urban farming in the city. In doing so, they have understood graphically how people are finding new hope in the city by connecting with the soil.
And, think of our own Beth Israel garden. Yes, we give many of the vegetables to tzedakah and that’s certainly important. But, in and of itself, digging into the dirt with one’s own hands make this city feel even more like home. We become more deeply connected by working the soil.
That brings me back to Israel. Even as Israel has developed into the “start up nation” and high tech is everywhere and everyone has cable TV and Toys ‘R Us and McDonalds dot the landscape, the image many of us have of Israel in our moments of emotional connection is of the farmer digging in the soil of the holy land.
If you have the feeling, as I do, that Israelis aren’t quite as passionate about their nation and as patriotic as they used to be and if we think that is true of Americans as well, perhaps it is because too many of them and too many of us have lost touch with the land, with the soil.
Maybe my young friend on the kibbutz wasn’t telling me that Torah is not important. Maybe I was supposed to walk away with a different nafka mina. Maybe he was saying to me that the land, the soil, the ground we stand on and put our hands and feet in is in fact the basis of Torah. For Israelis, for Americans, taking greater note of those who farm the land and joining them even in small ways can breed a restored passion for the nation in which we live and the values which we hold dear.
Let me conclude with a simple Israeli song that I learned many years ago. As so many of us seek to regain the passion we felt at one time about Israel and maybe our own nation as well, I suggest we might turn our attention away from politics and technology for a moment and consider, even in our urban environments, the simple truth that the ground we stand on and dig in is holy.
Eretz Yisrael sheli yaffa v’gam porachat
Mi bana u’mi natah? Kulanu biyachad
Anee natati etz b’eretz Yisrael.
Az yesh lunu etz. V’yesh lanu bayit b’eretz Yisrael.
My Eretz Yisrael is beautiful and flourishing
Who built it and who planted it? All of us together.
I planted a tree in Eretz Yisrael.
So, we have a tree and a house in Eretz Yisrael.
The founders of Israel who worked the land to free themselves and better themselves, the founders of our country who connected farming with independence and those today who farm the land, either in rural or urban settings, teach us all a very important takeaway: that the land we stand on and dig in is holy and that, in and of itself, inspires passion, a re-connection with our highest ideals and a sense of home.