Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Address for the Interfaith Service

This is Psalm 65, and in the spirit of the evening I would suggest imagining this being written by a farmer, finished with the days work, sitting under the stars, in the quiet with the crickets, wanting somehow to express gratitude and awe, but feeling dwarfed nonetheless by his own shortcomings.

Psalm 65, translated by Robert Alter (a fantastic new translation, completely worth acquiring for one's library and studying):

For the lead player, a psalm; for David, a song.
To you, silence is praise, God in Zion,
And to You a vow will be paid.

O listener to prayer, unto You all flesh shall come.
My deeds of mischief are too much for me.
Our crimes but you atone.

Happy whom you choose to draw close,
He will dwell in Your courts.
May we be sated with Your house’s bounty,
The holiness of Your temple.

With awesome acts justly You answer us,
Our rescuing God,
Refuge of all the earth’s ends and the far flung sea,
Who sets mountains firm in His power,
-- He is girded in might—
Who quiets the roar of the seas,
The roar of their waves and the tumult of nations.
And those who dwell at earth’s ends will fear Your signs.

The portals of morning and evening You gladden.
You pay mind to the earth and soak it.
You greatly enrich it.
God’s stream is filled with water.
You ready their grain, for so You ready it.
Quench the thirst of its furrows, smooth out its hillhocks,
Melt it with showers, it’s growth you will bless.
You crown Your bountiful year,
And Your pathways drip ripeness.
The wilderness meadows do drip,
And with joy the hills are girded.

The pastures are clothed with flocks
And the valleys are mantled with grain.
They shout for joy, they even sing.

Growing up in the city, I have never really connected to the Harvest ideas in Judaism. My understanding of religion has always had more to do with individual responsibility for the collective and the way that study can become enlightening and a creative act akin to God’s creating the world. These are ideas consistent with close urban living. Finding the magesty in texts rather than in nature. Like the psalmist here, my way into the universal, only gets edged forward bit by bit, after a recognition of my own smallness. In the way that he looks up and beyond, eventually, he probably does it quite a bit better than I.

Sukkot, Shavuot and Pesach were Harvest festivals where we connect with the agriculture of the land and bring offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. On sukkot, the ritual was totalizing and the Israelites would live out in booths in the fields and thank God for the fruits, vegetables and grains that we were fortunate to be able to cultivate. In the city, our sukkot are on cement and wedged between buildings. We try. On Shavuot, the city of Jerusalem was decorated with all of the colors of the produce. We eat cheesecake and study.

For along with these ancient agricultural festivals in Judaism, the rabbis attached literary and historical-theological events, so that we could connect to the stories of the Torah as we appreciated the bounty of the land. They would become entwined, the God of History and the God who stands outside of time, renewing the land again and again, independent of the year and the events that are going on to determine the course of history.

As a city dweller, someone who has become less and less attached to the land as the years go on, the idea of sitting back and being thankful for agricultural sustenance seems a bit inaccessible. I try to imagine what a months worth of days with my hands in the soil would do to my skin. And the feeling I would have to know that all my meals for the next eight months and the meals of my family were taken care of—at least in part to the time that I spend engaging in God’s natural world. I know that I still owe my life to the fact that food grows from the earth, especially as a vegetarian, and I still know that there are many whose livelihood depends on the fact that the earth will continue to yield its produce. But it is hard for me to approach a concept such as the Harvest. When I imagine Avraham, it is easier for me to imagine him scurrying to get home before shabbas, checking his suit for loose strings, than it is for me to imagine him taking a walk on shabbas afternoon among the corn rows. The rabbis have not helped counter this feeling of urbanized Judaism. When speaking of Yaakov being a yoshev ohalim (someone who sits in tents), they turned this from what it could have meant-- that he appreciated the outdoors in a serene way (as opposed to his brother Esav, who hunted) to meaning that he liked to stay indoors and study in the yeshivas.

Since living in Israel on Kibbutz, harvesting dates from the tops of trees overlooking the mountains in Jordan , or picking scallions for 8 hours a day, I have dwelt more indoors than out. New York, I think can do that to you.

In order to continually recognize the source of our blessings. And consequently it continue to recognize the daily connection that we have to the land, Jews say brachot every time we put something into our mouths. The blessings vary based on what one is eating.

For the apples we put in pies—one says:
Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, creator of the fruit of the trees.

For barley, one says: Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, who creates different kinds of grains.

For bread one says: Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

For sweet potatoes and cranberries (which grow in swamps) one says: Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the ground.

For turkey one says: Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, by whose word the whole world was created.

Perhaps another reason, besides for the fact that I exist in an urban setting, that the ability to connect to the Harvest is hard to come by is that the notion of a harvest feels so satisfied and for better or worse, satisfaction is hard to come by as a Jew. Planting is easier to stomach. It feels like a mission. It is about making the world better.

In the area of Harvest, we still have rules that remind us that the local harvest may be complete, but the grand harvest, or the project of making plenty in the world is far from it. In the Harvest, a jew does not have free reign over the experience. He or she may not harvest, for example, on the 7th year of a cycle. He can not harvest the crops that fall to the ground. He may not take certain small clusters of grapes, or go back for forgotten clusters, and he cannot plow to the edge of the field – all of these must be left for the poor.

So even in the harvest there is a notion of planting. Planting for a better world.

All the same, we need to sit back to remember the necessity of appreciating the land and appreciating that which has been given us. God has created a system that allows food to spring from the ground and has make us partners in bringing that food to our tables and to the mouths of our children. It is a system that allows us to recognize the dependence that we have on God, but it also continually empowers us, rewarding us for the efforts that we expend.

If we do not sit back and appreciate what we have, then we may likely lose sight of the ultimate project of making sure that everyone is provided for and that a continual harvest happens on earth. To feel thankful is at the same time to motivate. To continue to remember the goal of all our work.

A story, Peninah Shram's version of Honi Ha-Ma'agal:

Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, "How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?"

The man replied, "Seventy years."

Honi then asked the man, "And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?"

The man answered, "Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees."

On Thanksgiving, as those who are enjoying the carob of those who came before us, we should be thankful for their foresight. After the shouts for joy, the songs of praise uttered, we will continue to do what we can to make sure the valleys are mantled with grain.

And break silences both in praise of God and in service of planting because we know we must.

(The picture is from

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