This week's portion: inscription

Harvest blessings (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah. Reading about preserving late-August tomatoes makes me a little bit wistful, this year; thanks to the nightshade blight, we've only gotten a handful of fruits this year, and there will be no extravaganza of rich red tomato preservation. But there's always next year...

All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the Lord your God:

Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.

I meditated on this passage from Ki Tavo while working in my kitchen this week. My husband and I belong to a community-supported farm. For many years (twelve, for me; in his case, fourteen) we have purchased a share in the farm's holdings, and each week during summer and early fall we bring home the dazzling bounty of our local soil.

Early Elul tends to coincide with the tomato harvest. Heirloom tomatoes we blanch, and peel, and crush, and simmer, and then freeze in Ziploc bags, to be thawed when snow brushes against the windowsills. Plum tomatoes we "sun-dry" in our oven, and that's the task that has occupied my week and colored my Torah thoughts.

This week's Torah portion offers two simple options: follow God's commandments and you will be blessed; fail to follow these teachings and curses will rain down upon you. Helpfully, Torah offers distinguishable right ways and wrong ways. Though most of modern life may not feel so cut-and-dried, some of our tasks still partake in this satisfying binarism. For instance, the work of putting up early-September harvest.

I try to faithfully obey the strictures of harvest. First, picking only my share, leaving tomatoes on the vine for others. Walking carefully in the furrows between rows, so as not to crush the microorganisms our farmers have so carefully nurtured in the soil. Bringing the tomatoes home and spreading them to ripen on the dining room table. Culling those with spots, those whose rot might infect their cousins. Washing them, eventually, and halving them, and scooping out with my fingers their vegetable viscera.

If I line them on cookie sheets drizzled with olive oil, and roast them in a 200-degree oven for nine hours; if I rotate the trays so that those nearest the heating coils on the bottom move to the top shelf and vice versa; if I cleanse jelly jars with boiling water, and pack them with the oven-dried tomato halves, now small and wrinkly and sometimes caramelized; if I pour olive oil over the top, filling each jar with gold and creating a barrier atop the tomatoes through which bacteria cannot penetrate...

If I do all of these things as I have been taught, then we will have five, maybe six gleaming jelly jars of sun-dried tomatoes, the fruit of local soil, to rest on our baker's rack through the Jewish holiday season, through autumn, through the falling of the leaves and the first snows, and into the chill damp days of next spring and the season when the sun returns to our skies. I will feel blessed when I venture into city spaces, and blessed here in my chosen country life. My kitchen will yield sustenance and abundance.

But if I skip a step, or cut corners; if I ignore the teachings of those who have come before me; then the blessings I seek will not materialize. If I pick tomatoes carelessly and bruise them on their way into the bucket, they will not survive the journey home. If I fail to sterilize my jars, they will foam with strange inhabitants and pop their lids, fertile ground for organisms I never wanted to nurture. And I will feel cheated, maybe even cursed.

The appropriate steps for preserving a share of New England harvest are a far cry from the kind of spiritual and ethical teachings contained in Torah, to which the verses in this week's portion refer. But both the written text of our tradition, and the lived Torah of human experience, show the lessons, and blessings, to be found in following established steps wisely. And there's some overlap between the Torah's teachings about first fruits, and my community's conventional wisdom about harvest-time.

This week's portion urges the Israelites to offer their first fruits before God. Each man is to announce (presumably accurately) that he has given a tenth of his harvest to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Only when the bounty of the land has been appropriately disbursed can one enjoy that bounty fully. Here at my community farm, a portion of what's grown is given to the needy. Vegetables picked each week but not claimed by members go to a local food pantry. Although there are no Levites to support in today's world, we can still share our abundance generously as Torah suggests.

And we can experience some of the power of the old first-fruits offerings in our ordinary mealtimes, when we offer brachot to elevate the foods that we eat. I try to sanctify the food I preserve by offering blessings when I pick it, and blessings when I pop the seal on every jar. When I eat these sun-dried tomatoes sometime next year, I'll remember the earth that brought them forth, the farmers who stewarded the plants into being, the friends to whom I waved as we passed one another in the rows...and the ineffable Source Whose fruitfulness makes possible every kind of sustenance that I am blessed to know.