how does your garden grow?
The Jewish tradition is ripe with references to the significance of cultivating a relationship with Mother Nature. We are commanded to avoid destruction or cause needless suffering to living creatures; we have a plethora of laws relating to agriculture, the major festivals are directly related to the harvest cycle, and numerous references appear in the Torah tradition that describe the love, appreciation, and gratitude that is ideally expressed for our beautiful and delicious planet.
For some of us, however, finding a tangible medium for the expression of this relationship as an aspect of Jewish tradition is less concrete. A recent burst of interest in Jewish-framed agricultural activity is starting to revitalize awareness of the significance of our connection to Mother Earth as a facet of our relationship to God and provide the sought-after connection. The mission statement of Kayam Farm in Reisterstown, Maryland, reads: “Kayam embodies and inspires social and ecological responsibility by transforming our community through hands-on Jewish agricultural education.” At Kayam, I experienced first-hand the inspiration that was the result of hands-on Jewish agricultural education. This “education” was both overt, such as in the form of topical classes or traditional study texts, and subtle, such as the experience of plucking beets tended from seedling, or dancing to Lecha Dodi amongst corn, peppers, and cabbage, illuminated by the setting harvest sun. The CSA program provided food and volunteer opportunities for local participants; the JCC farmers’ market was graced by the glory of Kayam produce. Tomatoes were everywhere, and so was God. For me, Kayam was about exploring a relationship with Mother Nature in a Jewish context.
Even without conventional “farmland”, some are starting to bring the farm back home. The Charlie Buffone Community Garden in Worcester, MA, run entirely by neighborhood youth, gives away the produce to neighborhood residents and even makes fruit and vegetable baskets for senior citizens. Likewise, the MyFarm enterprise intends to turn San Francisco's under-used, overgrown backyards into functional garden space, and thereby provide organic produce for the city's residents.
In a Jewish context, we can also encourage and facilitate the cultivation of residential produce, simply as a lesson in revitalizing the Jewish-agricultural connection or intentionally designating garden produce for a value-based project. For example, Garden Plot Shabbat (GPS) could be a periodic, communal, pot-luck dinner where residential produce is prepared and shared by members of the Jewish community; Plotting AgainsT Hunger (PATH) would grow food designated for the impoverished; Jewish Interfaith Gardens (JIG) might cultivate produce designated for members of other religious affiliations with whom we seek to foster fraternity and perhaps thereby synthesize a new tradition of gift sharing.
Such projects could also create an appropriate setting for learning about Jewish agricultural principles and Torah perspectives on the relationship between Jew and Mother Nature. A core group of skilled volunteers would prepare, maintain, and harvest garden space for those who require assistance, provide inspiration, and spread the word. These volunteers would also be accessible to the Jewish community as a resource for assistance in the cultivation of edible garden space in general, as a method of community service and sustainable agricultural activism.
“Intentional” designation is a Torah concept apparent in topics such as tithing, sacrificial designation, laws pertaining to the synagogue, vows, and even business transactions, and is a method of imbuing activity with intended meaning or sanctity. Informally designating produce, whether for a friend or a thematic project, is an opportunity to inspire an awareness of the participation in cultivation as an expression of compassion for creation.