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Pluralistic PerspectivesBack to the Garden

When I moved from New York City to Portland three years ago, my life changed in many ways. One of the biggest: I began to garden.

Gardening may not sound like a big deal. But for me, it’s been life-changing. Not only are the herbs, fruits, vegetables, and flowers I’ve been tending delicious and gorgeous; they’ve also become great teachers of Torah for me. They teach me daily about time, cycles, and the sacred life force that connects us all. So this year, I read Parshat Behukotai through the green lens of my garden.

In previous years, I’ve had a hard time relating to this Torah portion’s old-school, vengeful God.

But my little patch of earth suggests a more meaningful lens on the rewards and punishments projected by this portion. Considered with my knees in the metaphorical dirt, Behukotai’s vision of two starkly different environmental futures feels prescient rather than punitive: just what we need to hear in this ecological moment.

Can the tough love of this ancient text help us understand what is at stake?

First, the good version of the future: “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your food to satiety, and you will live securely in your land.” (Leviticus 26:3-5)

The rewards promised here are so simple: seasonal rains, productive fruit trees, fields of steadily ripening grain. Lovely, but…aren’t these elemental functions a little underwhelming, considering that God could promise anything? If the Torah is looking to inspire obedience, wouldn’t miracles be more tempting than a good zucchini crop?

But my garden has taught me that “miraculous” and “natural” are a false dichotomy. The fact that a seed grows into a beautiful, fleshy, satisfying watermelon is magical.

And so it makes sense that the utopian promise is not heaven, but earth. Our ancestors, pre-factory-farm, understood the miraculous elegance of a functional ecosystem.

No wonder those ancestors equated the functions of nature with a satisfied Divine! And no wonder they feared a displeased Divine would mean a broken ecosystem. In the dystopian version of the future, “You will sow your seed in vain…your land will not yield its produce, neither will the tree of the earth give forth its fruit…. when I break for you the staff of bread, and ten women will bake your bread in one oven, and they will bring back your bread by weight, and you will eat, yet not be satisfied.” (Leviticus 26: 16, 20, 26)

I grew up in a secular home and began serious Jewish study in my twenties, drawn by the Torah’s love and wisdom, rather than bound by its threat of punishment. My God is a God of compassion, of transformation, who offers solace rather than reproval, who shows us a way forward.

And yet. Environmentally, I find Behukotai’s model hard to argue with. If we break the “laws” of natural cycles through waste and environmental destruction, those cycles will fail to sustain us. It’s not a matter of reward and punishment, of anger overcoming love; it’s simply common sense. Like a message in a bottle, this ancient text speaks directly to one of the distinctively modern, pressing issues of our day.

And if we do survive, will we be satisfied?

This question also threads throughout Behukotai’s ecological warnings: in a good future, we will “eat our food to satiety”; in a dystopian future, we will “eat, yet not be satisfied.”

Our portion’s nuanced focus on satiety is another startlingly prescient idea. Mass-produced food can give us calories aplenty, satiating the most basic form of our hunger. But some scientists argue that the mass-produced food many Americans eat is deficient in the vitamins and minerals our bodies also need, due to overfarming and poor soil quality.

And my garden has taught me about a deeper satisfaction. Nothing wrapped in plastic and shipped across the world will ever approach the quasi-mystical feeling of connection that comes from plucking a garden strawberry, warm from the sun, and letting its juice fill my mouth.

In Behukotai, the Torah describes a relationship between humans and God that is expressed through nature. When the relationship goes well, the ecosystem functions; when it breaks down, so does the ecosystem. And as abstract as this mechanism sounds, I’ve learned from my garden that communication with the Divine can indeed happen through plants. Through loving attention, water, soil and time, I’ve begun to learn a whole new language for interacting with the force we call God. And I’ve come to value the Earth not only because we need it to survive physically, but also because we need it to survive spiritually.

Speaking to God through my peas and sage, spiritual survival through tending the soil–this might sound a little bit “out there” to contemporary urbanites; but then again, there it is, right there at the beginning of the Torah. God had a garden, too. That’s where we spoke to each other for the first time. That’s where our love story began.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher. Her book of poetry, Divinity School, won the 2015 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. She has released three albums of indie-folk songs about women in Torah with her musical project, Girls in Trouble.