Shavuot: A Call for an Agrarian Torah

Health, well-being and, ultimately, collective redemption will come from home, family and land being part of a sacred system where each feeds the others. This is the heart of an agrarian Torah.
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Person working in rice terraces, Longji, China
Person working in rice terraces, Longji, China

This week, Jews all over the world will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot. Like Passover and Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles), Shavuot is one of our three main pilgrimage festivals. Our religious imaginations conjure up images of thousands of pilgrims from all over ancient Israel bringing their offerings to Jerusalem. We can hear the bleating of goats, smell the baskets of freshly harvested grain, hear the voices of families calling out to one another in the crowd. These holidays were ancient agricultural festivals, moments in the year when our community rose up in gratitude for the harvest. We rose up with the most basic human emotions: gratitude for food we received and hope for continued food abundance.

When Israelites lived in the highlands of Canaan, the bounty of food was a sign we were doing fine in our relationship with God, that we were keeping our end of the covenant with the One who took us out of Egypt. The festivals celebrated agricultural bounty as a sign of the enduring covenantal relationship. But in exile after 70 CE, Judaism changed. The festivals lost their connection to land and food. Today, Jews learn that Sukkot celebrates traveling in the desert in huts, but we do not learn about the harvest at the start of the rainy season. We learn that Passover is the celebration of leaving Egypt, but we do not learn about lambing season and preparation for the spring harvest. We learn that Shavuot is the celebration of the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai, not about the first fruits and barley harvest of the spring.

In her book "Scripture, Culture and Agriculture," Ellen F. Davis describes agrarianism as "a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on health of the land and of living creatures." She argues persuasively that the Hebrew Bible is, at its heart, agrarian literature; it is the story of a particular people who live in a particular fragile ecosystem and who struggle to maintain intimacy with God through their care of local, family-held lands that produce food over generations.

In the midst of our global ecological crisis, Jews -- and indeed all people who hold the Hebrew Scriptures as canon -- must turn our attention to the deep connection among Judaism, agriculture and healthy communities. Today, I want to turn to the Book of Ruth, traditionally read on Shavuot. Here, we find a story of reconnection with land that is, perhaps, the very Torah we need to receive this year.

Ruth tells the story of a family swept off its fields in Israel by famine. When they flee to Moab for food, the men in the family die of illness. Years later, when the famine lifts, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, a Moabite, return to Naomi's village of origin. They return during the barley harvest.

Too poor to afford food, Ruth goes to glean barley in the field of a wealthy farmer named Boaz. Boaz turns out to be a close relative of Naomi's late husband, and he is therefore a family redeemer who can marry Ruth. Often overlooked as part of his role, Boaz is also the person who can reclaim the land Naomi's family had to sell in the famine (see Leviticus 25:23-28 for laws on relatives redeeming land for each other). In marrying each other and reacquiring the family's land, Boaz and Ruth reunite the land with its family.

Boaz and Ruth are the great-grandparents of King David, from whose line, tradition says, will come the messianic age. The reuniting of a family with its land, the rejoining of an individual with his own food production, the sense of belonging and membership in land community -- these are the tenets of an agrarian mindset. In agrarian language, the remembering of people and land -- literally becoming members again of each other -- is the seed of our collective redemption.

In an ideal agrarian mindset, families care for land because their children and the land itself depend on it. Davis points out that this concept of generational family landholding is "nahala" in Biblical Hebrew. Boaz uses the word nahala when he describes redeeming the fields for Naomi.

But in our time, all over the world, small farmers are losing and have lost their land, their nahalot. Large corporations and poor government policies have broken the local economies of family landholdings. We, like Naomi's family, have become vulnerable to famine caused not only by climate change, but also by poor policies that allow concentration of food production in the hands of multinational food corporations and a shockingly small number of crops. Like Naomi's family, millions of people worldwide are losing their family farms and land. Like Naomi's family, millions will be environmental refugees.

Those of us whose families haven't been farmers for generations are divorced from our local food systems, sent into a strange world of food that comes in plastic, where we do not feel connected to our soil, our farms, our seasons, our droughts. We live in a society where it is now possible for a child to tell a teacher friend of mine, "I don't eat food that comes from dirt."

The story of Ruth is a story of home, family and land, and the relationship among these three life-sustaining concepts. It is a story that says health, well-being and, ultimately, collective redemption will come from home, family and land being part of a sacred system where each feeds the others. This is the heart of an agrarian Torah.

This Shavuot, what will your pilgrimage to Jerusalem be? How will you connect to the season and harvest? Consider joining a CSA and shopping at farmers' markets this summer to support your local farms. Or donating to an organization that supports food justice, indigenous rights and land stewardship. Ask your legislators and congressmen to support food policy that protects small farmers and puts limits on big agrobusiness. And go outside in your neighborhood to see what is growing. Call the land you live on home, and not just a house. Play Boaz and Ruth to your own life and reunite with the land.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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