People of the Book, People of the Land
Having the honor of giving a dvar Torah on the Shabbat of the first-ever Teva Adamah reunion has been an inspiring challenge. I knew I would not be speaking to just any group of visionary, talented, creative, powerful individuals, but to a cohort of thinkers and doers of which I am so proud to be a part. Whether we worked the silty, nutrient-rich soil of the sadeh through hot summer suns and late fall frosts as Adamah fellows, or lead nervous and excited kids through dark hikes in the forests to learn the sounds of nature at nighttime, each of us has been engaged with grounding our understanding of ourselves, as Jews, in the earth.
We have also played and experimented with how to deepen our connection to earth through our Judaism—be it waking up at 5:00am to bless our work, our fields, and our day, davening between rows of sunflowers and tomatoes as the sun comes up, or absorbing wisdom from our ancient texts on when and how to let our land lie fallow. During our time here at Isabella Freedman we immersed ourselves in the language of the hills, lakes, streams, mosquitoes, tics, and clouds. All of this while we learned, discussed, and debated the texts of our tradition. We have seen how our Judaism comes alive when brought into conversation with our deepest values.
We know from the Torah that we come from a long line of gardeners and shepherds—from the first humans in Gan Eden through the lines of all our biblical ancestors. Ours are a people whose daily life revolved around the cycles of the seasons and whose knowledge of the natural world must have been vast. We know that our tradition is rich with ecological wisdom about respecting the integrity of all life on the planet, no matter how small. And we know that our yearly calendar of festivals revolves around the sprouting of seeds and the harvesting of produce, from counting the days of the grain harvest during the time of the omer to celebrating Sukkot, Hag haAsif, the harvest festival.
We have learned how to look at our liturgy and ask how it may speak to our lives today. For us, mechaye ha metim – traditionally understood as resurrection of the dead in the world to come – has also become about brining new life to rotting food or hungry soil. Through dumpster diving, turning over our compost piles, and, of course fermenting every past-its-prime vegetable we can get our hands on, we work towards making this world the world to come.
However strong these connections feel to us now, I would guess, for many of us, it has not always been so. For many of us, the Judaism that we inherited was more a Judaism of the intellect, which creates connection through liturgy, theological argument, and dedicated study, rather than through experience in the body and in the earth. Yet, somewhere along the way, we each felt a pull, perhaps to express moments of awe and amazement in the natural world through a Jewish vocabulary, or to deepen our understanding of ourselves as Jews by brining in a deeper knowledge of the Earth and all that lives within in. This yearning brought us here as a stop on our journey where intellectual grappling and physical engagement with the natural world could not only be held and appreciated as vital parts of Judaism, but could be brought into conversation with one another to produce new, exciting and powerful connections.
As the writer and philosopher Wolfgang Goethe writes in his unpublished work Polarity, “Whatever appears in the world must divide if it is to appear at all. What has divided seeks itself again, can return to itself and reunite. In the reunion of the intensified halves it will produce a third thing, something new, higher, and unexpected.”
Long ago, in our ancestral past, a deep split occurred in Judaism, which created a division between the person of intellect and the person of the earth. These two broken halves were eventually brought back together, creating something new, something that, even until today, is vital to our understanding of ourselves as Jews. This week’s parsha is the story of that split and, finally, that reunion.
This week, we read in parshat Toldot that Rebekah, after years of struggling with infertility, becomes pregnant. Evidently feeling pain as this new life is developing in inside of her, Rebekah demands of Gd “Im kein, lamah ze anochi – if so, why do I exist?” We hear in her words the cry of utter confusion, anguish, and despair. Who knew that bringing new life into the world would be such a struggle?
Incredibly, Gd hears Rebekah’s cry and responds directly to her question. While before her pregnancy Isaac served as an intermediary between her and Gd, praying to Gd that she be able to conceive, now, Rebekah is granted direct communication with Gd, who tells her that two nations exist in her womb, two separate peoples will issue from her body. Now we can understand what is tormenting Rebekah from within. She is experiencing not only the pains of bringing forth life, but the pain of birthing a duality into existence.
No sooner are we intrigued by Gd’s foreshadowing remarks than Jacob and Esau tumble on to the scene. Almost immediately, we begin to learn of their differences. In his essay “Restoring a Blessing,” our very own Shamu writes “Esau fell in love with the mountains of Edom, the pyramid peaks, the steep canyons and the long sandy plains stretching to the valley floor. Esau was a hunter and a wanderer. Jacob preferred the cool shadows of the tent; he was a thinker.” We read that Esau is called “Admoni,” coming from the root aleph, dalet, mem, playing on the word “adamah,” earth. Esau is a skillful hunter and knowledgeable in the ways of the land. In the text he is called an “ish sadeh” – a “man of the field.” Jacob, on the other hand, far from being a rugged man of the field, is said to have “dwelled in tents.” Unclear on exactly what this description means, the rabbis ask what were these “tents” of Jacob? They explain that one was the tent where he lived, and the other was a place of learning. In the Targum—the translation of the Torah into Aramaic, which tends to fill in places where the text seems vague— we read that Jacob spends his days frequenting the schoolhouses, occupied with matters of the mind.
As we know, the difference between the brother’s personalities is only the starting point for the deep divide that develops between them. Living in a society where rights and privileges are bestowed on the first born, Jacob covets his brother’s first child status. In pursuit of attaining this for himself, Jacob first tricks Esau into giving him his birthright. And, just a little while later, with the help of Rebekah, Jacob tricks his father Isaac, stealing the blessing of the first born from his brother. Esau, returning home to find that Jacob has stolen the blessing that was meant for him begs of his father “is there no blessing left for me?!” Leaving his brother in anguish and rage, Jacob flees his home fearing for his life.
This is the last encounter the brothers have for many years. The text follows Jacob on his journey to Charan, through his years of service to Laban, his marriages to Leah and Rachel, his amassing of wealth and stature. Then, after some twenty years, Gd calls upon Jacob to return to his native homeland. The very place that he had run from in his youth, the land where his brother still resides he is told, is to be the land of his destiny. Like a guardian at the gate, Jacob must come to face to face with Esau in order to reenter the land.
All the terror of his youth floods back into his body as Jacob realizes that all the power he has accumulated, all the wealth he has gained, all the people he has added to his family cannot help him here. Arriving at the Yabbok River, which divides him from his homeland, Jacob ferries across his household and all of his possessions. Trip after trip, he makes sure that everyone and everything makes it safely to the other side. But, instead of remaining with his family, Jacob goes back to the far side of the River. Here, he is completely and utterly alone with the darkness of the night, the rush of the waters by his feet, and the thoughts in his head. Replays of the past flash before him; his head bowed before his father, receiving the power of his blessings, Esau’s haunting wails echoing on the walls of their home, plots and plans which seemed like so long ago now flooding his mind.
Caught in a haze, out of nowhere, a man appears and jumps on Jacob. Tumbling on the cold ground, dangerously close to the rock-filled riverbed, Jacob and the man wrestle all night, until streaks of the dawn’s light begin to pulse in the sky. In this visceral, frightening, exhilarating experience, Jacob, as some interpretations have it, is encountering the spirit of his brother, Esau. This nighttime struggle brings the two brothers closer to one another in a way that they hadn’t since their time in the womb.
As the sky turns from black to indigo, rays lifting the cover of the darkness, the wrestling match dies down and Esau’s spirit begins to pull away. But , before he can go, Jacob, clutching at his brother’s spirit, demands a blessing from him. It is in this moment that Jacob is renamed Israel – one who has struggled with Gd.
So then it is this reunification of Jacob, our archetype of the intellect with his brother Esau our archetype of the land, from which our name, the very essence of who we are as a people comes. We are Yisrael – the ones who grapple, wrestle, and struggle to bring together the knowing of the earth with the understanding of the mind.
As Goethe said, it is in the reunion of the intensified halves that a third thing is produced, something new, higher, and unexpected. In the case of our narrative, this is Jacob’s personal transformation through his new identity as Israel, an identity that has become the very heart of who we are as a people.
Seen in the framework of Torah, this Shabbat, this reunion, is an embodiment of how we continue to carry forward and make manifest the essence of this reunification. As members of Teva and Adamah, we are a part of programs that create dialogue and synergy between knowledge of the books and knowledge of the earth, and create ever-unfolding pathways for this work to be done in the world. As inheritors of this tradition, we are called upon to continue expanding what this means, and to bring this message to the greater community, perhaps especially to those struggling to find the ways that Judaism speaks to the reality of the world today.
May we see this holy work of reunification that we are doing not as a deviation from our religion, but rather as the essence of our tradition. And may we continue to bring into being all that is new, higher, and unexpected.