Tomato Atonement

What does Yom Kippur have to do with growing your own? I suggested an answer in a sermon I gave at my synagogue yesterday. Extra thanks to Rabbi Joel Seltzer for his very helpful editorial suggestions.

Shabbat shalom and l’shana tova. When I was in my first year of college, I spent Yom Kippur as the guest of a professor. More than 30 years later, that day is still vivid in my mind. I remember the guy who organized the excursion. He was an older student named Aaron Lansky, who went on to found the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. I remember how novel it felt to fast until after sunset. When I was growing up, my family never returned to shul for Neilah. Hearing that final teki’ah gedolah was a revelation. But what I remember most about Yom Kippur 5737 is broccoli.

Between Musaf and Mincha, Professor Glick invited us back to his home. He lived in an old farmhouse, with fruit trees and vegetables growing in the backyard. Compared to my suburban New Jersey neighborhood, the overgrown ripeness of that place was extraordinary. I remember the heady smell of the rotting apples that squished under our feet. Winter squash puckered and collapsed like deflated balloons. Sagging tangles of spent tomato vines. Tight fists of tiny green flowers that turned out to be broccoli. Broccoli! Can you imagine? Who could have believed that broccoli heads are flowers? Not me, back in 1975.

In those days, broccoli came in frozen bricks, exactly like the frozen bricks that turned into spinach or string beans or peas and carrots when you melted them on the stove. My mother served vegetables every night, and you didn’t get dessert unless you ate them. But I had never really considered what they actually were. Wandering through Professor Glick’s vegetable garden that Yom Kippur afternoon, light-headed with hunger, 18 years old and away from home for the first time, primed for an epiphany from all those hours of services, I looked at that broccoli growing on its stalk and I thought, Oh. My. God. It’s alive. This is a miracle. This is what it means to be blessed.

Today’s haftarah is full of images of growing and ripening and harvesting. We read about blossoming lilies, deep-rooted shade trees, beautiful olive trees, sprouting grains, blossoming vines. The Bible is filled with agricultural passages. But in the prose of  Torah, a rose is usually  a rose is usually a rose. In the poetry of the prophets, a rose (or an olive tree, or a vine) often stands for something else.

Today’s reading, Haftarah Shuvah, contains excerpts from three prophets: Hosea, Joel and Micah. These passages are linked to each other, and to today, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, by the theme of return. Hosea and Joel convey their messages through the language of agriculture.

In Joel, God promises that if Israel prays to God for compassion, God will reward God’s people with good harvests. “I will grant you the new grain, the new wine, and the new oil… in abundance.” Not only that, but God will drive away Israel’s enemy and “thrust it into the parched and desolate land.” The message couldn’t be clearer. Good crops happen to good nations. This black-and-white, carrot-and-stick theology shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read much Torah.

A little later, Joel turns poetic. “Fear not, O soil,  rejoice and be glad; for the Lord has wrought great deeds. Fear not, O beasts of the field, for the pastures in the wilderness are clothed in grass…” By including the soil and the beasts in his address toIsrael, Joel reminds us that we humans are mere creatures, closer to the soil and the beasts than to the God who created us all. And, like the soil and the beasts, we too rely on God’s goodness for our wellbeing. Our job is to repent, and then passively receive whatever God chooses to give us. Blessings are a strictly trickle-down affair.

Blessings also trickle down in Hosea. But with a difference. Hosea’s God promises that when we return to the Lord, “I will be to Israel like dew.” Hosea compares the repentant nation to a variety of healthy, growing things. “He shall blossom like the lily, He shall strike root like a Lebanon tree. His boughs shall spread out far… They who sit in his shade shall be revived: They shall bring to life new grain, they shall blossom like the vine.”

If Joel’s God is a fearsome enforcer, bestowing blessings and imposing curses on God’s do-bees and don’t-bees, Hosea’s God works more subtly, quietly nurturing God’s people, so we can flourish and bestow blessing on others. In Joel, the benefits Israel reaps accrue to Israel alone, while Israel’s enemies suffer. In Hosea, God’s blessings have a multiplier effect. They make it possible  for  Israel  to spread sheltering boughs that encourage others do the same.

If Joel’s God evokes the vastness of the universe, the forces of nature and fate that are beyond our control, Hosea’s God suggests the divine spark within us, the hard-wired sense of justice and compassion that inspires us to act in God’s image. Praying to Joel’s God is an expression of humility, an acknowledgment of human limitation. Praying to Hosea’s God is an expression of hope, a testament to human potential.

Which version is more relevant? Neither. Which one is more Jewish? Both. Both are built into the way we worship, especially during this season of reflection and renewal. Consider two of the iconic prayers of Yom Kippur, the Unetanneh Tokef and the Vidui. When we pray the Unetanneh Tokef, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, we are evoking the God of Joel, humbling ourselves in the face of forces beyond our control. When we chant the Vidui, beating our chests and confessing We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we are praying to the God of Hosea, tapping into the impulse that inspires us to choose the right path. We are acknowledging that what we do matters.

Holding this dual sense of humility and hope isn’t  just what we do when we pray. It’s the balance we walk in everything we do. It’s an essential part of being human. Which brings me back to that broccoli. My vegetable consciousness has come a long way since I had that epiphany in Professor Glick’s garden. Now, probably like a lot of you, I pay attention to where my food comes from. I’ve even started growing some of my own. My gardening experience is still pretty limited, but it’s enough to make the agricultural references in today’s haftarah feel more real and immediate to me than they ever have before. And if the words of the prophets remind me of working in the garden, working in the garden reminds me of the words of the prophets. As anyone who has ever tried to grow the perfect tomato knows, gardening is a constant dance between hope and humility.

You make your plans, prepare your beds, put in your plants, keep them watered and weeded, and keep your fingers crossed that all those acts of hope don’t get overruled by a heat wave or a hurricane or some other force beyond your control. Come fall, as you reap your harvest, you look back on the year that’s just ended and tally up your successes and mistakes.

Did you try growing rosemary where the ground was too wet? Did you put your eggplants out too early? Did your soil need more compost? Would a different kind of fence have kept the deer out? Would a different variety of pepper have done better? And what about those weeds? If only you’d kept up with them. But first it was so hot, and then there were all those out-of-town guests, and then your back went out. By the time you returned to the garden, the weeds were out of control. Next year, you’ll do better. You’ll make the right choices and keep on top of the chores. And when you bring in that bumper crop of zucchini, you’ll share your good fortune with anyone who will have it. But even as you beat your chest, promising not to screw up next time, you know perfectly well that some things can’t be helped. Who shall be flooded and who shall have drought, who by heat wave and who by early frost.

Nobody tells us to have these thoughts. The tension between hope and humility rises spontaneously, whether we’re gardening or studying or working, raising our children or caring for our parents or simply living our lives. The words of the prophets, the words of Torah, the words of our liturgy all endure because they resonate. They give formal expression to what we already feel. And although they articulate our feeling of humility and even occasional helplessness, they leave us with renewed hope.

Today’s haftarah ends with the hopeful words of the prophet Micah. “Who is a God like you, forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression.” The prophet’s words echo the words of the covenant, which we read in Exodus, and chant towards the end of Nehila. “The Lord, the Lord God is gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.”

May these words resonate with us – this week and throughout the coming year. May our harvests be bountiful, whether they’re in a garden or anywhere else. And may these Days of Awe bring us, if only for a moment, the radical amazement of seeing broccoli on the stalk for the first time. May we think, Oh. My. God. I am alive. This is a miracle. This is what is means to be blessed.

Shabbat shalom, shana tova.

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6 Responses to “Tomato Atonement”

  1. Linda kneucker Says:

    thank you, Ruth. A lovely, descriptive “sermon”…
    As anyone who has ever tried to grow the perfect tomato knows, gardening is a constant dance between hope and humility…A fine thought…to keep in mind even for the fine stalks of chives on the kitchen window!

  2. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thanks, Linda. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    I’ve sent this on to my clergy to read because they will love it! That’s all I’m saying… Shana tova, friend.

  4. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Shana tova to you, too, other Linda in my life.

  5. Alfred Ivry Says:

    This is a very beautiful and insightful essay, poetic and accurately reflecting the diverse themes in the haftorah and our liturgy. The personal gardening experience is so true. Thank you for sharing it.

    Alfred Ivry

  6. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Alfred Ivry. I’m curious to know how you found your way to my blog.

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