by Sarah Rockford, JOFEE Fellow Cohort 4, Maine Jewish Food Network at Colby College Center for Small Town Jewish Life – Waterville, ME
Fourteen years ago I read from parshat Eikev as a bat mitzvah. As I stood on the bimah and chanted my way through the aliyot, I reflected briefly that the eleventh-hour cramming I’d done over the past hours seemed to be paying off, but reading the final aliyah my concentration waivered, and I lost my place in the scroll. I continued to chant the Hebrew words I’d memorized while theatrically moving the lost yad along the rows of letters on the parchment. When I ran out of words in my head I stopped chanting and shot a desperate look at the rabbi—hoping he would reorient me so I could finish the portion. Our eyes met, he smiled, and congratulated me. I’d finished the aliyah from memory without realizing, and no one was the wiser for my mistake. Relieved and full of adrenaline I started to cry as the congregation began to sing Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov. I believe everyone thought I was having a profound spiritual moment, but these were tears of relief. I was just happy the ordeal was over.
Fourteen years hence I’m revisiting Eikev—these words whose performance made me shake in my shoes. I’ve gleaned some new wisdom this time around, as is often the case with our ancient texts that reveal different facets of themselves to us at different ages. I’ve found much richness and stories of food in this text that speak to my stomach and perhaps my heart too.
In Eikev we are introduced to the seven species, the Shiv’at HaMinim—the bounty of foods the Israelites are promised upon their arrival in the land of Israel. Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and (date) honey: truly a Technicolor bounty. I love that the beauty of this land is detailed in terms of the foods the Israelites will find there.
As God enumerates the wonders of the food in Eretz Yisrael, God also threatens to withhold the rain, and therefore these crops, should the Israelites forget their debt of gratitude and their obligation to fulfill God’s commandments. Where in Egypt the Israelites watered their fields by hand, crops in Israel, God explains, will be watered by the heavens, by the rain (Deut. 11:11-14). Where in Egypt the work of watering their crops yielded direct results, in the land of Israel it is the Israelites’ fidelity to God that ensures the success of their crops. God swaps the Israelite’s self-sufficiency for faith and this bounty of sweet foods. Beautiful and rich though the land is, faith in an unseen god proves more challenging a task than the labor of watering their fields in Egypt… Spoiler alert, the Israelites stray from God’s commandments, and are punished in kind.
What of that rain today? I would posit that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The health of our communities, like that of the biblical Israelites, depends on the rain in its time, and the regularity of the seasons. I am struck, here, by the parallel between the vulnerability of the Israelites and the precariousness of our modern society. We still rely on the land, but our shortsighted hunger and unchecked consumption have stoked self-destructive impulses—we are degrading the soil that feeds us, and rocking the weather patterns that water our fields. Just as the Israelites were warned, we too know what will happen if we fail to right our relationship with the environment… modern humans are ever as stubborn as those biblical Israelites.
Eikev reminds us of our perennial dependence on the land, and it reminds us of the debt of gratitude we owe for the food the land provides. Here I am reminded of a passage from Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She writes: “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” Eating the seven species feels like the land loving us back, it feels like the reciprocal bond Kimmerer writes about. I have access to not seven, but hundreds of species, hundreds of culinary delights that regularly grace my plate. What debt do I owe here? I’m not sure exactly, but it must be worth a lot of rain.
When I think about building a better, more reciprocal relationship between modern humans and the earth I feel at once complicit and insignificant. I look out the window to my little, shaded garden, and I see a neglected plot that is doing its best to eek out a few cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and too many zucchini. It’s no Eretz Yisrael, but this garden works to feed me, and rereading Eikev I think perhaps I owe it a little more credit, a little more kavod. Maybe I ought to get out and pull some weeds this afternoon—it’s a place to start.
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions.
Lipton, D. (2018). From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey, A Commentary on Food in the Torah. New York: Urim Publications.
 Lipton, D. (2018). From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey, A Commentary on Food in the Torah. New York: Urim Publications.
Editor’s Note: Welcome to D’varim HaMakom: The JOFEE Fellows Blog! Throughout the year we hear from the JOFEE Fellows: reflections on their experiences, successful programs they’ve planned and implemented, gleanings from the field, and connections to the weekly Torah portion and what they’ve learned from their experiences with place in their host communities for the year. Views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent Hazon.