Rabbi Nate DeGroot gave the following sermon at St. John’s Evangelist Temple of Truth in Detroit, MI on Sunday, June 16, 2019, right next to Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, one of Hazon Detroit’s main partners. Jerry Hebron, Executive Director and Founder of Oakland Avenue Farm grew up at this church, as her mom has been the Reverend there for decades. Rabbi DeGroot’s sermon served as an invitation to Hazon Detroit’s Breaking Bread Together program happening Sunday, June 23, and was teaching about the role of bread and breaking bread together within the Jewish tradition.
And thank you all so much for having me here.
My name is Rabbi Nate DeGroot and it is truly an honor to be here with you.
Reverend Carter, I want to thank you for welcoming me so warmly
into this beautiful community
To join with you in praise this morning
And to offer some words of Torah, some words of Jewish teaching from my tradition.
Jerry, I’d also like to thank you for connecting me with your mom, and for being such a meaningful support and advocate for me this year.
I stand here today with you
as a representative of Hazon Detroit,
A local organization that seeks to do three things:
1: to support and empower the food and environmental justice movement here in the city of Detroit
2: to help Jews reconnect to our own earth-based Jewish roots; and strive for more and more sustainability as individuals and within our institutions
And 3: to help reconnect Jews and Jewish resources back into the city of Detroit, in a way that is accountable to our community’s historic and divergent relationship with the city and its residents.
At Hazon, I serve as Associate Director, Spiritual & Program Director.
I also come to you today as myself, a Rabbi,
with deep respect and reverence for your collective faith and communal practice;
I come as a committed supporter of Jerry, and Oakland Avenue Urban Farm,
and the vision for community-based development that she sets forth and works tirelessly to organize,
No doubt inspired by her mother;
I come as a neighbor,
currently living in the North End, on Bethune St,
with my wife, Rebecca,
who is here today;
And I come as a son,
On this Father’s Day,
with my parents visiting from out of town,
getting to see mine and Becca’s life in Detroit for the first time
since we moved here last August.
So thank you, also, for welcoming my family here.
I wonder if you’ve noticed over the last few weeks,
A small team from the community,
building a brick bread oven
Over at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm,
just a few hundred feet that way.
They had to dig the hole
and lay the foundation
And set the bricks
And bind it together
And now the base is in there,
Just waiting for the top to go on.
If you stopped by the Farmer’s Market yesterday,
you would have seen it right there
Just to the left from where the vendor’s and the Farm set up the goods and wares.
Well, that oven should be done this week,
and once it’s completed,
it will have the capacity to bake up to 40 loaves of bread at a time,
And is meant for the community to be able to use.
Building that bread oven is a project that is being lead by Hazon,
The organization that I work for.
And in some ways, that bread oven,
and the bread that –
God willing –
it will produce,
is the reason I’m here this morning.
On the surface,
I’m here to invite you to a program that Hazon is co-hosting next Sunday,
after church gets out,
called Breaking Bread Together.
It’s an event that we’re co-hosting with the Farm,
As well as a local chef,
and a heritage grain grower from the thumb of Michigan.
The event is designed to bring community together,
To celebrate this new community oven,
To celebrate locally grown grain,
To celebrate locally grown grain that is farmed in ways that add to the health of the soil and the environment in which it grows,
To celebrate locally grown grain that is farmed in ways that add to the health of the soil and the environment in which it grows,
and that comes from seeds that go back generations in a single family,
Passed down from grandparent to child, to grandchild,
Treated with reverence and respect,
lovingly cared for and nurtured through the years –
As opposed to grain that comes from seeds that are made in a laboratory
and were created by large industrial corporations to maximize their profits and yields,
regardless of how much nutritional value is stripped from the grain for us, the ones who eat it
and regardless of how much damage is done to the earth itself,
through the process of growing it.
We will meet the farmer who grows that grain at the event next Sunday.
We’ll eat fresh baked bread together,
Bread which is made from that sacred grain,
We’ll eat pancakes together, made from that grain,
topped with sweet maple syrup,
tapped from maple trees that grow not too far from here.
And we will have a great time, hopefully with weather a bit sunnier and warmer than today.
But why bread? Why an oven?
Exploring those questions together is really why I am here this morning.
So I want to begin with a question that the rabbis of old debated.
Back in the time of the Talmud, around 500 of the Common Era.
It happened once that Turnus Rufus the Wicked
Asked the very prominent Rabbi Akiva:
Which are greater – the works of God or the works of humans?
And I want to ask you that question, as well.
What do you all think?
Which are greater, the works of God or the works of humans?
Well, according to the text,
Rabbi Akiva brought out before this man
stalks of wheat
and loaves of bread.
Holding up the wheat, he said: These are the works of God.
And, holding up the loaves of bread, he said: These are the works of humans.
Rabbi Akiva said to him: Aren’t these loaves greater than the stalks of wheat?
Certainly from our human perspective,
the loaves of bread taste a lot better than the stalks of wheat.
They give us more nourishment,
We’re able to digest them better,
And we’re able to put them out at a table
With people we love
To share a meal
And get to know one another.
Aren’t these loaves greater than the stalks of wheat?
Bread, in the Jewish faith, plays a central role.
You may be familiar with matzah, for instance –
the unleavened cracker that we eat on Passover,
When we celebrate the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt.
Though unrisen, that’s still a form of bread – just flour and water mixed together and baked.
Now, if you haven’t tried matzah before, don’t worry – you’re not missing too much.
Or perhaps you’re familiar with challah,
the doughy egg bread we eat every week on our Sabbath, Shabbat,
After we light our Shabbat candles on Friday night and sanctify the evening with wine.
We have challah at our Friday night dinner, our Saturday lunch, and even as part of our afternoon snack on Saturday before dusk.
Now, if you haven’t tried challah, you should definitely change that, because, unlike matzah, challah is delicious!
And, insider tip, even better than challah on Shabbat,
Is challah french toast after Shabbat, made from the leftover bread.
And whether it was Father’s Day or not, it is true and undisputed that my dad’s challah french toast is the absolute best around.
Just last week, we celebrated a holiday on the Jewish calendar called Shavuot,
Which is an entire holiday centered around bread,
And in its original form, was a summer celebration of our people’s annual wheat harvest.
Our agrarian ancestors would spend 49 days,
The days between Passover and Shavuot,
anxiously tracking their wheat crop,
Hoping for just the right amount of rain and sun,
So that the crop would produce enough grain for them and their community to eat and store and not go hungry.
And when the first crop was finally ready to be harvested,
They would cut the first sheaf and sling it on their back or on their cart
And they would make pilgrimage from all across the land,
Carrying their wheat harvest with them to the Temple in Jerusalem,
Where they would give this sheaf, the first of their crop to the Temple Priest,
Who would grind it and mill it and transform the wheat into bread.
And then take that freshly baked bread and hold it high above his head
In gratitude to God and in awe of God’s natural cycles
that makes it possible for us to produce such humble and such holy sustenance.
During those ancient times, as well,
We know that – and this comes from the book of Numbers:
‘When you enter the land where I bring you, [this is God speaking] – then it shall be, that when you eat of the food of the land, you shall lift up an offering to the LORD. Of the first of your dough you shall lift up a cake as an offering; as the offering of the threshing floor, so you shall lift it up. From the first of your dough you shall give to the LORD an offering throughout your generations.”
This precept is called “the commandment of challah,”
which is different than the challah french toast my dad makes.
This says that whenever we were to bake bread –
and many in our community still do a version of this today,
even though we no longer have a Temple standing –
we are to separate out a bit of the dough as an offering to God,
In recognition that without God,
there is no bread,
there is no flour,
there is no grain,
there is no earth,
there is no life.
Anyone who observes this commandment of challah, it is said,
It is as if that person repudiated idolatry,
because the person who sets aside challah believes that all possessions are from God
and not from their own might.
God – the origin and creator of all – the Divine gift giver –
Has gifted us all of this,
So in recognition of that,
We must give something back,
Something that is not ours to begin with,
Something that we don’t have the power to produce ourselves.
As the Psalm says:
L’adonay ha’aretz um’lo’ah,
The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.
In the Jewish tradition, we bless before we eat any food, or drink any drink.
As a way to acknowledge that everything that comes from the earth,
And everything that we consume,
Ultimately comes from God.
And so we pause, and take a moment before that first bite or that first sip
to recognize the Divine gift before us,
to feel the gratitude that wells up from knowing that this is God’s gift to us.
And for different food categories we have different blessings.
For things that grow from the earth, we thank the earth,
From things that grow from trees, we thank the trees,
And so on.
But bread and wine are the only two foods over which we say a blessing that is specific to that food.
And for bread, the blessing itself is quite unusual.
The blessing goes like this:
Baruch atah adonay – blessed are you, God
Eloheinu melech ha’olam – our God, sovereign of all of time and space
Ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz – the one who brings forth bread from the earth
Blessed is the one who brings forth bread from the earth.
It sounds all well and good until you start thinking about it a little more. Do you notice anything strange about this blessing?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen bread growing from the earth!
Even on Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, where they do such a great job farming and growing unique strands of specialty seeds,
I’ve never seen bread growing from the ground.
But it doesn’t say “Blessed is the one who brings forth grain from the earth.”
It says: “Blessed is the One who brings forth bread from the earth.”
So what is happening here? For surely our rabbis, who wrote these blessings, knew that bread doesn’t grow from the ground.
What I think is happening,
Is an acknowledgment of the partnership that is required between us and God in this world.
No, God does not cause bread to grow from the ground.
God causes wheat to grow from the ground.
And then it’s up to us to meet God in the middle.
We plant the crops,
We tend the crops,
We harvest the crops,
We process the crops,
We mix wheat
We knead the mixture
We allow to leaven
And we bake the dough –
This process of bread making
A holy nexus point between Divine compassion and human labor,
between the miracle of nature and the ingenuity of humans,
between the world as perfect and the world as perfectable.
A loaf of bread, the location where we come humbly into contact with God,
as God’s servants and stewards of the world to be.
When I spoke with Reverend Carter earlier this week,
to introduce myself and ask her if there’s anything specific I should be speaking about today,
She told me that I should be led by what I feel.
That I should allow the holy spirit to lead me
and that I should speak whatever God brings to my heart.
So the truth is, walking into church this morning,
I was feeling weary.
Weary of a country that so egregiously
degrades black and brown bodies every day without remorse,
and kills black and brown bodies with impunity,
and has done so since the founding of this country.
Weary of a country that demonizes immigrants and criminalizes a woman’s rights over her own body.
Weary of a reality in which armed White supremacists can show up to Motor City Pride with a police escort, tearing up rainbow flags and spouting hatred and vitriol.
Weary of corporate greed and private companies profiting off of violence and harm done to regular people just trying to get by.
Weary of problems that feel too big to tackle – like the climate crisis we’re living through.
And weary of problems that, for the first time in my lifetime,
here in this country at least,
touch too close to home,
with anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish incidents and attacks,
often physical and sometimes murderous in nature,
Rising in frequency and intensity and ubiquity.
Yes, I am weary and confused and concerned and angry.
I am sad and sometimes I am numb.
But I am also hopeful.
Especially after praying and singing and praising with you for the last hour,
with the spirit in this room lifting me up,
I feel hopeful.
The Jewish tradition teaches that when the temple stood, the altar made atonement for people. Now the table does.
All around this city, I lift my eyes and I see passion and inspiration and I see a deep commitment and reconnection to the earth we tend and the crops we grow and the food we eat.
All around this city, I see farms and community gardens, sites where people are meeting God in the middle.
All around this city, from right next door to each and every corner of Detroit, I see people who care, striving to make a difference,
Investing in themselves,
Investing in their neighbors.
And sitting down with one another.
After the recent shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, just outside of San Diego,
which left one service-goer dead and the community’s rabbi injured,
before anyone from within the Jewish community had reached out to me,
I received an email from Jerry which read:
As I prepare for service this morning I felt compelled to reach out to express my grief. I am overwhelmed with the amount of outward racism against the Jewish, African, Muslim and other community. My prayers as well as our church are with us all as we continue our work to bridge meaningful relationships.
May the Lord grant you peace and comfort.”
And then just last Friday, right outside at the farm,
Under a gorgeous sunny sky,
Jerry spoke to a group of about 30,
Mostly Jews and some North Enders,
About the farm, about the neighborhood, about race,
about our histories as African Americans and as Jews,
and about a shared future, in which our partnership and our relationships
continue to grow and deepen.
Literally, we broke bread together, challah bread to be exact,
with locally grown food prepared by a North End-born caterer,
and we celebrated Shabbat together and we learned from one another,
And we sang and we blessed.
There is an ancient prohibition that says that Jews can’t eat bread baked by a non-Jew, because they were afraid that might lead to intermarriage.
Imagine that, the rabbis knew that the power of bread was so strong,
the love that gets baked into that bread so real,
That eating bread baked by a non-Jew would lead that Jew to fall in love.
We don’t follow that prohibition any more. We flip it on its head.
We know the power of bread. We know the power of sharing a meal.
Of sharing of ourselves, of being vulnerable, of celebrating together, of praising together,
We know the risks of such an act include cultivating a deep and genuine and transformative relationship with another person and we whole-heartedly embrace that.
as the 19th century Jewish poet and activist,
Emma Lazarus, preached:
“Until we are all free, we are
none of us
In the Jewish tradition, a meal doesn’t count as a meal unless there is bread being consumed.
So I want to invite you to come break bread together with us next Sunday after church.
Let us have a meal together.
Let us cultivate and celebrate the love that binds us together as human beings
Each of us, brilliant and unique creations of God,
Each of us imbued with full dignity and inalienable worth.
And let us, together, in joy, meet God in the middle.
And let us say together: Amen.