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Faith Matters: Temple Israel reclaims the lessons of the Garden of Eden

(Editor's note: The following is a submission to The Recorder's weekly column titled "Faith Matters." Each Saturday, a different faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal religious perspective in this space. An accompanying sidebar offers a brief description of his or her place of worship. For information on becoming part of this series, email [email protected] or call 413-772-0261, ext. 265.)

The Jewish people are known as The People of the Book because the Torah, the first 5 books of the bible, constitutes our binding covenant with Our Common Creator. But it might be just as accurate to call us The People of the Land! The very first words of Torah describe the unfolding of earth, sea and sky. The very last words, describe a people, now free from humiliating servitude, marching into their promised land to work it and be sustained by it. The Jewish people in Deuteronomy thus, in their way and in their place, fulfilled the human mandate of Genesis by tilling the land.

The very cycle of Jewish holiday observances is rooted squarely in the food system and the seasons. The spring and fall equinox are celebrated as major food festivals. The holiday of the spring full moon is our Passover. We clean away the last of the old grain harvest and prepare our pantries for the season's new offerings. The fall festival of sukkot, recently finished, is celebrated by symbolically dwelling in fragile harvest huts as our ancestors did during their desert wandering and during the harvest season in the ancestral homeland.

Two millennia later, customs and traditional foods vary when Jewish people live at other latitudes, such as here in Greenfield. But the centrality of food, as necessary and meaningful to human life, does not change.

I am passionate about local food resilience for so many reasons, as a human and as a rabbi of a congregation.

Working together for necessary and mutual support builds social cohesion. We need all ages and body types to grow and process food. There is a very great pleasure in working with others on important and dignified tasks. It is good for us. It is good for our mental health and our physical health.

Food growing and related tasks are the absolute best exercise for any age. Plus you get vitamin D. It's almost as if our very bodies were built for these tasks.

Local community resilience is a base-line response to global climate change and food is a critical part of resilience. As a faith leader, I feel a special interest in asking what we can do as groups and communities to address climate change. Faith houses can and do serve as pantries, garden sites, places of communal eating and cooking. We are part of the solution in this way. I am working with my congregants to find our place in this food system.

Here's one example from this fall:

In former times, when the temple in Jerusalem was the center of the Israelite culture and food system, daily and seasonal mandated gifts were offered at the temple. There was also the opportunity to bring voluntary gifts, at times of personal celebration and abundance. These so-called Peace Offerings were totally voluntary and were offered in a spirit of gratitude. Gifts of food (typically, animals) were shared three ways. The celebrating family had a share of the animal for their feast. The priestly families, who could not own land because of their special duties at the temple, they too received a share of the Peace Offering. And the altar itself conveyed a third portion as a free will offering in gratitude to God. This year, as my congregants saw the amazing abundance of apples in our region, a group of us spent two days preparing applesauce. Some portion will go to the volunteers. Some of the applesauce will be enjoyed by our entire congregation with our seasonal potato pancakes at Hanukah. And the third portion will be shared with a pantry in Greenfield.

Working the land requires watching her. One learns to support life and also to uproot it, as when we weed. These studies, of life and death, transformation, teach us about our real and true place in the cosmos. When one gardens, one is part of something large, something sacred and shared. These experiences can bring us to a right awareness of what blessing and abundance really are. Torah speaks of simple pleasures of grain, wine, oil; a sense of feeling safe under one's fruit tree. These gifts -- of safety, community and sustenance -- are our human heritage.

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