Farming in the Creator’s Image

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December 1, 2011
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Jacob Fine

There is something both sad and beautiful about the end of the farming season. Death and decay are everywhere. It is hard to take too many steps in my garden this time of year without hearing and feeling the juicy squish under my boots of a rotting tomato, cucumber, or pepper that never got harvested. The remaining basil, though still fragrant, is mainly black on account of the fall chill. And even the kale and collards, which don’t mind the cold, look haggard from a long summer in the ground and from cabbageworms that have eaten good-sized holes out of most of the leaves.

But on this crisp sunny day, as I pull out dead plants and prepare to put the planting beds to sleep for the winter, I am struck by the force of life more so than that of death. Tomato plants, only recently a verdant green with huge clusters of fruit, now appear as leafless as gangly, brown-black skeletons. In the weeks and months ahead, the remaining colors in the field will turn to brown and white. But the offspring of plants from the spring that have self-seeded and are trying another go at it reminds me, as do the few remaining orange tomatoes and baby green shoots, of the uniquely forceful drive in the universe — shared by all living things — to survive and to grow.

In a world that often seems so terribly artificial, it is my garden where I feel part of something real; it’s where I feel a sense of belonging to a world that extends beyond humans and human technologies. For me, the cultivated field has proven to be the place of richest meeting — of human and more than human. So it makes sense to me that, according to the Torah, God’s first creation was a garden. Planting feels to me like a holy act.

The notion of imitatio dei (imitating God) is a common theme in rabbinic Judaism, but one not typically invoked in connection to farming. Most often, imitatio dei is framed in the context of mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, acts of loving-kindness between people, such as visiting the sick and feeding the hungry.1 But a lesser-known tradition posits that we also have the opportunity, even the responsibility, to imitate our Creator through an act directed not toward another human being but rather toward the earth — through the process of planting a garden. In a fascinating midrash, Rabbi Judah concludes his discourse by identifying the act of planting as the way in which humans can both mimic the Creator’s behavior and, through doing so, connect with the divine.

“…The Holy One, blessed be He, from the very beginning of the creation of the world, was before all else occupied with planting, as is proved by the verse, ‘And the Lord God planted a garden in the first instance in Eden’ (Genesis 2:8), and so do you also, when you enter into the land, occupy yourselves first with nothing else but planting…”2

Anyone who gardens or farms knows well the paradox of the act. On the one hand, agriculture as a 10,000-year-old experiment is a distinctly human endeavor. By definition, the process of raising crops requires that people manipulate their environment and attempt to control certain variables such as moisture, weeds, and pests. Agriculture is an artificial construct — farms and gardens do not naturally occur.

But on the other hand, gardeners sooner or later become keenly aware that for all their concerted effort, they are not entirely — or even primarily — in control. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke so aptly put it, “Though he works and worries, the farmer never reaches down to where the seed turns into summer. The earth grants.3 It is this dynamic, knowing that I am the driver of the ship and, simultaneously, being driven, that makes agriculture avodah in both senses of the word — physical labor and spiritual practice. With respect to the latter, tending to soil and plants provides me with a daily reminder of the complex web of relationships of which I am a part and that serve to sustain me. And, in turn, this reminder helps me to develop a greater sense of wonder and gratitude. Sound farming requires that one pay close attention to every aspect of one’s farm ecology. And the pace of agriculture lends itself to paying attention to “details” that are often missed in the hustle and bustle of life. Bugs, gentle winds, dew — these are miraculous phenomena that farming brings to my awareness.

Time and again, the seasoned grower has the opportunity to relearn the lesson — often accompanied by great heartache — that as much as we manipulate, manicure, and manage, we are not ultimately in control. Though I may till the ground and plant the seeds, I know for certain that the process by which these seeds become beautiful, edible plants is a mystery with which I am involved but for which I am not responsible. And, of course, this truth is hardly specific to agriculture. For better and for worse, the paradox of having power and of being vulnerable and dependent is the very nature of our existence. It is in the garden where I most keenly feel this — plowing, seeding, weeding, harvesting, and observing.

1 See Talmud, Shabbat 133b for a famous treatment of this tradition.

2 Leviticus Rabbah 25:3.

3 Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnet 12, The Sonnets to Orpheus: First Series, trans. A. Poulin Jr., Duino Elegies; (New York: Mariner Press, 2007)

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Rabbi Jacob Fine is the director of programs at the New York-based Jewish Farm School (www.jewishfarmschool.org), an environmental education organization whose mission is to practice and promote sustainable agriculture and to support food systems rooted in justice and Jewish traditions.

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