The Wheat Harvest Story

April 1, 2014
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There is a saying in Yiddish that a farmer has God for a business partner: all the more so a Jewish farmer. The farmer works hard to prepare a planting, nourish its growth, and finally reap its blessings. There is, however, no guarantee that the crop will grow or that a harvest will occur. How can he possibly muster the fortitude to go on? The farmer has faith that his or her “partner” will maintain one end of the deal and deliver a successful season. Similarly, for the Jewish people, success is linked with an active process — a Jewish performance in the form of mitzvos. Fulfillment of the mitzvos requires a similar faith in God and God’s commitment if we hold up our end.

Faith in the modern age has found itself largely replaced by a disarray of observances, identities, guilt-infused traditions, practices, and doubt-plagued beliefs connected to little more than a memory of faith. If this shift is understood as problematic and flawed, then, critical to correcting its trajectory would be to build visions of Yiddishkeit that rescue faith from a fading memory and place it back in the center of current reality and necessity. Farming is not a panacea; plenty of Jews have used farming to distance themselves from faith. However, I have seen how, in the farming context, faith can be shifted from a distant memory to a current reality.

During the past three years, working at the Yiddish Farm Education Center in Goshen, N.Y., I have developed a faith steeped in experiences common to this corner of exile. Walks through the woods, davening in the fields, long summer afternoons plowing on the tractor, lively shaleshides tishn (third meals), winter silence, and spring regeneration have all contributed to my being able to transcend doubts and misgivings and embrace faith and mitzvos.

Guests and students, coming from a wide array of backgrounds, find our semi-isolated Jewish farming context a place to push through personal and societal constrictions in pursuit of connection and faith. Here, I have seen American Jews lighting Shabbos candles and engaging with a siddur for the first time. I’ve watched as Hasidim lay tefillin and go on hisboydedis (meditative walks), screaming out to God, “Tateh!” (“Daddy!”) on their way down to the fields. In addition to the meta-experience, the crops themselves serve as reminders of our partnership with God. An example of this was our wheat harvest this year.

It was erev Shabbos when I received a rabbinic approval that our wheat was ready for harvesting. The cutting was under rabbinic supervision in order that the wheat harvested could be certified as “shmira mshas ketzira,” (guarded from the time of cutting) and thus usable for making shmura matzo. The wheat was to be cut with an old combine that I had acquired earlier in the year. The combine is a machine that cuts, threshes, and partially winnows the wheat all at once. This operation dragged late into the afternoon, coming very close to Shabbos. The combine finally made its way back down to the barn with less than an hour to spare before nightfall. The pump-out auger, which would have nicely moved the grain out of the combine and onto a cart, failed, so the transfer of the grain into a drying wagon had to be done by hand. Frantically, I called the farmhouse to summon help, and I was greeted by a crew of enthusiastic Yiddish students who had grabbed cardboard wine boxes and short handled shovels in order to get the nearly half ton of grain safely spread out on the drying wagon before Shabbos.

The drama of this experience contrasted sharply with the harvesting of garlic later in the season. Garlic processing, which slowly dragged on for weeks, was a time filled with socializing, when there was no urgency. Harvesting wheat for matzo, however, was infused with a historical directive that seemed to transcend the mundane. Matzo is itself supposed to be a memorial to our hasty exodus from Egypt. But more than the overlay of history and memory, it was a faith in the present that guided the experience of our harvest. It was this Shabbos, this Passover, and a very real and current fear of having our wheat improperly stored and thus in danger of being unusable as matzo, that created our urgency to work. We wouldn’t have felt that urgency if we lacked faith, if we didn’t believe that these things matter.

The Kotzker rebbe teaches that, as Jews, we cannot rely on inherited faith or tradition alone. In Shiras HaYam, the poem recited in parshas B’shallach, we first say, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him” and then we say, “This is my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.” First comes one’s own God and then the God of one’s father. Yes, there is a tradition and a memory to uphold, but, first and foremost, we must commit to and glorify our God. A faith that is based on tradition alone would have us at the seder table eating matzo because our parents did and their parents did. That is observance. What Judaism really is, or needs to be, is a faith-based performance. God is the Creator, our rabbis are the directors, and we are the actors. The wheat harvest story is one of performance in the present.

Another Kotzker teaching translates as “Molo hooretz kinyonecho” — “The world is full with paths and ways to make God yours.” A farm is neither more nor less full with ways to make God one’s own than a city. But here, the paths and ways to make God one’s own are more visible. The environment is less developed; the paths aren’t hidden behind concrete walls. On the Yiddish Farm, we connect Jews to their tradition through teaching Yiddish and history. More important, we bring these teachings into the present and connect them to contemporary issues.

Through farming and living in an immersive and intentional environment, the paths to ownership and faith are highlighted. Faith is an exercise in not being preoccupied with ourselves, and many of the tasks around the farm, and the mitzvos associated with them, force us to put our own needs and egos aside. We feed the animals before ourselves, and though we may have showered already for Shabbos, we roll up our sleeves to get the shmura wheat put away safely before nightfall. Students often come here because a parent or grandparent spoke Yiddish. Often, they leave with a feeling that Yiddish and Yiddishkeit are a part of their story and their “Jewish performance.”

At the end of the day, that is exactly what I want to see happening here — flipping the role tradition plays so that “This is my God and I will glorify Him” is returned to its proper place before, but yet deeply connected with, “This is my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”

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Yisroel Bass was raised in Sea Cliff, Long Island. Before helping to found the Yiddish Farm Education Center in Goshen N.Y., in 2010, Bass served as an executive board member and secretary of Yugntruf—Youth for Yiddish in New York City. During the summer of 2010, he participated in the Adamah Jewish Environmental Fellowship to learn the skills necessary to launch the Yiddish Farm. He graduated summa cum laude from the City College of New York in December 2011, having majored in philosophy and Jewish studies.

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