Since the beginning of our recorded history Jewish tradition has celebrated the sacred relationship between human beings and the earth. As early as the first few paragraphs of the Hebrew Scriptures we are instructed as to how to treat the good earth that G-d gave us as an inheritance. At first glance it seems that the text is telling us to dominate or master the earth, but on a closer look – especially via the Aramaic translation of the original Hebrew – we see rather that the verb used actually means “to float lightly over,” to protect, to nurture – thus, to be a steward of the earth. Later in the text, we are taught that the earth belongs to all creation – all human beings, animals and plant life. The rainbow which appears in the sky after Noah and his family and menagerie emerge from the ark, is a reminder of the covenant that unites all peoples on earth, with deepest respect for all creatures and greenery. Immediately upon settling on the dry land Noah plants a vineyard – a poignant reminder that the grape, the olive and the wheat and barley kernels, provided the basis of nourishment for those who tilled the earth in the Fertile Crescent of antiquity.
Most of our Jewish holidays and celebrations had their beginnings as agricultural festivals, including Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot as well as periodic tithing of grain and first fruits. Even our Psalms hint of joyous and romantic celebrations such as the ingathering festival of Asaph and the olive oil festival of the Gittith. But the sheer happiness of having food to eat and wine to drink was not enough to make for a celebration. The delicate harvest shacks that we build during the festival of Sukkot remind us that our place in the cycles of the seasons is often precarious. The balance within nature is delicate, as are the relationships between the families, communities and nations of the earth. We read daily in our liturgy that we may only feast upon the food the earth yields if we follow the mitzvot – ethical commandments, that the Eternal One gave us as a gift. We must constantly remind ourselves that only if we look after the widow and the orphan, provide sustenance to the poor, care for those who are sick and create jobs for those seeking to work, may we deserve a good harvest.
One of the oldest commandments in the Torah is that we not be so greedy as to harvest our fields to the very last corner, but rather that we share our blessings with those in need. It was not from our own labor or intent that the rains fell on schedule, that the sun shown in abundance, that locusts were kept at bay, and the crows did not pick our sheaves of grain clean. We therefore are obligated to both physically and figuratively leave the corners of our fields open to the needy, that they may reap the blessings of the earth as well.
Our mother Ruth was a Moabite woman, born into a nation despised by our Israelite ancestors. Yet the short Biblical narrative which tells her story, indicates that also she gleaned in the fields of Boaz, alongside the tribes of Israel, to feed not only herself but her beloved mother-in-law. Ruth’s own righteousness of showing devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi as well as to the entire people Israel is rewarded in that she becomes the great-grandmother of King David, and the ancestress of the Messiah. Ruth the Field Gleaner – Ruth the Ancestress of the Messiah.
By joining with neighboring congregations in tilling the soil, we remember the lesson taught to us by our mother Ruth – provide the opportunity to those less fortunate to feed themselves and their families. With every famine which our tradition says plagued the land, we are reminded that every one of us might one day need the garden of another to glean in. By turning the lawns in front of our houses of worship into gardens of plenty for the members of our community, one day we might just be able to coax Ruth’s descendent – the Messiah – into our own midst.
Rabbi Mark Newton
Rabbi Mark Newton earned his BSL degree in Languages at Georgetown University, School of Languages and Linguistics. He was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and holds an Master of Arts degree in Hebrew Letters. When he is not wearing his rabbi cap, he is a translator and genealogist — and an urban gardener.