Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards; for our vineyards are in blossom.
Song of Songs 2:15
Centered and rooted between the posts of the grape arbor, the Biblical Garden grape vine at Temple Sinai has reached the topmost wires in our four-arm Kniffin arbor system. Inspection at every Saturday Minyan Breakfast reveals that its trunk is sprouting shoots which will become four canes branching sideways. Eventually, with watering and judicious pruning, we can hope for sweet fruit in years to come. The four-arm Kniffin is easiest to maintain and the most common system for American grapes like our Labrusca variety.
In biblical times one of the most important agricultural roles was that of the vinedresser, who planted, watered and pruned to assure a bountiful harvest of grapes for the winepress. Protection of vineyard and crop required the community to build and maintain hedges and fences, and a watchtower, manned against marauders (two- and four-footed) including the little foxes of Solomon’s beloved poem.
In the middle of a warm late-July weeding session in the Biblical Garden, this gardener received a lovely and unexpected gift. A congregant passing by paused and surveyed the garden, and commented that it reminds her of gardens she saw on the kibbutzim in Israel because they look so similar. Her gift of those words affirmed that the character of the Biblical Garden is transmitting exactly the message intended, that Temple Sinai is a congregation with our roots firmly planted in the soil of our heritage in Israel.
As we prepare for our spiritual homecoming on the High Holidays, we can be vine dressers who cultivate a harvest of personal and congregational renewal that will enable us to be inscribed yet again in the Book of Life, for a good and sweet New Year.
Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field.
Over seventy species of brambles, thistles, briers and other thorny, prickly plants grow among the flora of Israel. In the verse from Genesis above, God curses the ground as he expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and sends Adam forth to till the soil.
As agriculture developed in the Middle East and ancient grains were domesticated, thistles and other weedy opportunists took advantage of newly-disturbed soil and established themselves, forming dense, impenetrable stands that competed with field crops and forage plants for precious water and nutrients. Thorns, prickles and sharp spines defended these plants from grazing by flocks of goats and sheep in Abraham’s time, as they do today.
The Biblical Garden includes colorful specimens of thorns and thistles native to Israel, including vibrant red barberry bushes, Centaury-thistles, and the Globe thistle beloved of goldfinches. This spring, Mrs. Carter’s 4th and 5th grade religious school class planted seeds of Silybum marianum, “milk thistle,” which have sprouted and are now transplanted into the garden. This herb is prickly indeed and has been used in Bible lands as a folk remedy for thousands of years.
Now as we complete the counting of the Omer and move toward Shavuot, the revelation of Torah at Sinai, our gardens call us to be busy with water and compost and the fragrant earth to plant new green life. We are reminded as well to be open to the wisdom given in our sacred texts.
Rabbi Janet Marder writes: Shavuot celebrates the moments when wisdom and truth come to us, in our own time, in our own way…Three thousand years ago our people stood in a vast and silent desert, at the foot of a mountain, and in the silence they saw and heard something that convinced them that the universe itself is no accident – that life has beauty and meaning and purpose; and that life must be lived as if it matters.
But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Eternal has done this? In God’s hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.
Job 12: 7-10
Gardeners derive much spiritual sustenance from creating beauty, abundance and meaning as we till and plant and tend a patch of ground. In the Biblical Garden, and in our own gardens, we may even sense a connection with the land and the ancestorswho have passed down to us an immutable covenant with the Eternal. Yet it is also important to spend time in untamed nature, to discover what the wild places can tell us about ourselves and our place in the natural world.
It’s been observed that today’s children can recognize 100 corporate logos and fewer than 10 plants. Richard Louv, in his book The Last Child in the Woods reminds us that children, especially, need unstructured play outdoors. They need time to scramble over rocks, splash in creeks, collect bugs and runfreely along the shore, time to breathe and grow and connect with truths that only nature can teach.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.” Wonder is discovered and cultivated in nature. In the coming summer months, we can give our children, and ourselves, opportunities to look, really look, at the vastness of the night sky, to discover a woodland salamander under a rotted log, or watch an osprey dive into a river and come up with a fish. Take a child to a woodland, a seashore, a forest. Better yet, let a child take you. Be awe-struck. Be amazed.
The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, "We shall all be dead." So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders.
The Biblical Garden grows two ancient strains of wheat, Emmer and Einkorn, both first domesticated in the Near East more than 10,000 years ago. Wild wheat, the mother of all wheat, grows today in rocky soil of the Galilee and Golan Heights.
Long before the Israelites arrived in Egypt, the Egyptians had learned the secret of leavening bread, allowing the dough to rise before baking, through the addition of yeast, by mixing it with a piece of already leavened “starter” dough or leaving it exposed to yeast spores in the air. At our Passover Seders, we are reminded of the haste with which the Israelites in Egypt fled that most settled and civilized land, from the culture of slaves whose lives depended on the leavened bread of Egypt, to the culture of matzah, the bread of free shepherds.
During this coming season of liberation, living as we do in this sophisticated, technological age, we can think about the demands and distractions in our overscheduled lives that leave us little time to appreciate our blessings and the grace that surrounds us. Might we find the courage to gather our unleavened dough and bind up our kneading bowls in our cloaks, to set out on our journey anew, leaving behind self-absorption and impatience, aimless busyness and preoccupation with the accumulation of “stuff”? The truth is, we have very limited real needs. Matzah might just suffice to remind us that we can cultivate lives of greater authenticity, simplicity, and ruach if we choose. The wilderness awaits, but we have what we need for today, and we do not set out alone.
And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was of beautiful form and fair to look on; and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter.
The Book of Esther, which we read on Purim, takes place in in the fourth or fifth century BCE in the Persian Empire. It tells the story of Hadassah and her uncle Mordecai, who was leader of the Jews under the rule of King Achashverosh. Hadassah was sent to become the wife of the Persian king, but the king could not know that she was Jewish, so she took on the Persian name, Esther.
The Hebrew word hadassah means "myrtle." Native to the northern Galilee (Myrtus communis), is an evergreen shrub with glossy foliage and white flowers followed by purple-black oval berries. It is drought-resistant with leaves that release a sweet fragrance when bruised. The myrtle, is now rare and endangered in the wild, and it is protected in Israel. It is among the species being planted to transform the Negev for agricultural use through the Jewish National Fund.
It’s too early for anything to be done in the Biblical Garden but the catkins are now abloom on the willow, and narcissus and hyacinth bulbs have broken the surface of the soil. We impatiently wait for longer days and warmer sun, the call of doves, the reappearance of hungry rabbits, and the pungent smell of damp soil ready for turning. In this "mud season" of early spring, the garden reminds us that we, too, are soil, and water, and sunlight, connected to each other and to all living things, and indeed we harbor a glimmer of the Eternal as well.
Then have them make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell among them.
After the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, when they were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses was given detailed instructions to build a mishkan, a dwelling place, with its furnishings, and the Ark of the Covenant, all to be constructed of acacia wood. The mishkan, a portable sanctuary, would serve as a visible, tangible symbol of God's presence in the midst of the people, and a sacred space for encountering the Divine.
Several species of acacia were common and accessible on the Sinai peninsula, but only Acacia raddiana is suitable for construction. This thorny tree has an impressive umbrella shape: a single trunk with a broad and flat crown. The bark is brown-reddish and the leaves are small to conserve water. Highly resistant to drought, it grows deep roots and uses water stores that other plants cannot reach. Because the tree grows slowly, the wood is hard and dense, resistant to water and insect damage. Acacia wood is beautiful and nearly indestructible, well-suited for carrying the mishkan as the Israelites sojourned in the wilderness and moved on into Canaan.
The Latin word for "sacred" gives us the word "sanctuary," a place of refuge, a quiet place for reflection and growth, where we can restore our connection with the holy, and nourish our sense of self. In our homes, our gardens, and our community, we can create spaces that open us to the possibility that the Infinite is seeking us. And like the firmly rooted acacia in the wilderness, we can draw our deepest sustenance from the old, wise Earth: our sanctuary as we journey in the vastness of the universe.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take the following fine spices: as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassia – all according to the sanctuary shekel – and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer.
While there is agreement about the identity of four of the five ingredients of anointing oil, the identity of the fifth, "kanei bosem," translated as “calamus,” is debatable. Many biblical scholars associate the biblical fragrant cane with Acorus calamus (sweet cane), a marsh plant that likes having “wet feet.” The leaves and rhizome contain aromatic oil with a delightful scent of cinnamon. Our handsome specimen thrives outdoors in a large planter filled with water, freezing solid during the winter, and re-emerging every spring.
Maimonides, however, indicates that the ingredient in the sacred oil was Cymbopogon, ginger grass, which grows wild in the region. Pioneering Israeli botanist Michael Zohary, in Plants of the Bible (1983) supports this view and indicates, “It is hopeless to speculate on which of the possible species was intended. It is even doubtful whether the biblical authors had in mind any particular species.”
This ambiguity highlights the challenge of accurately representing plants of ancient Israel in the Biblical Garden. Lacking direct archaeological evidence, plant identification is often taken from "what grows there now." As with calamus, there may be no single "right" decision about what to include in the garden, so we grow both sweet cane and ginger grass as we have references for each. Our choices reflect our three-fold purpose, to strengthen our connection with Torah, and with our heritage, and to provide a place of shalom to nurture the spirit.
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our harps. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137: 1-3
When the Israelites were exiled to Babylon, after witnessing the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, they hung up their harps on the “willows” beside the Euphrates because they were bereft of hope that they might return to Jerusalem or find voice to sing the songs of home.
The Hebrew word for willow is aravah, generally translated as “willow of the brook.” Heavy users of water, willows grow along streams in the Jordan valley. However in Psalm 137, the “willows” by the waters of Babylon under which the Israelites wept are actually the Euphrates poplar, native to Iraq. Our beautiful Biblical Garden willow, with its purple stems and bluish foliage, is Salix purpurea, Arctic Willow, which is better suited to New England winters.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav commented on Psalm 137, “Everywhere I walk, I am walking to Jerusalem.” The name Jerusalem means “city of wholeness, or completeness.” In 539 BCE, Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and the exiled Jews began to return. Despite our messy lives and our troubled world, we too can return to Jerusalem, even if we have never been there. Jerusalem moments come when we recognize that we are whole and complete, if imperfect, just as we are, and that wherever we find ourselves, we are exactly where we should be. They may not come along very often, and they are easily overlooked, nonetheless, they are valuable breathing-spaces in which we can pause and listen to our inner voice, and reconnect with who we truly are.
While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
In this verse from the story of Noah, the great flood has receded, and the ground is dry. Noah builds an altar and sacrifices to God in gratitude for having been spared. And in the verse above, God promises that the cycles that govern our seasons and our days will continue in their timeless and immutable rhythm.
In autumn, with loss of light and warmth, the leaves of our deciduous trees let go of the green of photosynthesis and reveal the bright gold, russet and flame hidden beneath. As leaves let go and fall, we crunch them under our feet, and enjoy the bracing morning air, as perhaps wistfully, we watch nature begin to settle in for the winter. But as the abundance of summer decays and dies, fallen leaves turn into compost and the soil receives seeds of new life, planted with the autumn rains, awaiting the promised return of light and warmth in spring.
We, too, may find autumn a time for letting go of missed opportunities, disappointments, unrealistic expectations that define us and limit our ability to envision new possibilities. Letting go of what was supposed to be and accepting what is enables us to develop a fresh perspective on who we are, and who we may become. The brilliant colors of autumn remind us that in this season we may discover in our spiritual garden more vivid hues of lovingkindness and generosity of spirit, qualities that reflect the presence of the Eternal in our human selves. This is important work in any season, but the leaves crunching under our feet remind us that today is a good day to start.
It’s time once again to put the Biblical Garden “to bed” for the winter. Religious school students are harvesting fragrant herbs for making Havdalah spice boxes. We are bringing our frost-tender plants indoors to warm windows over the winter, and are wrapping the fig and the grapevine with protection from winter winds. How wonderful it is, as we prepare our spiritual gardens for the coming darkness and cold, to be assured, like Noah, that the seasonal cycle will continue, warmth and light will come again, and new green life will spring from the earth.
For He doth instruct him aright. His God teaches him. For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cumin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cumin with a rod.
Isaiah 28: 26-27
Black cumin, or fitches, (Nigella sativa), is a small plant with feathery leaves and aromatic seeds that ripen on pods and are used as seasoning for cake and other foods. Its peppery flavor adds spice to soups and stews, and cumin oil is used in perfumes and as medicine for stomach disorders. Qetsach in Hebrew, it has been cultivated throughout the Middle East for millennia.
A patch of Nigella is a cheerful addition to the Biblical Garden. An annual plant, it generates drifts of delicate blue and white blossoms and readily self-sows. In the verse from Isaiah above, black cumin is distinguished from a related crop, white cumin, by the method of harvest, whether with a staff or a rod – God instructs us to use the suitable tool for the task at hand.
When Religious School students come out to work in the garden, they immediately go to the tool bucket for gloves and tools. In their eagerness, some claim a trowel, a hand-tiller, or a spade before they are assigned a task. So, in addition to teaching safety in using garden tools, we teach them first to understand the task, then to choose the appropriate tool.
As we approach the High Holiday season, we might consider what tools would be useful in cultivating our spiritual gardens in the coming year. Certainly among them might be deeper engagement in congregational life, patience to maintain a healthy perspective on our personal challenges, openness to opportunities for further growth, as the cycle of life and renewal unfolds once more.
Michael Schlesinger is Temple Sinai’s Biblical Gardener. Mike has been gardening since he was eight years old. He used to grow grape vines and make wine when he lived in California. He now tends to our garden, continuing the traditions started by Catherine Walters.