The title of this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah (the life of Sarah), is a bit misleading at it is book-ended by the deaths of Sarah and Avraham. But, it is also filled with a celebration of life. Avraham dies in old age, but only after ensuring his progeny through the marriage of his son, Isaac, to Rebecca. It is a story of the spiraling cycles of our lives and the continuation of our legacies through the generations of our families.
We continue our lives even when are family and friends pass. And, upon death, we each return to the soil that initially gave us life. The simplest matter that we become upon death–dirt and dust–also brings us forth to the beauty, complexities and interconnectedness of life on Earth. Deep in the ground is the source of our nourishment and life for all: water, and soil.
In the parsha we learn that at Avraham’s request, his servant journeyed to find a wife for Isaac, bringing ten camels with him. The camels were brought to a well where the women of the town collected water each evening. As Rabbi Shai Held notes, Rebecca offered the camels water without the servants prompting. “She is so kind that she does more than she is asked, and beyond her concern for people, she cares also for the needs of animals.” Yael Shy comments that Rebecca’s actions are those of chesed (lovingkindness), a trait usually associated with Avraham. She writes, “Rebecca’s chesed should not be considered simply being nice. Chesed in the Torah can be defined more accurately as a profound generosity of spirit. . . . chesed involves acts that sustain another.”
Rebecca first sees her future husband, Isaac, in fields, praying. Upon meeting Rebecca, Isaac brings her to Sarah’s tent, which as Yael Shy notes, is a place of suffering. They transition between places of life and death.
The fields provide more than just sustenance for Isaac and Rebecca: they are the site of their first encounter, laying the foundation for their future generations, and they are a rich, nourishing anchor in opposition to the dark, somber tent of Sarah.
Soil is our grounding and sustenance. Avraham and Sarah are buried in the soil in the Cave of Machpelah in this parsha. It is also our source of life, represented by the continuation of Avraham’s legacy through Isaac and Rebecca’s and their children.
Today, we drink some of the same water that was on Earth during the period of Avraham and Sarah. We use the same soil to grow our food as they did. Like humans, soil and water live in cycles, seeking nourishment and balance to provide for all life on Earth. And, “healthy soil is the foundation of the food system.”
Sadly, we often live in separation from our soil and water. If we ignore our soil and water, we neglect our future. Here in the US, much of our deep, nourishing soil has been plowed, burned, paved and/ or doused in chemicals. Nutritious food cannot be grown in dead soil. As chef and author Dan Barber writes in his book, The Third Plate, “colonial agriculture took root in the philosophy of extraction.” Only now are we slowly rolling back and addressing the consequences of the hundreds of years of this agricultural philosophy.
Much of our water has been diverted, dried up, or dammed. I’m living in Los Angeles during the Golden State’s worst drought in the past 500 years. Lakes and reservoirs are disappearing; farmers are losing crops and wells are dry.
Soil erosion and degradation and drought are not just Californians’ or farmers’ problem. It’s everyone’s problem because of the integral nature of soil and water to our survival and because California grows half of all fruits and vegetables for the nation. Farmland is the source of our food. As the Kansas-based Land Institute uncomfortably states about the impacts of our agricultural practices and policies, “it is no exaggeration to say that humans are destroying their future.”
We need to offer chesed to our soil and water. This is about embodying Rebecca’s broad sense of sustaining others for our well-being, and our descendants.
Dan Barber argues that we need to “grow nature. . . . More nature means less control.” This philosophy is in sync with the values of Shmita. The final year of the seven-year Shmita cycle began this past Rosh Hashana. This year is a time when agricultural land lays fallow and we harvest perennials. It is about offering chesed to the land, letting it “grow nature” and leaving it more in control rather than under our control. While Shmita is normally only practiced in Israel, Hazon is leading exciting conversations and actions to implement Shmita values in the Diaspora.
The Land Institute is working for a never-ending Shmita system called Natural System Agriculture. The organization has been working for three decades to grow perennial grain crops systems in the prairies, with yields similar to those of annuals. They were inspired to do so after the Mid West’s
prairies’ complex, rich soil and native prairie grasses were dug up and destroyed at the beginning of the 20th century and then blown away during the Dust Bowl. Soil should be our source of life but if not handled well, can also lead to death.
The recipe this week reflects the notion of life and death. The main ingredients are beets, and shallots, which grow deeply in the Earth and mushrooms, which grow in dark, damp places. The finely chopped nuts are dust-like to symbolize what we each become when we return to the Earth. The beets, though, also grow above ground with greens that represent life, growth and renewal. The dish is dark, rounded underneath to symbolize Sarah and Avraham’s burial in the Cave of Machpelah and covered with beet greens that represent the continuation of life through descendents such as Isaac and Rebecca.
4 Golden beets, including greens
1 basket of mushrooms (I used a mixture of Hen of the Woods and King Oyster mushrooms)
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/4 pomegranate, seeded
small handful of finely chopped dry roasted almonds (dust-like)
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Cut off beet greens and save. Scrub beets. Wrap in foil and place on tray in oven. Roast until soft, approximately one hour (beets should be soft when a fork is inserted).
3. Finely chop shallot and mushrooms (Hen of the Woods mushrooms naturally break off into small pieces). Over low-heat, add 1 tbsp olive oil to pan. Sauté shallots and mushrooms until soft, approximately 10 minutes.
4. In another pan, add 1/2 tbsp olive oil. Over low heat, sauté beet greens until wilted. Add a tiny pinch of salt and a dash of pepper.
5. Remove beets from oven and let cool. Then, peel beet skins and chop. Fold beets and “dusty” ground almonds into mushroom mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Place on serving piece (I used the pottery in which I prepared the mushrooms) with beet-mushroom mixture at bottom and “mold” into a mound. Place beet greens on top. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds on top.