Vayishlach: Wrestling to Righteousness

Vayishlach: Roasted potatoes, apples and leeks

Vayishlach: Roasted potatoes, apples and leeks

In Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an unknown force in the night. At dawn, Jacob’s foe wants to leave. But, before letting him go, Jacob  demands a blessing from him. He replies by asking Jacob his name and responds, “your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”  Afterwards, Jacob realizes he had been wrestling with God. So, “Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.'”

Black Rock Orchard. DuPont Circle Farmers Market. Washington, DC

Black Rock Orchard. DuPont Circle Farmers Market. Washington, DC

Prior to this event, Jacob was dishonest and deceptive.  The wrestling is transforming, not just in name but spiritually.  Rabbi Brad Artson writes in The Bedside Torah, “through the process of introspection, remorse and a commitment to confront his own failings, Jacob is able to make himself into a better, more empathetic individual.” This is also about Jacob doing the “right thing.” The Sefat Emet taught, “this may be an account of Jacob’s wrestling with his conscience, torn between his human tendency to avoid an unpleasant encounter and the divine impulse in him that urges him to do the difficult but right thing.”

Jews wrestle with moral questions including those about food and agriculture issues. For example, what does or should kosher mean in the 21st century? Is junk food worthy of a hecksher (kosher certification)?  Should an animal raised under inhumane conditions but slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) be deemed kosher? Why aren’t all GMO crops considered treyf (not kosher)? Continue reading

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Toldot: Negotiating for Lentil Stew and More

Liar's Lentil Stew

Liar’s Lentil Stew

Toldot shows us the darker dynamics that can occur between loved ones, especially when one negotiates in less-than-transparent ways. Rebecca and Jacob’s prayers for a child are answered with the birth of her non-identical twin boys, Esau and Jacob.

A famished Esau encounters his brother Jacob enjoying lentil stew. Esau pleads with him to give him some stew in exchange for his birthright, to which Jacob agrees.

We are living in an era now where a different type of deceit happens for people’s birthright–farm land–through land grabs. There’s a lot at stake. The global food economy is a $6 trillion/year system. “The world produces more than 1 1/2 times enough food to feed everyone on the planet.” 

Star anise and red lentils.

Star anise and red lentils.

Seventy percent of our world’s food is grown by family farmers on 25% of the world’s farmland. Despite this being the UN declared, Year of the Family Farmer, land grabs continue to  happen around the world, including here in the United States.  When small farmers enter into negotiations with large corporations they are doubly disadvantaged. They don’t always understand what they are transacting, and they are sometimes made to believe that selling their birthright is the only option open to them. Similarly, Esau didn’t understand the value of his birthright and Jacob had leverage over his brother. When farmers today realize they lost their birthrights, they are upset like Esau. Continue reading

Chayei Sarah: Life and Death

Chayei Sarah: roasted beets, mushrooms, beet greens

Chayei Sarah: roasted Golden beets, mushrooms, beet greens

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.

LA Funghi mushrooms, Culver City farmers market

Mushrooms. LA Funghi, Culver City farmers market

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.”  Continue reading

Vayera: The “Other”

Vayera roasted peppers dips

Vayera roasted peppers dips

This week’s parsha, Vayera, is filled with ethical challenges:  Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of Issac, and the departure of Hagar and Ishmael. But, at the beginning of the parsha, Sarah and Abraham welcome three unexpected strangers to their tent. They wash their guests feet, bake bread and slaughter a calf for them for dinner.

Shortly after Abraham and Sarah’s generosity to the strangers, we are brought to the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah lived in a land of material abundance but followed the ethic, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” (Pirkei Avot). No one took care of sick, vulnerable people. As Aviva Goldbert of the Pardes Institute writes, “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are utterly destroyed because, according to many commentators, they wouldn’t help the “other”: the poor, the hungry, the weak, the needy.”

We Americans live in a land today of great wealth. But, how do we share it? As I’ve written previously, there are 46.5 million hungry people in the US, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors. I live in Los Angeles–a city with hundreds of farms within hours of our city limit, countless urban gardens and some of the nation’s best restaurants–but there are 1.7 million hungry residents.  These are the “others” in our cities and country: food insecure Americans who go to bed hungry, not necessarily knowing when they will next eat. Continue reading

Lech Lecha: From Dark to Light

Scallions. La Cienega farmers market

Scallions. La Cienega farmers market

Lech Lecha tells the story of the birth of the Jewish people through Avraham’s prophecy.  God tells Avram, “I will bless you and make you a great nation.”  As Diane Bloomfield taught this week about Lech Lecha, “God is bringing in a radical new creation with different qualities of what it means to be a human being and the potential becoming of a Jewish nation that brings blessings into the world.”

In the parsha, Avraham is sent on a challenging journey to unknown land, despite God’s promise to protect him and Sarah. It is fraught with dangers, famine, and personal challenges. As Yael Shy wrote, the unknowingness of journeys can create unease and fear in oneself, as is true for Avraham. But, as she continued, “God is telling Abraham to stop trying to predict or figure out or gain control of what that which he is not in control.”

His journey is not about where he has been or his previous actions but where he is going and the potential for the future.  He’s a baal teshvua: someone who lives in the process of what he can become, not what he did, according to Diane Bloomfield.

Continue reading

Noah: Ark of Taste

Campo de Fiori market, Rome

Campo de Fiori market, Rome

Was Noah the first seed saver? The first protector of biodiversity? This week we read that humans’ lawlessness and corruption incensed God enough to cause him to flood and destroy all creatures on the planet. “I am about to bring the Flood — waters upon the earth — to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.”  Noah was tasked by God with saving pairs of every species on his ark and repopulating the planet once the flood waters receded.

After the flood ended, a rainbow in the sky became a covenant between God and man. It “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”  We are challenged every day to live by this covenant, especially when we look at the impacts of climate change–including rising sea levels–on our planet. Modern agriculture today is contributing to climate change, from water usage for livestock to fertilizers to land management. And, climate change is, and will continue to be, a major factor in future food production due to flooding and droughts, desertification and habitat loss.

Mercato di Campagna Amica del Circo Massimo, Rome

Mercato di Campagna Amica del Circo Massimo, Rome

The Slow Food movement’s biannual gathering begins this evening in Turin, Italy with tens of thousands of people from more than 120 countries in attendance. One part of the conference is Salone del Gusto-the largest food and wine conference in the world. The other part, Terra Madre, is a gathering to give a voice, resources and organizing to small-scale agricultural producers worldwide. Indeed, there are 500 million family farmers worldwide who are each growing food on less than two hectares of land. Terra Madre advocates that “eating is an agricultural act and producing is a gastronomic act.” This is the antithesis of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, ConAgra and Monsanto.  Continue reading

Bereshit: Creation and Stewardship

We start again this Shabbat at the beginning with Bereshit. The universe is created out of nothingness by God. “The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.” God creates light and dark, sky and earth, water and land, humans and all of the plants, animals insects, birds and others creatures of our planet, six days and Shabbat. The preciousness and chaos of the complex universe that God makes comes forth from separations, distinctions , enumerations and accountings. In our biosystems, and particularly our humanity, there is great diversity.

FullSizeRender_1Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar writes, “among other things, then, the biblical creation story is like a hymn to biodiversity, which is seen as unambiguously good in its own right. For the Torah, then, creation is precious in its own right.”

This story is not about dominion over the earth but  our being accountable  for stewardship of all that God created. Rabbi Held continues, “the meaning of ‘but the earth He gave over to humanity’ is that the human being is God’s steward (pakid) over the earth and everything that is on it, and she must act according to God’s word.”

Continue reading

Simchat Torah: 7 Rounds

Simchat Torah eggplant rounds

Simchat Torah rounds

We end and we begin. With the ending of the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, we begin Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah) which celebrates the completion of the year-long reading of the Torah. And, then we begin anew with a celebration of life in the story of creation in Bereshit (Genesis). The holiday is an extraordinary community celebration of dancing and singing with Torah scrolls for seven Hakafot (circles).

Simchat Torah symbolizes the cycles of our lives. As the Earth rotates, our lives rotate throughout the year; Torahs scroll cycle along their wooden spines each week; our food grows in cycles; on Simchat Torah while holding the Torah, we circle as a community; and we cycle together throughout the Jewish calendar.

 

Fuyu persimmons. Plummer Park farmers market

Fuyu persimmons. Plummer Park farmers market

In the spirit of the seven Hakafot, I created a Simchat Torah recipe reflecting the cyclical nature and joy of the holiday. It’s common to eat foods that are rolled like scrolls and I would suggest that there is this option for this dish, too.  Continue reading

Shmini Atzeret: Eating in a California drought

FullSizeRender

Tomatillos

I live in Southern California. The majority of my water is pumped from Northern California and other western states. It’s energy intensive, illogical and not sustainable. To add to this, California is in the worst drought in the past 500 years.  What does this mean for Californians and the rest of the nation?

A LOT!  California is America’s fruit basket and salad bowl–the state provides half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts for our country. In the process of growing all of this food, the California agriculture sector uses 80% of the state’s water. 

This is dire for state’s agriculture, which has already lost a half million acres of farmland, will cost the industry $2.2. Billion this year and 17,000 jobs. For some Californians, like hundreds of Tulare County residents (many of whom are Mexican immigrants drawn to the region for agricultural jobs) who use well water, their taps have run dry.

So, what does this have to do with Shmini Atzeret? Bookended by Sukkot and Simchat Torah  (in Israel, it is celebrated on the same day as Simchat Torah), the importance of California’s water situation is keenly attached to this holiday. This holiday concludes the harvest period and initiates the rainy season. It is on this day that we say the Tefilah HaGeshem (Prayer for Rain). The following line is added to Amidah, Masheev HaRuach U-Moreed HaGeshem (He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall) and is said until Passover (when the rainy season concludes). While this holiday never held the gravitas or excitement of other ones for me, I’m keenly aware now of the genuine importance of it, living in this parched state. Continue reading

Sukkot, Shmita & Perennials Roast

Pomegranates. La Cienega farmers market.

Pomegranates. La Cienega farmers market.

As apples dangle from trees, pears turn to a burnt orange and pomegranates burst at their seams with plump tiny fruits, it’s a reminder that we are in Fall harvest season. After the dramatic, solemn day of Yom Kippur, we suddenly jump into the celebratory, abundant harvest festival of Sukkot.  This is the ultimate farm-to-table holiday that pre-dated the Slow Food movement by a few thousand years.

Sukkot is yet another reminder of the beautiful cyclical nature of Jewish life. From weekly cycles marked by Shabbat to agricultural cycles (the agricultural holidays of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot, plus the counting of the Omer), to year cycles that begin each Fall to the seven year cycles of Shmita, Jewish life is communal and circular: always expanding, growing and evolving with each cycle. Continue reading