The Species of Israel
This past summer, I walked through a dream. I had the blessing, along with Rabbi David Hoffman, of leading a very special group through the length and breadth of the Land of Israel. Some forty-two leaders from Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico – many of them students of the JTS Kollot: Voices of Learning program – joined together in the presence of Chancellor Ismar Schorsch to journey through Jewish tradition and text. With Tanakh in hand, we began our journey at Beit Hatefuzot, The Museum of the Diaspora. There we were treated to a bird’s eye view of Jewish history. The following morning, we embarked on an expansive and emotional ten-day trek, in which we encountered the biblical, Rabbinic, medieval, and modern periods. More than a mission, this experience was a pilgrimage that animated Torah. And nowhere did this encounter come alive more than at Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel.
I turn back to our time at Neot Kedumim specifically for its connection to this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Ekev. In Deuteronomy 8:7-8, we read of the “seven species” of the Land of Israel: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of [grape] vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey.” With passion, knowledge, and poise, our guide, Beth Uval, led us through the agricultural and festival cycle of the Jewish year, weaving the seven species of Israel into our understanding of the rhythm of the land. Among the important questions raised by Nogah Hareuveni, the founder of Neot Kedumim, in his book Nature in Our Biblical Heritage, are: What do these seven species have in common? Why do these fruits come to characterize Israel? Quite masterfully, he points to the delicate balance between nature and man that is needed in cultivating each of these plants. Notably, Hareuveni points to tractate Bava Batra 147a as a critical prooftext: “The northern wind is beneficial to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and is damaging to olive trees when they have blossomed. The southern wind is damaging to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and is beneficial to olives when they have blossomed.” Israelites, and modern-day Israelis, are wholly dependent on the winds and rains coming at their proper times. While the ancient Israelites, influenced by their Canaanite neighbors, often saw their agricultural condition as a result of the battles between Canaanite deities, the Torah is categorical in its opposing view.
Successful crops are the function of balance not only in the natural world, but also in the spiritual world. Truly, as Emil Fackenheim writes, “the response from below calls forth a response from above.” Torah makes our crops dependent on our observance of the mitzvot (see the second paragraph of the Shema). And while many of us wrestle with the theological tension expressed therein, all of us can respect the Torah’s desire to make the work of our hands dependent on God and a direct reflection of the lives we live. The seven species – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates – all require delicate care; so too do our spiritual lives require such attentiveness. Only with proper attention can we enjoy the fruits of our lives. May the Land of Israel serve as a model to the People of Israel.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.