Navigate to Belief section

Toil and Text: The Twin Gifts of Shavuot

Spending a summer working on a farm got me in touch with nature—and Torah. Now I understand how the two are intertwined.

Sarah Marx
May 21, 2015
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The summer after my freshman year of college, I took a job on a 10-acre organic farm in Vermont. Each day in this lush new world held a revelation: the potpourri of manure and old straw and morning dew when you wake up, the delicate chess game by which a farmer lays out her rows, the good dark dirt that nestles into the cracks of your hands and stays there. I learned 10 different textures of soil and at least 30 shades of green; I watched chickens flirt, argue, and get sick; I ate vegetables that proclaimed their flavor to the heavens.

That summer, my study of Torah began.

In the strictest sense, it wasn’t a religious experience: I never davened or pulled out a volume of Gemara. But every day, I was confronted with the wonder and mystery of the world in a way that I had never noticed before. I knew—even as my legs ached and my clothes took on a permanent stink—that I was experiencing something far beyond myself.

In one of Maimonides’ many great works of Jewish philosophy, Hilchot Yesodei haTorah, the Rambam writes: “When a person contemplates [God’s] wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify Him, yearning with tremendous desire to know His great name.” For the Rambam, himself a doctor and astronomer, exposure to nature was an imperative for Jews.

Almost every aspect of Jewish observance is inseparable from the world outdoors. From the luscious, overgrown Garden of Eden to the agrarian code of the shmita and jubilee years, from Cain’s bloody desecration of the soil to the legendary land of milk and honey, the stories we hold sacred express a powerful connection to the earth. The Oral Torah, too, lavishes page after page on laws regarding farming, pickling and preserving, water conservation. Even the daily minutiae of Jewish observance force us to acknowledge Creation: We say blessings over rainbows and good smells, over lightning and thunder, and scrutinize the production methods of our food with all the obsessiveness of today’s eat-local movement.

Nowhere is this more evident than the holiday of Shavuot. On the one hand, Shavuot celebrates the first fruits of the grain harvest, offered by ancient Jewish farmers on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the other hand, it marks the giving of the Torah and the millennia of study that followed, an event that we remember by staying up all night to learn. This double meaning serves as a reminder that agriculture and Torah are thoroughly entwined, enough that they share a festival. For the rest of the year, we can pore over texts indoors and never feel sunlight, or work in the dirt all day and never crack open a book; on Shavuot, every Jew is pushed to see how connected farm life and Torah study really are.

During that first summer four years ago, I fell in love with farming. I was nervous when I arrived, dreading the hard work and afraid of all the mistakes I would inevitably make; I left with a fierce devotion to the craft of agriculture, the craft of encouraging and sustaining new life. But I also left with a fledgling understanding of God’s presence in the world—of the infinite meaning and beauty of a chick’s feathers or a blade of grass—an understanding that primed me, without my even knowing it, for my Jewish journey to come.

If, even five years ago, I had heard that someday I would talk earnestly about “God’s presence in the world,” I might have laughed. I was raised in a culture that didn’t tend to use that kind of language: a well-educated, politically conscious, East Coast suburb. Like many American Jewish kids, for better and for worse, I grew up in a community that prioritized social justice and Jewish peoplehood over traditional modes of ritual and belief. Although I didn’t receive a particularly thorough Jewish education, I went to shul about once a month for most of my teenage years—an experience that was sometimes beautiful, sometimes meaningless. I loved the familiar melodies and the insightful English readings; I didn’t much comprehend or appreciate anything else.

In my free-spirited, open-minded community, I was given the opportunity to question everything, an attitude at once thrilling and dangerous for a child. There were so many elements of Jewish life that I never learned, and so many others that I dismissed without a second thought because I didn’t have the tools to evaluate them properly. Having never read Jewish texts, I assumed that they were primitive and irrelevant, that we had moved away from them for a reason. By the time I became bat mitzvah, I was an unshakable atheist.

And I was indoorsy—almost pathologically so. In keeping with my vaguely Goth-inspired fashion sense, I joked to my friends that sunlight would turn me to ash. It took routine acts of Herculean will to get me out of the novel I was reading, off the couch, and onto my feet. Even in high school, when like most confident D.C.-area teenagers I found myself absorbed in politics, my activism more often than not took place online or between the pages of a book. This tendency reached its extreme in my freshman year of college, when my days were spent discussing philosophy under fluorescent lights, drinking too much, and getting cookie crumbs all over my Complete Works of Plato.

Taking all this into consideration, it’s a perpetual mystery to me how I ended up on that farm in Vermont. My parents didn’t get it. My friends didn’t get it. Even I didn’t really get it. At the time, I traced it back to my political convictions, in a world that increasingly viewed eating well as a radical act—but there are plenty of radical acts to be done in cities. Maybe it was my body taking charge for the first time, forcing me toward the fresh air and exercise that I had worked so hard to avoid. Or maybe it was something more primal than that: a basic longing, as Rambam describes, to see nature, and to interact with a world older and bigger and more sophisticated than anything concocted by human beings.

After that first farm experience, I went back to school: at St. John’s College, a high-powered little liberal-arts school with an all-required curriculum focused on the great works of the Western canon. Strangely enough, the first reading of my sophomore year, the first assignment after my farm summer, was Genesis.

The coming weeks introduced me to the other four books of Moses, and then David’s mesmerizing rise to kingship, and then Psalms and many of the prophetic accounts. I had never read these texts before, and I found myself responding to them with a passion that shocked me. Despite their relative brevity, they were the longest readings I’d ever done for a class, because I was scribbling margin-notes on almost every sentence and then coming back and writing notes on the notes. The magnificence and complexity that I had felt in the world—that I had felt on every inch of my farm plot—had a voice, and with every word it expressed the intense excitement and despair of the human condition.

The stories were laden with slices of agrarian life: Isaac waiting for Rebecca in his field in the early afternoon, Jacob tricking Laban by means of a flock of sheep, Ruth scooping up bunches of golden grain in the afternoon breeze. They provided me with language to talk about the divinity that I’d found imbued in the natural world—a language that evokes God through physicality and relationships, through fruit trees bearing fruit and fathers and kings and whirlwinds in the desert, that trains us to recognize the order of Creation in our own fields and backyards. Most powerfully, they presented a theology tied inextricably to land, not only an abstract spiritual realm but a particular land with particular history, botany, and collective memory. The land in Torah isn’t passive; it has its own connection to God and to us, despises the blood it soaks up when human beings kill one another, requires a Shabbat of its own every seventh year. I had experienced the sheer irrepressible aliveness of that farm plot in Vermont, its drive to perpetuate itself and its cruelty and its nourishment, and I understood.

All that year and in the years after, in class and in my spare time, I learned Torah. I had no particular tie to the Jewish community nearby, but I poured myself body and soul into Jewish books. And just as the land had brought me to the text, the text brought me back to the land, and forced me to reevaluate the way I behaved upon and toward it. I worked in flower gardens the next summer, and on another organic vegetable farm the summer after that; each time, I found myself both overwhelmed with amazement and disappointed when the fleeting periods of amazement wore off. If the whole world is truly full of God’s glory, I reasoned, I can’t be satisfied with occasional “hits” of religious awe—I have to live in every moment with the kind of reverence that such a world deserves.

I began trying to remain conscious of earthly sacredness not only in my attitude, but in my behavior. Slowly but surely, I eased myself toward a way of life bound by Jewish law. I observed Shabbat for the first time after a long day of pulling weeds; as I welcomed in the Shabbat bride in a tiny rural shul, there were flakes of potting soil still caught in my hair. I became more deliberate in the way I dressed, and I started to learn the blessings over food and good smells. And with every step, every ritual attempt to acknowledge and celebrate the holiness all around me, I knew that I had to do more, learn more.

Now, after four years of exploration and profound confusion, I’m studying Jewish texts in Jerusalem. I’m becoming more observant on the one hand, davening and bentching with a regularity that would have appalled me as an authority-averse hipster four years ago. On the other hand, I still hope to spend my life growing food, and the words I read come alive when I’m gardening or playing with animals or out hiking in the desert. I dream of running my own farm, perhaps in the United States, perhaps here in Eretz Yisrael—a small-scale organic wonderland with sheep and goats and rows of veggies and an orchard, a place where, like our forefather Isaac, I can say that I have “sowed in that land and reaped … a hundredfold” (Genesis 26:12).

So, as I prepare for Shavuot, I can’t help but feel as though I’m reenacting my own story. On one day, the festival marks two different kinds of gifts: the gift of wondrous Creation, exemplified by the abundance of the first grain harvest, and the gift of Torah. Around Shavuot four years ago, when I stepped off the train in southern Vermont, I became aware of both gifts for the first time. Ever since, toil and text have continued to enrich one another. Farming allows me to live and breathe Torah, to watch the images and tales of our tradition unfold on the ground, and to observe the age-old mitzvot governing our agricultural work—mitzvot that too often fall by the wayside in a postindustrial world. And Torah invests every moment on the farm with sacred significance; it forces the farmer to see the holiness in her produce and to recognize her ordinary work as an interplay with Creation, as a collaboration with God.

A recent graduate of St. John’s College, Sarah Marx currently studies at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

Support Our Podcasts

In addition to Unorthodox, the world’s No. 1 Jewish podcast, and Take One, our daily Talmud meditation, we’re hard at work on exciting new Jewish audio series.