Spreading Our Roots on Shavuot

Blog post by Joshua Boydstun, Jewish Farm School Rabbinic Intern
As a rabbinical student, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about metaphorical “roots”: What is “the root of an idea”? Are texts and traditions “rooted” in a particular time or place? Is it dangerous to be “rootless”? And if so, how can we “get back to our roots”? All of these metaphors depict the “root” as something fundamental and foundational—as a point of origin or a basic essence. These metaphors are rich and valuable, but their conception of roots as static and absolute is simply false.

This past weekend, I helped plant an American plum tree (Prunus americana) in a new community garden in West Philadelphia, during the Jewish Farm School’s inaugural Shtetl Skills workshop. After digging a foot-deep hole, we moistened the soil of the potted sapling and then pulled it loose from the constraints of its plastic pot. Those of us unfamiliar with planting trees were surprised to see the thick web of roots that encased the cylinder of soil. Winding twice around the bottom lip of this mass was the pale cable of the tree’s taproot.

Nati explained that when a potted plant has outgrown its container, the roots become matted and tangled. For our “root-bound” plum tree, its container was the entire universe; it had grown so used to the shape and size of its small pot that merely replanting it in the earth would not coax its roots beyond these limits. Rather, we massaged and loosened the sapling’s roots from their tangled mass. (Some horticulturists recommend cutting and manually re-aligning the roots of a “root-bound” plant.) After placing the sapling into the earth, we surrounded it with loose, moist, rich compost to entice the roots to expand beyond their accustomed shape and to explore the luxuriant enormity of their new environs. Once acclimated to these new conditions, the roots will become so strong and determined that they will be able to break through dense, dry soil and even rock. That is the true power and wonder of living roots!

The festival of Shavuot is all about the grueling yet vital quest to expand our roots—as individuals and as a community, as Jews and as human beings. As I explained in last month’s post, Shavuot begins on the 6th of Sivan (May 14, 2013) and represents the end of S’firat Ha’omer (“The Counting of the Sheaves”). This daily practice of counting off the 49 days—seven weeks of seven days—between Pesach and Shavuot began as an ancient means of tracking the period between the barley harvest (on or around Pesach) and the beginning of the wheat harvest on Shavuot (which means “weeks” in Hebrew). The holiday’s agricultural origins are recorded in the Torah, where it is described as the “Festival of the Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), the “Festival of Weeks” (Exodus 34:22) and the “Festival of First Fruits” (Numbers 28:26). Shavuot reconnects us with our agricultural roots—not as a static, archaic or obsolete way of life, but rather as a vital aspect of Jewish life and spirituality.

Moreover, according to the Talmud, “The Sages taught: On the sixth of the month [of Sivan], the Ten Commandments were given to Israel” (Shabbat 86b). Therefore, Shavuot—the 6th of Sivan—is celebrated as Z’man Matan Ha-torah: the Time of the Giving of the Torah.

On Pesach, the Israelites fled Egypt as little more than a band of frightened, repressed, timid slaves. Seven weeks later, we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, received the Torah and were reborn as a people. It was the giving of the Torah and, even more importantly, our acceptance of it that transformed a mass of “root-bound” refugees from Egypt into a people eager to explore the world and spread our roots. (Indeed, the Hebrew name for Egypt, “Mitzrayim,” means roughly the “Narrow Place” or the “Bordered Place.”)

And finally, Shavuot is often observed by communal readings of the Book of Ruth, a moving tale of love, devotion and redemption: The Israelite widow Naomi and her widowed, Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth flee from “root-bound” deprivation in famine-ridden Moab and search for a better life in Bethlehem (literally, “House of Bread”). They arrive there at the beginning of the barley harvest—that is, around Pesach.

Artfully and tenderly, the Book of Ruth records love and charity unfolding through the unlikely medium of agricultural laws, namely the practice of leqet(“gleaning”): the practice of leaving for the poor any stalks that are dropped accidentally during the course of harvesting (Leviticus 19:9 and 23:22; Mishnah Peah 4:10). Not only does Boaz, Naomi’s kind and selfless kinsman, allow Ruth—a stranger anda Moabite—to glean leqetin his field, but he instructs his servants to intentionallydrop stalks of barley for her to glean (Ruth 2:15-16). So ample is the leqetthat Ruth “gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished” (Ruth 2:23)—through Pesach, the Counting of the Omer and Shavuot—and is able to sustain Naomi and herself.

Shortly thereafter, Boaz and Ruth are married, even though Deuteronomy 23:4 declares: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the Congregation of the Lord; none of their descendents, even into the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” And yet, Ruth is accepted as an exception, by sheer virtue of her inherent goodness.

Some commentators have suggested that Boaz and Ruth’s union is an early example of intermarriage, while others have celebrated Ruth as the ideal convert to Judaism. Regardless of how we understand Ruth’s identity, it is clear that a Moabite woman has been enshrined as a paragon of goodness and virtue. Indeed, she is so honorable and righteous that her great-grandson is none other than King David (Ruth 4:17). As we read in Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot [i.e., the Messiah] shall grow out of the stump of Jesse [David’s father], a twig shall sprout from his root.” If Jesse is the “root” of the Messiah, then surely so is Ruth. Yes, Ruth the Moabite succeeds in escaping the “root-bound” curse of famine, widowhood and her own outsider status. Through sheer strength of character and devotion, she succeeds in becoming the root of the hopes and dreams of Jews throughout history. Only dynamic roots—those capable of sustaining and being sustained by outsiders—are capable of such a tremendous revitalization.

As we celebrate Shavuot—by recalling the Spring harvest, celebrating the giving of the Torah or reading the Book of Ruth—may we reflect on the deep and abiding strength of our roots. If the Torah truly is an Etz Chayyim (“Tree of Life”), then it is up to us to reflect on what its roots—and by extension, our own roots—require to be sustained. In what ways have our Jewish identity, spirituality and practice become “root-bound”? How can we draw nourishment from our traditions in order to continue growing beyond the easy and the comfortable?

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