by Rabbi Robin Damsky
The ultimate expression of Tiferet; Malchut of Tiferet, is the nobility of compassion.
Words like sovereignty, dignity, enhancing status and boosting up – like Brendan Graham’s lyrics, “You raise me up” – come to mind. Michael Jacobs, in his book, Counting the Omer, asks of this day: do our actions create dignity in those we intend to help?
I am reminded of Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Tzedakah. There are many ways to help people, and many ways to give charity. But what is most noble isn’t charity, it is righteousness and justice. Rambam said this is expressed at its greatest level when we support another by endowing him with a gift or a loan, or by teaching her a trade; by finding him employment, or by entering into a partnership with her, to “strengthen his/her hand until s/he need no longer be dependent upon others.” In other words, the greatest nobility in compassion is achieved through enabling others to become self sufficient.
In many cities and rural areas in our country, the number of people who live in poverty is staggering. Here in Chicago, one out of every six people is food insecure, not knowing where they will find or how they will pay for their next meal. Millions of Americans live in food deserts – neighborhoods in which it is too far to walk to a decent grocery store to get healthy fruits and vegetables.
The good news is that urban gardens are cropping up (no pun intended!) all over the United States. A wonderful movie called Growing Cities came out last summer, in which two young men, Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette, took themselves on a road trip to learn about urban farms all around the country. Both born and raised in Nebraska, they noted that they live in a state which consists of farm after farm, but almost none of those farms were growing food for people to eat. The crops were all corn and soybeans that were processed into feed for livestock, fuel, or the ever-ubiquitous junk food.
Dan and Andrew drove all over the nation; to Berkeley and San Francisco, Seattle, Milwaukee, to New York where urban gardens took shape on rooftops, to Boston, Michigan, Atlanta, Louisiana, and of course, to Chicago. Gardens grew every fruit and vegetable imaginable. Some added bees and goats to their bounty. In some farms all the food is given away – nothing is sold. Others belong to the workers, others still sell their produce for a profit. Many have additional space that they offer to people to grow their own food, so in cities like Seattle, where there is a high percentage of people living on SNAP aid, fresh food now supplements their diets.
In Chicago, abandoned buildings and empty lots are being transformed. With more than 20 acres of vacant lots throughout the city, Ken Dunn of City Farm makes agreements with land owners to take this unused land and protect it, beautify it and make useful. John Edel, through using aquaponics to grow food, created 125 jobs in Chicago in his urban farm called “The Plant.” His project is replicable so that it can be implemented by others.
Whether farming with children in schools, taking up unused land, or pioneering a rooftop farm, there are many ways we can get involved in designing gardens where they are needed, and empower people through education and management to cultivate fresh, healthy food for themselves and their families.
Action: An urban garden is a grand project, one that you might be up to or one that may seem beyond your capacity. The idea behind it, however, can be pioneered in many different ways. How can you bring forth another’s sovereignty? Perhaps you would like to start a block garden in which each resident shares his or her expertise and grows something specific. You may prefer to get involved in your city’s planning process for sustainability. Perhaps there is a local program in which you can share your expertise with someone who can become more self-sufficient through your training. Whether your outreach is to a community or to an individual, find a way today to ennoble another through your compassion, helping them to feel the dignity of their own sovereignty.
Robin Damsky is the rabbi of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest, IL,B www.wsthz.org. She is the proud mother of Sarah. In her spare time she promotes social justice and tikkun olam – repair of the world -B through the garden.