Earth Etude for Elul 21 — A Little Omer on the Prairie

by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

~ I live on the prairie. In the Prairie State of Illinois. On a summer’s day with large clouds towering over the cornfields, it is spectacular. Awe-inspiring. I remember to be grateful.

For several decades, I have followed the practice of Rabbi Everett Gendler of planting winter wheat, rye or barley at Sukkot and harvesting it during the counting of the Omer, the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot. I have done this with generations of Hebrew School students and their parents. It roots the Jewish year in the agricultural cycle. It is concrete, hands-on, project-based learning. And it is fun.

After celebrating Shavuot, the pilgrimage festival of “First Fruits”, we plow that winter crop under and plant our community garden, fulfilling the mitzvah of leaving the corners of our field for the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, the most marginalized amongst us. We send weekly harvests to our local soup kettles who appreciate the fresh vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers, radishes, lettuce, spinach, kale. And surprise, Brussel sprouts. It turns out kids love eating Brussel sprouts if they grow them. Right off the stalk. Raw.

Every Friday night, as part of Kabbalat Shabbat, just ahead of singing Or Zarua, “Light is sown, planted, seeded for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart” I give the Congregation Kneseth Israel Farm Report. We have had students who have never gotten their hands dirty. Never played in the mud. Never been to the grocery store and didn’t know that tomatoes grow on a vine. They begin to see the connection between Judaism and the earth. There is a deep spirituality in this practice.

In all the decades, this project works. We plant those seeds of wheat, rye or barley at Sukkot. It begins to grow and then it lays fallow over the winter. Then, just when the snows begin to melt, little shoots come up again. Magic. Each week we cut a little bit more and watch it grow. And we are grateful. By Shavuot it is fully headed out. Beautiful grain. Not enough to make bread or as some adults have suggested bourbon, but enough to decorate the sanctuary for Shavuot and receiving the Torah anew.

It has always struck me as a little bit of a waste. All that energy goes into growing that grain. The sun’s energy. The earth’s nutrients and the people’s work. This year, instead of plowing it under, we harvested the grain and took it to friends who own a dairy farm. Happy cows! Happy rabbi!

Yet, for two recent back-to-back years, we had a crop failure. Not a single stalk of grain, not a blade of grass. No one is sure why. Apparently, there may have been a national issue of blight with the seed. We may have planted too late. The winter may have been too harsh. The spring too hot. Too wet. Too dry. It was a teachable moment. Instead of harvesting omer, we harvested 50 photos of joy. 

I am starting my eighth year at this congregation. For this coming Sukkot we are beginning to discuss whether we should rest the land or rotate the crops or make sure we plant for the sake of “pekuach nefesh”, saving a life, as we feed the most marginalized amongst us. I don’t know what we will decide, yet. 

However, as we enter the new Jewish year, I am astounded by the beauty of the prairie around me, and pledge to protect it. 

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL. She has become an urban farmer as part of teaching and leading this congregation. Her husband is proud of his dairy farming degree and experience. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, and is the author of two books. One of the 13 Attributes of the Divine and preparing for the High Holidays. The other is being released this summer on Hope for Survival for domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community.

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