The Song of the Land
A Torah teaching for the Western environmentalist.
Acting as Ambassadors
If the vision at the opening of Miketz raises the question, perhaps we may seek an answer from the same parashah. Joseph, the favorite son who was years before left for dead by his jealous brothers, has come to power in Egypt and is in charge of dispensing the only food stores in the region. Jacob, his father, sends a "care package" down with his brothers to the ruler, gifting him with fruits of the land of Israel.
How estranged has this son become to his land and people? Jacob and his sons are playing the role of ambassador to an exiled Joseph. As environmentalists who are aware of the crisis our actions have placed before our planet, we are also in a role of ambassadorship to a society that continues down an unsustainable path.
Jacob does not point out the bad points of Egypt, rather he sends Joseph the fruits of the land. Rebbe Nahman writes that Jacob was sending this mysterious ruler of Egypt a taste of what the Land of Israel is. This is perhaps the true core of environmental work--to pass on the awareness of ourselves within our surroundings. The song of the land is a serenade waiting to be heard. Whether working with youth in the city or CEOs of multi-nationals, at our best we are trying to bring the voice of the earth into the equation.
The Song of the Land
When Jacob sends Joseph the package, the Torah calls it zimrat ha'aretz, the song of the land (Genesis 43:11). The translation of Onkelos understands this phrase to mean "the crops that a land is praised for." The connection between fruits and song is a rather significant theme in Jewish agriculture. As Mishnah Bikkurim (First Fruits) describes, the bringing of the first fruits to Jerusalem in the days of the Temple was accompanied by music. Elsewhere, the Talmud teaches that "song is not said except over wine (Berakhot 35a)."
The tastes of a place become indelibly etched into our memories. I have an uncle who hasn't been to Israel in 20 years, and what I hear him asking for is "one of those Israeli tomatoes or cucumbers." Taste is beyond words, yet somehow contains the experience of a place.
In the Torah text, the trop (musical notation) that hover over the shapes and dots of the letters are called the ta'amim, a word that literally means taste. Kabbalah teaches that these "tastes" reveal the secret meaning of the text. And when Joseph receives the offering of the tastes of his homeland, it is written in the Torah as the start of the sequence wherein Joseph begins crying for home (Genesis 43:25-50).
An experience that is by definition beyond words finds its voice through taste and song. The fruits of the land have the power to bring us back to a place of pure connection. Though a tremendous focus of environmental work is on fixing the actions of society, we don't want to miss the deeper challenges that are at the root of our physical disconnect, for that is the source from where we will harvest the real fruits.
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