Parashat Ki Tavo

First Fruits

There are many things we can do to create local culture that links God, land, and people.

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On the following Mishnah (Bikkurim 3:3), "All the professionals in Jerusalem would stand before them (the farmers) and inquire as to their welfare," Rabbi Kook comments: "….When the nation is morally depraved, when individuals' eyes and heart are only upon money, these two types, those who engage in nature and those who engage in artifice become alienated from one another. The farmers, who dwell in villages close to nature, will be the object of disrespect on the part of the professionals who have figured out how to live by civilization divorced from nature." 


In the colorful ceremony of bikkurim, which involved Jews from all walks of life, Rabbi Kook saw an opportunity to rectify the disrespect and alienation between the farmers and the townspeople. In a God-fearing society, each individual sector of society recognizes the relevance of the other sectors. Among the Jewish nation, farmers were given particular respect. This recognition is exemplified by the townspeople "standing up" before the farmers during the ceremony.

Acknowledging Our Debt to Farmers

Note that Rabbi Kook is not saying that all Jews should become farmers. Rather, he is proposing that the integrity of the nation of Israel, and of humanity as a whole, is contingent upon the cosmopolitan city-dweller acknowledging his deep connection to the provincial farmer.

Today, most people live the state of alienation between nature and civilization described by Rabbi Kook. Most of us don't realize that many of the things we use in our "civilized" daily lives--including food, medicine, and even plastic--have their origins in the natural world. We are also unaware that our individual cultures were once inextricably linked to nature.

The loss of local culture--that intricate web of language, food, religion, economy, and ecology--is disastrous for both people and the planet. Wendell Berry, an American farmer and writer, suggests that "lacking an authentic local culture, a place is open to exploitation, and ultimately destruction, from the center."

He advocates strengthening local economies, fostering connections between generations, deepening religious convictions, and most importantly, building cohesive communities centered around specific places. The sound integration between place and culture, which implies an understanding of the interconnectedness of all of Creation, is critical for the development of positive environmental ethics. 

Jewish life during Temple times, which wove together religion, economy, food, language, and local ecology, can be viewed as an integrated local culture. Today, the Jewish people are, on the whole, alienated not only from nature, but also from God, the Land of Israel, and each other.

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Leiba Chaya David is director of Ru'ach HaSviva, The SPNI Center for Jewish Environmentalism. She lives with her husband and three small children on a moshav near Jerusalem.