To Be Fed By Miracles (Parashat Be’har)

The author explains the Jubilee year described in the Torah portion, and the miracles God will provide during this fallow year. He expands our understanding of the opposites of “miracles” and “nature” when it comes to farming, explaining that miracles and nature are all one.

May 16, 2008

By Noach Dzmura

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Parashat Be’har
To Be Fed By Miracles
by Noach Dzmura on Friday May 16, 2008 11 Iyar 5768
Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

Parashat Be’har concerns the commandment to observe two special cycles of years: the complete rest given to the land during every seventh year, a “Shabbat of the land,” and the year of Jubilee in the fiftieth year, in which family land holdings are redeemed, and indentured servants are freed.

The Shabbat of the land commands us to remember that the land belongs to God; farmers are stewards and tenants rather than owners. In year seven, then, no seed is planted. No sprouts, no tomatoes, no wheat, no flax. In verse 20, Leviticus 25 expresses a serious concern on behalf of the Children of Israel. If we haven’t planted and we can’t harvest, what is there to eat?

And if ye shall say: ‘What shall we eat the seventh year? Behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase’; then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat of the produce, the old store; until the ninth year, until her produce come in, ye shall eat the old store. (Leviticus 25:20-22)

In these verses, it appears that God guarantees that there will be a bumper crop in year six that will last the Children of Israel until the produce of year nine is harvested. A miracle, a wonder, a blessing of abundance. In addition to what the fields produce without cultivation, which we are free to glean, there is a durable grain staple. But it’s easy to see why a person might harbor a little doubt about that miracle. Such miracles are a strain to credulity. A three-year yield from a single harvest is a heck of a surety to offer a farmer who knows the wind and the weather and the fickle tides of agriculture.

According to The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (as translated by Arthur Green), the doubt, the lack of faith embodied by the question, “What shall we eat,” caused God to “command the blessing” to constrain the blessing to produce abundance (verse 21, above) rather than to simply allow the blessing of abundance to exist freely, as (in Rabbi Alter’s terms) “pure miracle”. Rabbi Alter says, “It was God’s intent that they not raise this question at all, and then they would have been fed miraculously. But because of the question, the food had to come about by blessing [of abundance, rather than by pure miracle].”

Our tradition often speaks of “miracles,” “nature,” and “blessing” with subtle nuance. At some times, such as in Rabbi Alter’s comment, a hierarchy seems to exist. A miracle, for Rabbi Alter, is on a slightly higher plane than a simple blessing of abundance. To my ears, a harvest of “blessing” sounds like it might have been a little bit richer than a harvest produced by unaided “nature.” In terms of our parasha, a “miracle” harvest produces a three-year yield; a harvest of “blessing” produces an abundant harvest for a single year. If we were to extrapolate for unaided “nature,” there may or may not be sufficient harvest to last a year.

In this hierarchy, there is distance between “miracles” and “nature.” Nature is the way things are; miracles appear to be super-natural. Miracles present the way we want things to be for the purposes of a good story: ten plagues affected Mitzrayim and not the Hebrews; the Reed Sea parted to allow the safe passage of the Hebrews and drowned Pharaoh’s army.

But then the Sefat Emet alters our understanding of this distance between “miracles” and nature” by saying, “Really, Jews should understand that miracles and nature are all one. In fact, there is no miracle so great and wondrous as nature itself, the greatest wonder we can know. When this faith becomes clear to Jews, it is no longer any problem to be fed by miracles.”

I learned in an Archaeology and the Bible class that the Reed Sea was very likely shallow; it was no challenge to walk across, but the enemy’s chariots got mired in the muck, their beasts panicked and mayhem ensued. The Hebrews simply put one foot in front of the other. A miracle? Probably not. A wonder? Indeed.

We have the option to recognize that the three-year harvest in Parashat Be’har may not have been a bumper crop. Rather than a miraculous harvest that filled all the granaries of the land to overflowing, perhaps this harvest was of more natural proportions, and the “miracle” had to do with the fact that it lasted for three years because the Hebrews knew how to carefully manage scarce resources. Perhaps the miracle had to do with frugality, an abundance of wild game, or perhaps food bartered from wandering tribespeople. But the harvest lasted the required three years and we can imagine the story of a bumper crop, a miracle, grew with every re-telling. Rabbi Alter tells us miracle and nature share an identity.

What’s queer about all this? In the moment the text asked the question, “What shall we eat,” creation began to rock gently off of its perfectly balanced position, first swaying toward the perception of a miracle as “unnatural and wondrous” and then swaying back toward “natural and mundane.” Both states are true, and (as Rabbi Alter said) “it is no longer a problem to be fed by miracles.” Yearning bridges the gap.

I have a queer image of God. I imagine God as embodying the most inclusive body type (hermaphrodite, which has male and female genitals, and can be described as other than male or female), the most inclusive gender identity (transgender, which may contain elements familiar to men and women and people of other genders), and the most inclusive sexual preference (pansexual, which includes a preference for any body/gender type). But even as I describe God in these terms I recognize the idolatry of the thought, because even this inclusive image limits God.

My image of God is both an “unnatural and wondrous” image in the face of (single-sex and single-gender and single-sexual preference) traditional conceptions of God, and it is “natural and mundane” in that such bodies/sexual preferences and gender identities as I envision for God exist in the world today (though they are typically demonized, rather than seen as divine). To conceive God this way is a miracle that feeds me as long as I conceive it as such, communicate it to others, and yearn toward it.

All queer Jewish images of God, queer Jewish families, queer Jewish lives are likewise wondrous and mundane. To be fed by miracles: it is no longer a problem, for nature and miracle are one.

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