Until I moved to Israel, the closest I got to farming was knowing were to get good produce at a farmers market. Since living in Israel, I see how the simple act of eating and growing produce is a fulfillment of God’s promise, and Ezekiel’s prophesy which impacts and moves me personally.
“I will make them and the places all around My hill a blessing; and I will cause showers to come down in their season; there shall be showers of blessing. Then the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase. They shall be safe in their land… (Ezekiel 34:26 – 27)
When we bought our house in Israel, it was important to landscape our yard not just with beautiful trees, but with ones that will demonstrate the blessing of the Land. Israel is the only country in which there were more trees at the beginning of the 21st Century than at the beginning of the 20th Century. We have a cherry, apricot, lemon, lime, apple, and plum tree, and a grape vine. At this time of year we see the fulfillment of that promise about which Ezekiel prophesied. No sooner have we picked and devoured the fruit of our cherry tree, then it’s time to harvest the apricots. This year, our apricot tree produced more than 1,000 sweet gems. And in two months it will be time to pick the grapes and plums. But not to let any blessing go to waste, our grape leaves have been picked and used to make a middle eastern favorite, stuffed grape leaves.
Because lemon trees blossom and give fruit twice a year, rarely does a week go by that my wife doesn’t pluck a fresh juicy lemon to use in cooking, or squeeze in tea. But none of this is because I suddenly became a great farmer. And always when I pluck fresh fruit from my yard, or simply walk into the house passing the apricots and grapes, I am mindful of the One from whom this blessing is derived.
I often get choked up at how the miracle of an ordinary tree so embodies God’s blessing of His people in our Land. Looking out at the barren land between my house and Bethlehem, I sometimes imagine how this miracle is so vivid, not just in the fruit itself, but in the stark difference between what this area looked like before — barren, rocky, and devoid of life.
In 1867 Mark Twain visited Israel, and wrote his impressions in “Innocents Abroad.” He described a desolate country – devoid of both vegetation and people. He called Israel “….. A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
If he could only see it now overflowing with life, with abundance, the modern-day miracle of Israel on a deep, spiritual level personified in our vegetation, in the fruit salad growing throughout my yard.
Once, I was hosting a college professor whose specialty is Middle Eastern and modern Israeli history. In looking out at my neighborhood, he asked how I knew that this land was not in fact once owned by Palestinian Arabs. I answered that because I had a great teacher in college and I learned to look to see what’s there and what is not. Had the land been owned by Palestinian Arabs, it would likely have been terraced and used for cultivating grapes or olives as are visible in so much of the Judean Hills in which I live. Under Ottoman law from more than a century ago, one who cultivated the land, owned the land. In many places, that is still observed here today. A short 50 years ago, these hills were virgin, undeveloped, and never cultivated.
The miracle of the growth of modern Israel affirms not just God’s blessing but embodies Robert F. Kennedy’s rhetorical question, “Some men see things as they are and ask why, I dream things that never were and ask why not.” Israel received the gift of the Land but also saw the promise in the Land. Barren mountains, and swamps teeming with malaria, have become fertile. We have the privilege of not just being the recipient of God’s promise, but His partners in making this so.
But as Israelis and Jews, it doesn’t stop there. We affirm the biblical injunction known as the separation of terumah and maaser from produce of the Land. (Numbers 18) This is based in a time that the Temple still stood, and these offerings were distributed in a specified manner to the Kohanim (Priests), Leviim (Levites) and the poor. The Temple doesn’t stand now, and we don’t bring offerings there, so terumah and maaser are no longer distributed or eaten in Jerusalem. Yet the requirement to separate and designate them still applies. In that way, we affirm that even picking and eating apricots, or buying potatoes at the grocery store, has its source in the God of Israel.
And every seven years we observe the shmita year, the biblically ordained sabbatical year, during which the Land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is prohibited. The biblical injunction is mentioned and reiterated multiple times such as “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals.” (Exodus 23:10–11). Shmita is also underscored in Leviticus (25:20–22), Deuteronomy (15:1–6) as well as in Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Kings and Chronicles.
Simply making or eating something as mundane as a salad connects us to the Land, to the Bible, and to God every day. In seeing the abundance of the Land as embodied in my own back yard, I can’t help but think of the spies Moses sent and the abundant fruit they bore with them along with the report, “The Land which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good Land.” (Numbers 14:7)
So through an act as simple as picking one (or a thousand) apricots, we not only literally enjoy the fruit of the Land that God promised, but also thrive on that and so many other blessings just by being here. Indeed, it feels like the Prophet Ezekiel has come to visit and invoked this blessing on us personally.
Photos by and courtesy of Jonathan Feldstein.
I used to live in White Plains, NY, and gained familiarity with all of Westchester County. In 2004 I pulled up my roots from the US and planted myself and my family in the Judean Mountains, affirming God’s gift and promise to Abraham and his descendants. If you can’t join me in person, you can join me in solidarity. Be among those who bless Israel, and declare today that you are a Judean. Contact me at FirstPersonIsrael@gmail.com.