Cultivating the Land

"And Isaac sowed in that land, and he found in that year one hundredfold, and God blessed him" (Genesis 26:12).

"This comes to teach you that they made an estimate of how much the field was likely to produce, and it produced a hundred times the amount they expected. Why did they measure it in view of the principle that 'blessing is not found in that which has already been weighed, measured or counted' [i.e. once measured, the amount will not miraculously increase]? They measured it in order to make an exact calculation of the tithe due on the produce so as not to err because of a rough assessment" (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 64:6).

Not only was Isaac the Man of the Field of Prayer; he was also a most successful agriculturist.

The Bible relates that when famine struck the Land, Isaac had to move temporarily to the Philistine kingdom of Gerar. There he encountered moral decadence of the kind his father Abraham had encountered both in Egypt and in Gerar, in both of which Sarah was actually kidnapped to the royal court (see Part I, Abraham Smashes the Idols). Now Isaac's wife Rebecca came near to being seized by the Philistine king (Genesis 26).

Isaac's mission was that of Abraham: to bring the knowledge of God to mankind and to teach humanity God's law. If the Philistine king had taken Rebecca, it would have been a violation of the prohibition against adultery and incest, which is one of the Seven Universal Laws of Mankind.

The others are: not to worship idols; not to curse God; to establish courts of justice; not to murder; not to steal; not to eat flesh from a living animal (Sanhedrin 56b). The near-kidnapping of Rebecca became the occasion for Isaac to teach people about these Universal Laws of Mankind. No civilization that does not honestly observe all these laws deserves to be called a civilization. Such culture as it may boast is no more than a veneer for barbarity, as in much of the world today, where corruption in government, sexual immorality, killing, stealing and other violations of these laws are so rampant.

Isaac, exemplar of Gevurah, is closely associated with law. Gevurah sets limits and boundaries. This is what a system of law does. It regulates what is within the bounds of the acceptable and permissible and what is not.

Man-made legal systems often serve to protect the strong at the expense of the weak, leading those who feel unjustly treated to hate and despise the law. Religious law can also become oppressive when people twist it for their own purposes. But the only purpose of God's authentic Torah is to bring about the conditions in which genuine love, kindness and blessing can be enjoyed by all the world in peace and harmony. For this reason one of the main talmudic terms for the Torah (and its Author, for the two are one) is Rachmana, "The Loving One".

God's law is a teaching to each and every one of us as to how to bring balance into every area and every detail of our lives -- in order to elevate ourselves spiritually in this world without coming to grief because of its various pitfalls, including the powerful drives with which we are endowed. When humans willingly submit to God's perfectly-devised system of law to govern all their affairs, it brings balance and harmony into the world as a whole, enabling people to live peaceably without anyone hurting anyone else.

The Law of the Land: Charity

During his sojourn among the Philistines, Isaac taught a lesson about the underlying principle of God's law: charity. Abraham had grasped that charity is the fundamental dynamic of the entire universe and that man's task is to play his role, overcoming his instinctive selfishness and turning himself into a giver (see Part I, Love and Kindness). Abraham thus instructed "his sons and his household afterwards that they should guard the way of HaVaYaH to practice charity and justice" (Genesis 18:19).

It is a basic, natural human instinct to think first and foremost about one's own needs and interests. This is indeed necessary for self-preservation and survival, for "If I am not for myself, who is for me?" (Avot 1:14). However there is a widespread tendency for people to forget the corollary, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" (ibid.)

It is impossible to live without taking and consuming: from birth until death we have to eat and satisfy our other needs. But we must be aware that everything we eat and consume is a gift of God's goodness. The sun and the stars shine down to earth with perfect altruism.... Nature provides us with our food and other resources. If we take and take and consume without understanding what it is to give, we are worse than animals, pathetically unaware of the true nature of the system of love and kindness of which we are a part.

In order to grasp this underlying dynamic of altruism and charity, man has to incorporate it within himself by actually participating in the dynamic. Man must also give. The natural tendency is for people to hold on to what they feel to be theirs and guard it for themselves. To give charity is to do the opposite. One takes something of one's own that one values -- food, clothing, money or whatever else -- and gives it away to another person who is in need. Instead of thinking only about oneself, one thinks about the other person's needs and how things look from their point of view. Voluntarily curtailing our own consumption for the sake of others lifts us above our native selfish perspective on the world, making us become partners in the universal flow of divine goodness and kindness.

When a person eats and consumes only after first giving a share to others needier than himself, the remaining portion that he keeps for himself is indeed blessed. For he has turned himself into a giver. It is as a giver that he is now eating and consuming, in order to be able to gain the strength to be able to give more and more.

It is fitting that it is Isaac who teaches this lesson, for Isaac is the exemplar of Gevurah, the passive principle of taking, receiving, holding, as opposed to Chessed, the active principle of giving and kindness. Isaac showed that we have to apply our Gevurah -- our strength and control -- to our very selves. We have to curtail and put limits on our own native selfishness in order to give to others. Isaac taught this in the way he raised his crops even at a time of famine. From the very outset he was thinking about how his first act before eating his harvest would be to give away tithes for the benefit of others.

"And Isaac sowed in that land, and he found in that year one hundredfold, and God blessed him" (Genesis 26:12).

The Midrash comments: "This comes to teach you that they made an estimate of how much the field was likely to produce, and it produced a hundred times the amount they expected. But why did Isaac measure the crops at all in view of the principle that 'blessing is not found in that which has already been weighed, measured or counted' (Taanit 8b). [This means that once measured, the amount will not miraculously increase.] The answer is that Isaac did not want to give his tithe on the basis of a rough assessment. He wanted to be exact" (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 64:6).

The phenomenal blessing of abundance enjoyed by Isaac came because he was already thinking about giving even before he had received anything. According to the Midrash, even before he sowed, Isaac was already estimating how much the field would produce because he was already thinking about giving away tithes.

It is typical of Isaac to be making measurements: precision and strictness are aspects of Gevurah. Indeed, firm principles and accurate calculations are the only sound basis for a system of true charity. There has to be a precise calculation of how much it is proper for each individual to give in relation to his or her specific means. If charity is simply left to people's voluntary generosity and "rough assessments", although at times some will give more than their due, more often the majority are likely to give less than their due, much less. Then the needy will simply not be receive enough.

The system of Torah Law of the Land governs all the various aspects of agriculture, defining precisely how much of his produce the farmer should give away and to whom. Having sweated and toiled to raise his crops, the farmer is certainly entitled to eat the fruits of his labors himself. But only after he first makes himself deeply aware that all his produce is God's gift and blessing. This he does by first setting aside tithes and other gifts to others and only then sitting down to eat.

Synopsis of Torah Laws relating to the Land

Gifts to the Poor: The farmer should leave a corner (Pe-ah) of his field or tree unharvested for the poor. One or two ears of corn or individual fruits etc. that drop to the ground during harvesting (Leket) are the property of the poor, as are sheaves forgotten in the field (Shikhchah).

The First Fruits: In Israel in Temple times the farmer presents his first ripe grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates, wheat and barley (Bikurim) at the Temple, after which they are eaten by the Priests. Having put so much work into raising the crops, it would be tempting for the farmer to eat the first ones himself. Instead, he holds back and first gives thanks to God by presenting the choicest first-fruits in a joyous, colorful ceremony. A similar law for animal farmers is to present first-born calves, sheep and goats to the Priest.

Tithes and other gifts separated from produce:

Gift to the Priest: Before separating any other gift from his harvested produce, the farmer in Israel first puts aside around 2% as a gift (Terumah) for the priest (Cohen). This may be eaten only by priests and their households in strict ritual purity. Besides produce, priests are also entitled to various other gifts, such as bread (Challah) wool shearings (Reishit Hagez) and portions of animal meat (Matanot) and certain sacrifices. Aside from their role in Temple rituals, the role of the priests is to teach Torah to the people. This they are best able to do when freed of the burden of earning a living through receiving their needs from the people. By regularly giving produce and other gifts to the priests, the farmer maintains an on-going relationship with these teachers, which enables him to bring greater spirituality into his life in and through his material activities.

First Tithe: Gift to the Levite: In Israel, after separating the priestly gift, the farmer next separates 10% (Maaser) of the remaining produce as a gift for the Levites. The role of the Levites (as opposed to the priests, Cohanim) is to be singers and ceremonial guards in the Temple, as well as to teach Torah in the wider community. Again, they are helped to do this through being supported with tithes. The Levite, who is thus a receiver, also has to give a gift of Terumat Maaser from his tithe to the Priest. For those in the contemporary money economy who do not have home-grown produce to give away, the gift that corresponds to the levitical tithe is the Money Tithe, Maaser Kesafim, ten per cent of one's net income that should be given to truly worthy charitable causes, such as the support of genuine students of Torah. This general tithe on people's income applies equally in Israel and throughout the world.

Second Tithe: In Israel, having separated the first tithe for the Levite, the farmer now separates 10% of the remaining produce as a Second Tithe, Maaser Sheni. In the first, second, fourth and fifth year in every 7-year Sabbatical cycle, the owner himself brings this Second Tithe produce or its monetary value to Jerusalem, where he and his family eat it in ritual purity, holiness and joy. Eating the fruits of one's own labors in this way brings Godliness into the whole process of production and consumption. In the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle, the Second Tithe is given to the poor and needy.

Some other land laws:

The Sabbatical Year: The land of Israel is worked for six years and then left without being cultivated for the Sabbatical Year. By "abandoning" his fields in this way the farmer learns that the land really belongs to God, Who has granted him ownership, and that agricultural success depends not only upon human labor and effort but also on God's blessing.

Forbidden Mixtures: It is forbidden to plant various different kinds of crops in excessively close proximity to one another or to cross-graft different species (Kilayim). Similarly it is forbidden to cross-breed animals or plow etc. with two species at once (e.g. an ox and a donkey).

Immature fruit trees: The fruit that grows on trees within their first three years (Orlah) should not be eaten or used in other ways. The fruit of the fourth year should be taken by the owner to eat in Jerusalem.

Jewish law includes many other detailed land-related laws such as the rules of good neighborliness, laws of damages, land use in and around cities, prohibition of cruelty to animals and general environmental responsibility.

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All the problems in the world today ultimately stem from the sin of Adam eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (see In the beginning). Adam took and consumed the fruit even though it was not his. He was therefore cursed with having to earn his bread with the sweat of his brow.

The sin was one of selfish, arrogant consumption. Ironically, the same problem is threatening to destroy the world today. It is selfish, excess consumption that is depleting resources and destroying the global environment. This is obviously a problem that can be rectified only by rectifying the selfishness and thoughtlessness with which people consume.

To do just this is the purpose of the Law of the Land and other Torah laws regulating the way people earn a living and consume. It behooves all who care about the future of the Earth to practice these fundamental principles of charity, kindness and justice and to teach them to others, just as Isaac did when he dwelled with the Philistines in Gerar.



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