An old Jewish lady sold pretzels on a street corner for 25 cents each. Every day a young well-dressed man would leave his office building at lunch time, and as he passed the pretzel stand, he would leave her a quarter, but he never took a pretzel.
This went on for more than seven years. The two of them never spoke. One day, as the young man passed the old lady’s stand and left his quarter as usual, the pretzel lady spoke to him.
“Sir, I appreciate your business. You are a very good customer, but I have to tell you that the pretzel price has gone up to 35 cents.”
The Midrash on this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha relates a fascinating episode(1):
When Abraham traveled through various cities of Mesopotamia, he observed the people engaging in excessive eating, drinking and frivolousness. He said, “I do not want to have a part in this land.”
When Abraham arrived at the mountains surrounding the north of the Land of Israel(2) he saw the inhabitants engaged in “pruning during the season of pruning” and “plowing during the season of plowing.” Abraham declared, “I wish I could have a lot in this land.”
So G-d told Abraham: “To your offspring I will give this land(3).”
Upon reflecting on this Midrashic tale, four questions come to mind.
First, what was it about the agricultural labor in the Land of Canaan that inspired Abraham to “fall in love” (so to speak) with the country(4)?
Second, the fact that G-d promises this land to Abraham for all of his children, as the eternal homeland for the Jewish nation indicates that the agricultural nature of the country’s inhabitants somehow captured the legacy of Judaism(5). But what is the unique connection between Judaism and farming?
Third, why, given the multitude of labors associated with agronomy and farming, was Abraham impressed by the two particular labors of pruning and plowing.
Finally, the order in the Midrash seems amiss. The work of plowing - cutting and turning up the soil in order to make it fertile for production - must precede the work of pruning, which consists of removing weeds and harmful vegetation from the midst of the beneficial produce and takes place only after the plowing season. Yet the Midrash tells us that Abraham observed first the season of pruning and only afterward the labor of plowing(4).
Thou Shalt Prune
The essence of the Jewish experience consists of two phases: pruning and plowing.
Every human being is a garden, containing within his (or her) psyche both weeds and roses. Man is a duality of heavenly grandeur and earthly beastliness, a vision of G-d and a mountain of dust, a ray of infinity and pompous aridity. Each of us operates on two levels of consciousness: a self-centered consciousness that makes us prone to narcissistic and immoral behavior, and a transcendental, divine consciousness which is the source of our ethical and spiritual yearnings and convictions.
Our mission in life consists of pruning, of removing the weeds from the roses. We must ensure that the mountain of dust does not eclipse the vision of G-d. Each day of our lives we are called upon to battle the forces of aridity and darkness in our psyche and to cultivate the plants of light and G-dliness within our heart.
Life is a daily battle for transcendence. On our own, we are a complex mixture of good and negative forces competing within us. Our choice and calling is to prune, to consistently cultivate the noble and pure dimensions in our psychological “garden,” to reign in the beast and reveal the Divine.
Thou Shalt Plow
This work impressed Abraham deeply. But this was not all. He was even more moved by a philosophy and a lifestyle in which the season of “plowing” followed the season of “pruning.”
Many of us have engaged at some point in our lives in a battle against the noxious and poisonous “plants” in our psyche. Many of us have fought battles for our souls, integrity and happiness. With sweat and toil we pruned the weeds and – at least to some extent -- our roses emerged.
Yet at some stage during the struggle we put down the tools in order to relax. At some point in our growing up, most of us make peace with the status quo; we become complacent with our garden, satisfied with our moral and spiritual condition. Once in a while we may look in the mirror and know that we can do better, but we learn to survive and even be happy with our destiny.
Moral and spiritual complacency, though tempting and easy, is an invitation to the abyss because of two reasons. Life is a cliff. If you are not ascending upward, you are falling downward. The forces of selfishness and darkness never leave you completely, and if you drop your guard, failing to fight them each and every day of your life, they may overtake you(6).
What is more, truth is infinite. The moment we become spiritually fixed in a particular mode and smug with our condition, we have lost touch with truth and with G-d. A relationship with G-d must include a steady yearning; an ongoing search. What was wholesome yesterday is broken today.
Abraham was transfixed by the vision of a human being who, following a successful season of pruning, returns to the plow to commence his spiritual process all over again, as though he never began(7).
1) Midrash Rabah Genesis 39:8. 2) The words used by the Midrash are “Sulamah Shel Tzur.” The English translation is based on Rashi to Talmud Eruvin p. 22a-b. Cf. Matnus Kehunah to Midrash ibid. 3) Genesis 12:7. 4) This question is raised in Maor V’shemesh to Parshas Lech Lecha. 5) The kinship between Judaism and the world of agriculture is also emphasized in that the three major Jewish holidays -- Passover, Shavuous and Sukkos -- were originally instituted in the Torah in relation to three seasons of farming: the time of ripening, harvesting and assembling. 6) See Tanya chapter 13. 7) This essay is based on the writings of the Chassidic Masters (Maor V’shemesh Parshas Lech Lecha).
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.