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April 18, 2014 | 18th Nisan 5774

Summer tourists

Galilee Diary #239
June 26, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

During the summer months, the Torah portions fall in the book of Numbers – in Hebrew Bamidbar (“in the desert”) – describing the adventures that befell us during the 39 years between the revelation at Sinai and Moses’ death as we were about to enter Eretz Yisrael. Among these portions is the account of the twelve spies Moses sent to check out (latoor, the same root as the modern Hebrew word for tourist) the land – whose discouraging report led to the punishment of 40 years of wandering. I had never noticed before that this portion is just right for the season in which we read it:

Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes. They went up and scouted the land… They reached the Eshcol valley, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes – it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them – and some pomegranates and figs…

-Numbers 13:19-23

The week we read this portion, it turned out, was the week we noticed that the half dozen little bunches of grapes on our vine were for the first time looking like they might actually make it to maturity; in previous years there was always something – fungus, birds, etc. So I clipped paper bags over them to discourage the birds, and now, a few weeks later, we are enjoying a sweet harvest. It wouldn’t exactly take two of us to carry each bunch, but there is something satisfying about this modest result nevertheless. In the Arab villages, where almost every house has a grape vine trained up to an arbor on the flat roof, the clusters are thick and heavy now – you can imagine where the image in the biblical description came from.

The first month of summer is Tammuz – I am writing this on Rosh Hodesh. Tammuz was the Babylonian sun god, whose name was absorbed into the Jewish calendar not only as the name of a month, but referring to the whole summer season. This pagan echo in our calendar reminds us that Israel may be our spiritual home, but it is also something more than that, something visceral; the place where we are in touch with the physical earth, where our prayers and holidays reflect the landscape and climate. There is something basically pagan, I suppose, underneath all of this, some kind of primal relationship to the earth. Against this pagan sensibility our prophets raged, with only partial success; and today, it seems, for better or for worse, that this pagan attachment to the land may be enjoying a rehabilitation.

In any case, at this season, when rain is a cool memory and a distant hope, the market stalls and supermarkets and our own refrigerator are overflowing with magnificent fruit: peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, mangoes, grapes, pears – and of course peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers too (whenever I visit a supermarket in North America, it is the cucumber bin that reminds me why I am glad I made aliyah). We have half-sour dills curing on one side of the counter and mixed fruit preserves cooling on the other side. The carob pods are just starting to turn from bitter green to chocolaty brown, and the figs are turning, but the sabra fruits haven’t begun to ripen yet. The pick-your-own blueberry and raspberry farms in the Golan are packed every weekend.

If God wanted the spies to be impressed that this is a land of milk and honey, He certainly was wise to send them at this season, when the refreshing sweetness of the fruit makes it possible to overlook the heat and dryness, the thorns and thistles, that might otherwise overwhelm you. The spies were indeed impressed; their problem was not with the land and its resources, but with their concerns about how we would deal with the present inhabitants. Interesting: today, too, the land has been good to us; in it we have revitalized our culture. But often as we struggle with the dilemmas of dealing with the people of the land, it is possible to understand the ten spies who feared that this would be a land “that devours its inhabitants.” [Numbers 13:32] They were punished for their lack of faith. Faith, I guess, is seeing seemingly insurmountable obstacles as challenges to be overcome. We have the fruit. Do we have the faith?

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