Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Torah on the Farm

Last Thursday evening, I updated my Facebook status:

“Must go pack...my least favorite chore. The trade-off, however, is a weekend trip to Baltimore with teens from Temple Emanu-El - Edison, New Jersey and their rabbi, David Z. Vaisberg.”

One of my Torah study buddies commented:  “Have fun.”

“I'm sure it will be fun,” I said, “but I will miss the Temple Shaaray Tefila minyan and Torah study. See you next week!”

And, of course, I did miss my regular Shabbat study buddies and our “city routine.”  However, the Sunday morning our group of five recent Confirmands and two adults spent around the farm at the Pearlstone Center overflowed with hand-on Torah study. 

Under the guidance of Laura Menyuk, Pearlstone’s Education Programs Coordinator, we began by getting the lay of the land as it relates to water:  rain, run-off and filtration, before visiting the steamy greenhouse, the compost pile (pew wee!) and the outdoor fields of strawberries and still-green wheat.  The wheat stalks, once they’re fully grown and harvested, produce enough grain for about eight challot.  Finding and plucking a few of the ripe red strawberries, we recited the blessing for fruits that grow in the soil:  Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha'olam boray pri ha-adamah. Yummy…and absolutely nothing like those grocery store berries.

Moving on to the goats, our plan included milking and cheese-making.  As is often the case, though, der mentsh trakht un Got lakht (man plans and God laughs).  As we approached the goat pens, we learned that Hannah, one of the mama goats, had just given birth to a long-awaited baby…and that perhaps another was on the way.  We crowded around to watch Mimi, the goat doula, and Jane, a volunteer, do their thing.  Before too long, another baby did emerge, but this one wasn’t breathing.  Acting on instinct, Jane picked him up to be sure he was alive and, as she told me later, “Voila, he started to breathe.”  A truly holy moment in the circle of life…and a shehecheyanu occasion, indeed!

Reluctant to continue on, we were drawn to the older baby goats nonetheless and spent a bit of time getting to know them.  In this case, pictures tell a better story than words:

Our farm adventure continued back in the dining hall where we helped make a simple farmer’s cheese by pouring distilled white vinegar into simmering milk at just the right temperature.  Health regulations prohibit Pearlstone from using the unpasteurized goat’s milk for this activity so a gallon of whole milk from the grocery store had to suffice.  A few minutes later, we were enjoying warm homemade cheese curds on crackers.

While we waited for the milk and vinegar to curdle into cheese, Laura reminded us that many of our Biblical forebearers, including Moses, were shepherds, and she told us this story from the Mishnah:
Out grazing his flock of goats, Moses noticed a small, young goat that had wandered away. Afraid that it would get lost and die in the wildness he followed after it, only to find it drinking at a spring.  When the goat had had its fill, Moses picked it up and carried it on his shoulders back to the flock.  Only after God had witnessed Moses’ act of compassion toward the smallest and weakest of creatures did God select him to be the shepherd of the Israelites.
Our last stop on the farm tour was at the pile of hay and bupkis (goat poop) that accumulates when the goats’ pens are cleaned out.  The good news is that it’s the perfect ingredient for composting, so as these photos show, we shoveled and shleped it down to the compost pile where it will do its part in the circle of life:

Our farm adventure ended, as it began, with a blessing. This one was impromptu, with each of us focusing on an aspect of what we’d learned and for which we are thankful. 

Mine went something like this: Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha'olam for so many reminders and new knowledge about the interconnectedness of our world and our responsibility to cherish, preserve and protect it.