With formal Rosh Hashonah observance concluded only a few hours ago, I’ve been working on knitting grapes for the sukkah.
While I experiment with layers of bobbles, a rabbi’s sermon rings in my memory: her encouragement to use the period between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur (and to Sukkot, and even Chanukah if necessary) to not only seek forgiveness for offenses given, but also to shed the weight offenses received – to forgive – even if not asked to do so. If Rosh Hashonah means anything, it is the opportunity to begin the process of “choosing life” (as tradition tells us). We are led to this choice in the Torah parsha preceding the holidays, Netzavim-Vayelech:
This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live. Deuteronomy (Devarim) 30:19
Tradition considers this choice the essence of Torah. The Reform community understands this choice as the essence of freedom, of authentic engagement with the business of living.
The symbol of the choice of life is, surprisingly, the grape. Genesis narrates the first coincidence of a free choice for life and the grape in traditional texts: Noah chose life, having followed divine instructions in order to survive the flood, and upon reaching dry land immediately begins to plant vineyards (Genesis 9:20). Perhaps the special value of this choice is also expressed in the Hebrew word for grape, “Ah-nav”; with only a minor adjustment, the word means humility (“ah-nav”, or a humble man). Both grape and humble person have the capacity, when tested (squeezed, or crushed?) to express their best, to choose their proper “life”.
In antiquity, the grape was not only a symbol of spiritual freedom, but also of political freedom. During the the multiple Jewish revolts against the Roman empire in the first and second centuries of the common era, coins were often minted with images of grapes and their vines, representing the freedom of the community (Bar Kokhba (2nd) Revolt, 134 -135 CE; left). Not surprisingly, the first modern Israeli coin with modern Hebrew legends (minted 1948, nearly two thousand years later) copied the cluster of grapes (and included legends in Hebrew and Arabic)(right).
Seeds of Peace: settlement sewage and mines to vines
Given the importance of the grape as a symbol of the gift of life in the long history of the Jewish people, it is profoundly disturbing to learn of modern Israeli destruction of Palestinian vineyards. One example was recently described in a report by the well-respected NGO Global Exchange: the sewage facilities of the West Bank (Jewish) settlement of Gush Etzion have been piping contaminated water directly into the vineyards and orchards of the adjacent Palestinian village of Beit Ommar. The village’s crops of grapes, plums and apricots have been destroyed in this manner since the creation of the sewage treatment plant, depriving the farmers of their livelihood (Global Exchange’s full discussion of this deplorable situation is available here). In the West Bank village of Al-Khader, Israeli construction of the separation Wall separates civilian Palestinian farmers from their vineyards. (sources here,
and here); these farmers, “armed” with bunches of grapes from fields they can no longer harvest commercially, have attempted to publicize their situation by distributing the grapes along Israeli roads. Their non-violent efforts have been met with violence.
I share the concerns of many others about the continued political and military stalemate between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon in 1996 attempted to end shelling of northern Israel by Hezbollah (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs report); but this and similar reprisals strategically employed a degree of force which compromised the most basic living conditions of Palestinian civilians (NGO reports from Amnesty Int’l, Human Rights Watch). From the continuation of the occupation and scandalous conditions in Palestinian refugee camps, Gaza and the West Bank over half a century, Palestinian extremists are now reaping “grapes of wrath”, a new generation of violent militarists fermented in the climate of abject poverty, violence and degradation. I am ashamed. I am outraged. I grieve.
Yet there are reasons to hope for the continued vitality of the grape. A symbol of the gift of life, the grapevine is also an ancient metaphor for peace. I am curious about the recent film Grapes and Figs are in Season, a documentary about a Palestinian woman’s recollection of the Ramallah life of her childhood; this film is reportedly humorous and hopeful, and I wonder how to see it or screen it locally. I am encouraged by the work of a small organization, Roots of Peace, which has initiated a “Mines to Vines” projects, giving farmers in minefield-infested countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Iraq, assistance with returning the land to productive agricultural use. The project works to replace the “lethal harvest of bloodshed” with “the planting of indigenous crops and the employment of landmine victims in the cycle of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.” As described by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Roots of Peace has “turned mines into vines by replacing the seeds of death with the seeds of life.”
As I start each new row of knitted “grapelets”, I am reminded of the depth of meaning carried by the grape in Jewish history. An American Reform Jew preparing for Sukkot, I’ll begin each bobble with a groan for the vineyards of Beit Ommar, blackened by Jewish settlement waste, and finish it with a grin for the Afghani minefields-turned-vineyards, newly greened by their seeds of life. Though Sukkot is still on the other side of Yom Kippur, I choose to dedicate my harvest of grapes this year to peace in the life of the West Bank.
Update Sept 26th, 2007
Pattern alert: The pattern for the cluster of grapes is now available here.