Reflections on Kindness | D’varim HaMakom: The JOFEE Fellows Blog

Brenden Jackson – Amir with Shalom Community Farm Houston

Parshat Eikev

In Parshat Eikev, Moses calls upon his people to reflect on their past in order to remember and obtain the future that was promised to them. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, the lines blur between past transgressions, promises, sufferings and joys, made inseparable from the current joy at the edge of the holy land.

As summer comes to a close here in Houston, so does summer camp programming, which means ending my mentor role with summer farmers and transitioning to fall programming. With the end of the summer chapter, I find myself guided by Moses’s reflections while I enter the reflection stage of this particular learning cycle.

Here in Houston, we have several projects occurring and converging at one time:

  • On the one hand, we have Shalom Community Farm – a Jewishly centered agriculture program aimed at connecting flora and Torah for community members.
  • On the other hand, we are developing a Garden Kitchen program with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Houston, where I grow, harvest, and prepare produce with different community members.

While in many ways these projects are totally separate, Amir has been striving to make connections between these two communities to create new opportunities for us to learn and connect with fellow humans that may not have otherwise ever engaged.

Boys and Girls Club members and the local Chabad dig in together | photo: Brenden Jackson 

And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” Deuteronomy 7:12

Eikev begins with Moses immediately inviting the Jewish people to remember that their prosperity is directly connected to following G-d’s laws. These commandments are the measuring stick he measures his people by, and also the framework with which he guides them through this reflection with.

As an educator, JOFEE fellow, and steward of the land, it is important for me to consider the commandments I measure myself by, both as an individual and as part of a movement. The JOFEE ethics — people care, resource share, self care, and earth care — seem a reasonable measuring stick.

What to do with the past?

Community members feeling accomplished after a hard fun day of garden building | photo: Brenden Jackson

In Deuteronomy chapter 10, Moses recalls shattering the tablets upon seeing the Golden Calf, and then how the Israelites were required to carry the broken tablets in the arc wherever they went, even into battle. The value of the commandments was lost when they were broken, but carrying the pieces reminded the Israelites of their potential.

Similarly, I cannot be content with past achievements or wallow in past failures. The burden of carrying broken stones is simultaneously holding the weight of both failed and achieved potential.

Looking back at the summer I feel pride in the success of our garden and baskets of food sent home with families, while at the same time I  feel the weight of missed connections and communities left unbuilt.

Early success with strong volunteer days, community driven workshops, and excited children were amazing, to say the least. When it came to People Care, I was nailing it. But as summer continued, and my energy waned, I let some of those connections slide and as a result we do not have functioning community garden yet established. The enthusiasm has waned, and I have not maintained the connections with leaders needed to keep the project moving.

Moses and and Israelites recognized that keeping the commandments is a process that does not stop. Engaging in community building as people care is no different, and just as the Israelites continued to move through the desert, the community and myself know the journey is not over.

Assuming Blame

In Chapter 9, Moses reminds his listeners that he destroyed the tablets after seeing them worship the golden calf (a sin he had no part of), and then went to the top of the mountain to pray for them for forty days. A message from this is that we are all responsible for one another (in whatever contextual relationship that applies). This has left me with many questions.

This summer, Amir had several farmers who did not finish their summer work assignments. As a leader within the Amir community, how much responsibility should I assume? Similarly, what are our responsibilities to each other as environmental stewards? In what ways do we succeed and fail together?

Kindness

Kindness is an integral part of our garden. We practice kindness – to each other, to the plants, to our resources, to ourselves – both in words and deeds. We take care of tools, don’t waste water and listen to what the plants have to tell us. We examine our own needs and the needs of those around us. This informs how we engage with each other and our environment.

In Deut. 11:22 Moses states the importance “to walk in all His ways,” which Rashi describes as bestowing loving-kindness. Kindness is powerful, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how it embodies all four of the JOFEE ethics. Earth care can be easily described as earth kindness just as people care can be described as people kindness.

Is it possible that so many of our social and environmental justice concerns could be summed up by embracing kindness and encouraging others to do so? I am reminded of a conversation about the nuances of teaching justice in which fellow JOFEE Fellow Ashley exclaiming “Just be kind!”

Maybe the question I should be really considering is am I bestowing and encouraging genuine kindness through my work, and how can I do that better, and do I need to make it more explicit to place it on my measuring stick?

Brenden Jackson is a JOFEE fellow working in Houston with Amir and Shalom Farm projects. He strives to bring as many people to the table as possible, preferably over a good meal. Read his full bio here.

Editor’s Note: Welcome to D’varim HaMakom: The JOFEE Fellows Blog! Most weeks throughout the year, you’ll be hearing from the JOFEE Fellows: reflections on their experiences, successful programs they’ve planned and implemented, gleanings from the field, and connections to the weekly Torah portion and what they’ve learned from their experiences with place in their host communities for the year. Views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent Hazon. Be sure to check back weekly!