David Segal: Under your own vine and fig tree
September 2, 2017
When it comes to messianic visions, I prefer a smaller scale. Being raptured into the blinding glow of God's heavenly presence sounds uncomfortable and, frankly, unsustainable. What happens the morning after the rapture? Brunch?
The biblical prophets gave us a grand image of a glorious day when all the kingdoms of the earth will gather to march up Jerusalem's holy mount, praising God together. Roll the credits, right? But I'm more interested in what happens after the epic mountaintop production, when the crowds disperse. What does the end of days look like when everyone goes back home?
I think the prophet Micah has it right. After the pomp and circumstance of an international Jerusalem rendezvous, after swords beaten into plowshares, he prophesies a quiet simplicity: "Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree with no one making them afraid" (Micah 4:4). That's redemption, right there. A piece of shade, the sweetness of fruit and smoothness of wine, and a moment of ease. A place — and the time — to rest. With apologies to Micah, I might want to bring a book, too. But who am I to complain? Sign me up for that paradise.
It's something to aim for in this life before the end of days. I believe that's all most people want: a place of their own and some time to enjoy it, a baseline of prosperity and security. They're willing to work for it, of course — unless the system is inescapably rigged. One of the tensions animating the 2016 election, and our nation's deepening political divisions, is the feeling that some people have vast vineyards and orchards full of fig trees, while others struggle to secure even a corner of dirt. Inequality is an economic question resting on a theological foundation. If you believe that each person is divinely ordained with infinite dignity, then you'll want society to reflect that.
Micah's vision of safety under vine and fig tree sounds at first like a libertarian paradise, each person with his own stuff, not bothering anyone else. But the challenge — which thoughtful libertarians understand — is that no one's liberty is truly safe while anyone's is threatened. That includes economic security and opportunity. It may be that all I want is to recline in my shade and forget about the outside world. But I can't escape the outside world — morally, economically or even physically. So I have to get up from my rest and do something — not everything but something — to ensure that my neighbor's homestead is secure. Government, at its best, is a tool to leverage that impulse on a scale we cannot achieve among friends and neighbors.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey here in Houston, I've been thinking about the vine and fig tree vision in a different light. My family was lucky — no flooding and only a brief power outage. Many lost everything. I spent some of the first days after the storm helping families tear out ruined flooring from flooded homes. A house is called "shelter" because it's supposed to protect you from the elements. When it doesn't, it's like the rug was pulled out from under you. The distance between finished floorboards and mud is very short. Our lives are bounded and mediated by matter. We live on a foundation of dirt.
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During the Jewish High Holy Days, which fall later this month, the liturgy places this uncomfortable truth before our eyes.
In the words of a central prayer: "The origin of man is dust, and his end is dust. He earns his bread by toil and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away."
In context, the key theme of the prayer is the transience of all created things, the impermanence of all our earthly endeavors and our very bodies.
After Harvey, the prayer resonates differently with me. Yes, we begin and end in dust, but while we're here, stuff matters, shelter matters, our bodies matter. One of my rabbinic mentors had a seminary sermon-writing class where the teacher said each of us has one basic sermon within us, from which all our other teachings emerge. The class assignment was to write your core sermon in six words or less. My mentor's was, "Holiness resides in elevating the ordinary." I felt holiness alongside neighbors and volunteers helping muck out each other's homes. Covered in dirt, fully aware of the fragility of everything we touch, I was secure in a feeling that this is what God wants from us. As Rabbi Israel Salanter said in the 19th century, "My neighbor's material needs are my spiritual needs."
While I was helping at one house last week, the homeowners brought their young sons by to see it. They all had evacuated before the storm to their grandparents' house. The boys first scrunched their faces at the smell; days-old standing water under floorboards stinks. Next they were disoriented by the scene of their rooms torn up and emptied, their stuff piled outside. While the adults chipped away at wood and sheetrock, the boys browsed grocery bags filled with salvaged toys. The kindergartner was relieved that his Xbox had survived the flood.
I guess you could brush that off as consumerist and materialistic, as you read these words from the comfort of your own dry, well appointed home. For this boy, right now, that's his vine, fig tree and shade.
David Segal lives in Houston. Connect with him at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com and on Facebook. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.
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