This is the second installment of a weekly place-based Omer series. In this year of Shmita, it's my goal every week of the Omer (the counting period from Passover to Shavuot) to do something that helps me connect more deeply to place, and then write about it. Read the post on Passover and Place for a more detailed introduction and some additional resources!
Week two of the Omer*
Essential Concept: Structure / Discipline
Day of Creation: Yom HaSheyni (2) – Sky / Heavens
Sefirah Connection: Gevurah (Justice)
Essential Question(s): What habitats exist in your neighborhood? How can we tell them apart / what are the boundaries?
*these connections come from Mitsui Design's Place-Based Omer chart, downloadable here*
This week, I took the pup, Norman, to Forest Park, on the boundary between Brooklyn and Queens. It was one of the first truly warm spring days and some of the first spring flowers were just beginning to bloom.
Forest Park contains the largest contiguous oak forest in Queens, and it's a pleasure to hike through its "knob and kettle" terrain, a series of small hills that are part of the harbor hill moraine: the northern of two ridges along the "backbone" of Long Island. This topography was molded by the Wisconsin glacier roughly 10-20,000 years ago. More recently, the area was inhabited by the Rockaway, Lenape, and Delaware Native Americans until the Dutch West India Company settled the area in 1635. Originally surveyed and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the Park is bisected by several transportation arteries, including two lines that ran through the land before Forest Park was acquiredof the Long Island Rail Road, the Montauk Line and the Rockaway Line.
True to its name, Forest Park features quite a diversity of tree species for its urban location, including Northern red oak (Quercus rubra), Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), White oak (Quercus alba), and Wild black cherry (Prunus serrotina). The under-canopy features Dogwood (genus Cornus), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and Corktree (genus Phellodendron).
It was still a bit early in the year for any of these woody species to be doing much. But the stalwart mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) brought color to the woods with its waxy evergreen leaves and blooming buds.
The laurel species is (maybe) mentioned in the Torah just once - in Psalms 37:35:
רָאִיתִי, רָשָׁע עָרִיץ; וּמִתְעָרֶה, כְּאֶזְרָח רַעֲנָן -- I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a leafy tree in its native soil. אֶזְרָח (ezrach) - also translated as a "native tree" is said by some to refer to the sweet bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), of bay leaves culinary renown, which is not actually in the same family as our North American mountain laurel, though it also grows in parts of North America. Mountain laurel is ubiquitous in the Northeastern US, though, so in this case it seems appropriate that a tree in its native soil could just as well refer to the mountain laurel.
Ezrach, however, does not only refer to trees. Usually, in fact, it refers to a citizen, or native-born person, someone with roots in a land. Here I'll quote a lovely passage from Rabbi Julian Sinclair:
When explicating the laws against chametz on Passover, the Torah concludes that these rules are binding both to the stranger (ger) and the ezrach. An ezrach, in modern Hebrew is a citizen, and in the Bible it is often paired with ger to refer to two different kinds of residents.
A ger is an immigrant. When Abraham entreated the Hittites to sell him a plot for the burial of Sarah, he described himself as a ger, an immigrant entirely at the mercy of the natives.
An ezrach is someone native-born, with roots to the land. Very revealing is the other meaning of ezrach, a strong tree, as in “well rooted like a robust native tree [ezrach]” (Psalm 37:35). In contrast to the Roman “citizen”, which is connected to the Latin for “city”, ezrach implies a connectedness to the land, like a tree.
When the Israelites are commanded to observe the festival of Succot, they are told, “Every ezrach in Israel shall live in booths” (Leviticus 23:42). The Sages learn from this verse that “It is fitting for all of Israel to sit in one succah” (Talmud Succah 27b). A sense of community, partnership in a civil enterprise, is based on a bond with the land.
It is only nowadays that the modern world is waking up to the fact that a sense of relationship and interdependence with the land and the rest of the natural world is fundamental for the survival of our civilisation.
Rabbi Sinclair is, I think, suggesting that a relationship to place is a critical component of being a true citizen - or, we should say, ezrach. That said, why the vegetative association of ezrach in Psalm 37 with the wicked? Perhaps in this case, the spreading of the wicked is like an invasive species - fine in its native habitat, but an aggressor when moved to other places, out of balance with the native ecosystem.
What does this suggest to us, so many of whom find ourselves to be transplants in a different place than we were born? When so many of us are ger, even when we yearn to be ezrach? How do we act when we try to make a new place more of a home? Do we act like the invasive species, eradicating the native habitat in order to mold our new home in the image of our preconceived notions? Or do we respect the native habitat of this new place, balancing what we bring with what we receive? When it comes to sustainable community planning and design, and the perennial challenges of gentrification and ecological sensitivity, these questions could not be more important.
This week's sefirah connection is the structure and discipline of Gevurah - justice. Our tradition tells us to never forget that we were gerim once, strangers in the land of Egypt. Perhaps justice is enacted when we learn to balance the ger with the ezrach, in all the places where we now dwell.
Hard work, no doubt. But sure to make you sleep more soundly.