It is not about the wine

Israel has become well known for vineyards -- not only the wines but also the vineyards themselves. During a recent trip, I was eager to visit an Israeli winery and vineyard. Our travel companions had the right connection: a retired Jewish musician from Tel Aviv who had bought a vineyard near Bet Shemesh. Nearby was the Valley of Ella, where David slew Goliath. The musician turned vintner offered us a tour, wine tasting and lunch.

The valley of Ella at sunset

The valley of Ella at sunset

The highway out of Jerusalem leads to a side road, then winding road, then dirt road. The vineyard was in a moshav, an agriculture-based housing development. The vineyard was barely two acres – maybe less. The musician and his wife were the proprietors, vintners, sales staff and farm hands. When harvest time came, their children and grandchildren gathered from across Israel to pick and collect the grapes. A building too small to be a warehouse held a few vats of fermenting grapes and a few barrels of varietal wines.

I wondered aloud if the wines were kosher. No one but the family harvested or produced the wine, so only Jews were involved in the wine making process, as halachah required. The ingredients were organic and pure, which passed the eco-consciousness test. So far, the answer seemed clear enough. 

Then I asked when they starting making the wine. They began, they said, during the first year that the grapes were full enough for the press.

“What did you do with that wine,” I inquired.

“We sold it to friends,” they said, proud of their folksy entrepreneurship.

I thought of the Torah text for this coming week. “Take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where your God will choose to establish God’s name” (Deut. 11:2). Torah continues: “You will enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that your God bestowed on you and your household” (Deut. 11:11). 

Why? Torah gives the reason in the verses between these two teachings: because God rescued us from slavery in Egypt.

I believe that our musician’s wine wasn’t kosher because he hadn’t shared it with holy intention. He didn’t share it with community servants or strangers in need.  He seemed not to consider that once we (including he himself) were oppressed and then saved. He seemed to forget that what we have is not ours alone: our history then and our spiritual identity now call us to demonstrate gratitude for our good fortune by sharing our abundance with others before we take any for ourselves.

Kashrut rules can be bewildering. But for all the details, one idea should be far more straightforward: holy eating and drinking flow from means of production that are based in gratitude.

The same principle should apply to our other careers. A “kosher” lawyer should provide free legal services to the disadvantaged and vulnerable. A “kosher” hair stylist should offer free haircuts in homeless shelters. And these gifts of gratitude for our skills and opportunities should come before we ourselves profit by them.

Get out there and give. There is a whole world of “levites” (public servants) and “strangers” (vulnerable people of all kinds). They need you – and you need them. The labors of our hands cannot be “kosher” without giving to them, and without giving to them first.

Rabbi Evan Krame