“Ta ta ta ta ta ta ta….ta ta ta ta ta…ta ta ta ta”
“What is that sound?” Nathan asked as he stopped pruning the tree limbs in front of her.
“It’s machine gun sound,” Steve, a tall thin Israeli man who was also pruning next to her, replied in a mattered of fact voice.
“What is that?” Nathan asked again feeling uneasy from the earth trembling with hollow echoes.
“It’s bombings from artillery,” Steve responded.
Just then, a loud noise boomed from the sky overpowering the conversation. Four F-16i fighter jets streaked low across the sky in a straight line right over the farm.
We stood frozen near the border with Egypt. We were so close that we could easily see the Egyptian watch towers and hear sounds of bombing and machine guns throughout the day as the Egyptian military battled the ISIS-loyal rebels in the Sinai peninsula. In addition, Israeli military bases surrounded us to the other three sides. Before arriving, we had no idea that we would hear sounds of either gun battles or military practices all day and night. But for the people who live here, it was nothing to be alarmed. They were like “traffic” noises.
We were doing workaway, volunteering for room and board, at a pomegranate farm next to the town Be’er Milka in the Negev Desert of Israel. We lived in the middle of endless expanse of sand dunes but surprisingly all around us were oasis of rectangular green patchworks of vegetations and green houses. To the south was a large communal patch of carrots. To the east were pumpkins and pineapples. To the west were cherry tomatoes and herbs. To the north was just desert. We were amazed at the more than 30 different types of non-desert crops everywhere at this place called Be’er Milka, meaning the meeting of two rivers.
Our work was to help “design”, or more technically, prune the fruit trees so that they would bear high quality pomegranate fruit for export to Europe.
“Make sure to cut away all the branches that are growing to the sky or pointing to the center. You want to have a hollow ‘Middle Kingdom’ in the center,” Raphael demonstrated. He is a Corsican Jew from France, who likes to speak in ‘colorful’ languages. He has been a volunteer for more than a month at the pomegranate farm and was asked to teach us the ‘art’ of pruning:
“Trim the small branches that are below your waist because the branches will be too low and ants can crawl up the branch and ruin the fruit.”
“Bend and tie the tall branches downward so that instead of growing higher with more leaves, it will concentrate its energy in producing more fruit.”
“Cut away the bad branches so that the good branches will bear more fruit. We want to have around 100 fruit per tree.”
With such instructions and reminders, Raphael and Steve taught us the art of designing the trees.
That first afternoon, Olivia was paired with Steve and Joani paired with Raphael. Annie and I were paired together. Nathan helped Gram, an US volunteer, to dig a hole for a compost toilet. When we finished our first day of work, we were all very excited about what we had learned and experienced through the help of the older volunteers.
“Every time after Steven and I finished a tree, we would take a break and sit on the ground and admire the tree we just ‘designed’ while eating a fresh pomegranate fruit right off the tree,” Olivia shared. “That was my favorite part of the day.”
“Raphael was very direct about whether we did well or not well,” Joani shared. “But it was fun to be with him because he is so funny.”
I also shared my new understanding about pruning fruit tree that first day, “I thought Eitan (the owner) used the word ‘design’ instead of ‘pruning’ because English is not his first language. After I tried on my own, I agree that ‘design’ is a more accurate description of what we were doing. It was more than just cutting away the bad or skinny branches, it was creating things, shaping the tree to what we imagine it can become. ”
The next day, we woke up at 6AM and began the first work shift from 7AM to 10AM without breakfast, which was hard for us. Breakfast was from 10AM to 11AM. Then we started the second shift from 11AM to 2PM. Then we had lunch from 2PM to 3PM. The last shift was from 3PM to 5PM, until the sun had fallen below the horizon of the silhouettes of the tree tops. The sunset was spectacular with all shades of orange beaming upward towards the clouds. Annie was in charge of the three meals, which made Raphael, Assi, and Steve very happy, because they didn’t have to cook themselves or eat the same thing everyday. Annie was very happy to have so much fresh and free vegetables and herbs from the farms around us. The carrots picked from across the road were so sweet that Joani who doesn’t like carrots ate them happily. The cherry tomatoes and yellow squash were picked from the ‘garbage’ bin the farm 10 minutes away because they didn’t fit the right shape or color for export, though they were amazing delicious! We happily call it “dumpster diving’, which we learned from the German Couchsurfing guest who we met in India.
On the third day, Olivia and Joani were paired together without their instructor and I began to teach Nathan on my own how to design the trees. All of us also became more and more efficient, finishing about 12-14 tree for the day. Wednesday morning, Nathan and I volunteered to help with the harvest of pumpkins in the field nearby. We felt first hand the hard labor of carrying the ripped pumpkins from the middle of the field to the side and to load and unload the heavy pumpkins. By our fourth and fifth day, we were able to finish pruning a tree by ourselves. Even though we stood all day long on our two feet, surprisingly, none of us felt tired and often stayed until it was almost dark before heading back from the field.
On our sixth day, we were all very sad, knowing that this is our last day of pruning. We each proudly took photos of trees we ‘designed’ all by ourselves for memories.
“I can definitely do this for few more weeks,” Olivia said sadly. “I wish so badly to come back to the farm to see what the trees looked like when they have all the leaves and fruit. I like to see what actually become of the ‘design’ that I did. Did it turn out the way I had imagined?”
After working for five days straight and waking up at 6AM each morning, we made it to Friday afternoon, when Shabbat (or Sabbath) begins.
“Today, we will start earlier and end at noon. Then we will take one hour to clean up the kitchen and living spaces. No work until Sunday morning,” announced earlier that day by Assi, who was in charge of the volunteers. “I will cook the Shabbat meal for Saturday.”
“Do you do something special on Friday night for Shabbat?” I asked Raphael thinking about the Shabbat scene I saw in the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof. “Like lighting the candle and praying over the meal?”
“No, we don’t do anything crazy like that,” Raphael said sarcastically as he is not religious and often is cynical of Judaism despite growing up with a Jewish Father.
“Oh…this Friday is our last chance to see how Shabbat is observed in Israel…” I said sadly.
Raphael must had saw the disappointment in all our eyes, because while we were eating lunch on Friday, he came in very excited and said, “I found someone to say the prayers!” Later, we found out that he was so stressed trying to arrange the people, the drink, the bread, and the prayer that he smoked five packs of cigarettes!
We would not forget that Friday night. Raphael managed to find two other Jewish volunteers to join us because Shabbat is supposed to be celebrated by a community, whether it be as a family or a group of people. One was a girl Geshem who was studying to become a teacher of Judaism although she does not believe in God. One was a volunteer, Samuel, who grew up in the most religious community in all of Israel but has since left it and hated everything about it. Added to that mix were the three volunteers on our farm Assi, Raphael, and Steve who are all non-religious Jews and us a Chinese family of five who were overly eager to soak up everything about Shabbat from this eclectic group of Jews trying to put together a Shabbat as best as they could.
When we walked into the dining area that night, we saw Raphael wearing a kipah (the religious Jewish cap) which was given by his mother that he never wore before, a tableful of napkins with the Star of David, and a large halal, the traditional Shabbat braided sweet bread, that Assi bought earlier in the morning just for us. No one knew how to say the Shabbat prayer to start the meal. So Geshem searched the words on on her smartphone while everyone else forced Samuel who rebelled against this tradition to sing the prayer. A cup of pomegranate juice was passed to be drunk from the oldest to the youngest and the bread was broken and passed one by one. We were very touched.
In addition, Assi’ Shabbat Moroccan stew was put in an iron pot placed on a hot plate to be cooked overnight and eaten on Saturday. Shabbat meal is always placed on a hot plate because cooking is forbidden after sundown on Friday.
As part of keeping the Shabbat, we moved our usual Sunday family workshop time to Saturday. Steve was curious and so he joined us for the family service.
I was very excited to hear everyone’s insight on the famous passage on “the Vine and the Branches” after having stared and pruned the pomegranate branches for a week. What I didn’t expect was when many of us, including Steve, had tears when Olivia led us in singing the song, “El Shaddai”:
El shaddai, el shaddai
El-elyon na adonai
Age to age you’re still the same
By the power of the name
El shaddai, el shaddai
Erkamka na adonai
I will praise and lift you high
Through your love and through the ram
You saved the son of Abraham
Through the power of your hand
You turned the sea into dry land
To the outcast on her knees
You were the God who really sees
And by your might
You set your children free
Through the years you made it clear
That the time of Christ was near
Though the people failed to see
What messiah ought to be
Though your word contained the plan
They just could not understand
Your most awesome work was done
Through the frailty of your son
There was something about singing those Jewish words in Israel and with someone who understands Hebrew. Then during the first verse, images of us seeing the supposed location where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, contemplating next to Abraham’s tomb in Hebron, diving under the Red Sea at Dahab, and walking in the tombs of pharaohs who enslaved the Israelites for 400 years at Luxor flashed in front of me. Then the second verse reminded me of us following excitedly and experiencing miraculously the footsteps of Jesus in Jerusalem but sadly the Jewish volunteers whom we were with did not believe in God and even less in Jesus. It was the first time I truly understood this song, despite hearing it hundreds of times before.
Then we took turn and read “the Vine and the Branches” passage:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful…I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples…You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” (John 15:1-16 NIV)
Olivia shared after reading the passage, “‘My Father is the gardener’ is so real to me now. Everyday I walk by the trees. This tree is crazy…this one is crazy, too. But I love every tree. It’s so cool, because I feel like I can see the potential each tree has. You know if I cut this branch, bend this one…it’s going to be beautiful! Perhaps that is the way He looks at us. God sees who we are. I feel like I got to be in God’s shoes for a little bit.”
“When I walk by the trees, I see they all have problems,” Joani agreed with Olivia as well. “So when God look at us, He fixes us one by one, slowly and slowly. Some people might have their problem fixed, some people won’t. But He takes His time and does it personally.”
“I agree as well with Olivia. God is the creator, not a pruner,” I shared as we went around in circle. “From this week of ‘designing’ the trees, I can understand God better as the creator of the world and the designer of us.”
“After working with the pomegranate trees for 5 days, I really understand about branch that bears no fruit. ‘You are growing inside. That’s not going to do. I’ll cut you off. Throw you into the fire. You have great potential. You will be fruitful. Maybe next year, even better.’ Before coming here, I thought the passage is very philosophical and very deep. But in this context, it is very literal. Cut you and throw you into the fire,” Nathan shared.
“For me I can feel what Olivia is saying. Because when I walk through each row, I fall in love with the trees, because I know what they can be. When I see a tree with a big mess, I don’t think, ‘O tree, you are a failure, you are hopeless.’ Instead I think, ‘Okay, well if I give you a haircut, a twist here and there. Open up the umbrella. Let it breath. Di, di, di, di…You will be really pretty.’ I believe that’s how God sees each of us,” Annie shared.
“I also realize how important a good gardener is,” Olivia added to what Annie was sharing. “I don’t think we’re that good. Often we cut a branch for no valid reason reason…”
“You pricked me…you die!” Joani interjected jokingly.
“So I am thankful I am not my own gardener. You appreciate God as the gardener. I trust that He is better than me. And He will save as many branches of me as He finds fit,” Olivia continued. “I am glad He doesn’t just go, ‘Whew, whew, whew…and cut off everything.”
I continued with explaining this now very personal passage by pointing out that God the Father and God the Son have different roles. While God the Father is the gardener or the designer, Jesus is the vine or trunk that we as the branches are attached, which represents Jesus as the mediator that came down from Heaven to Earth in the form of a human that through Jesus, we can have new life, not dead branches. We ‘remain’ in Jesus by obeying His command, which is to love God and love each other as Jesus has loved us and died for us. So by loving God and each other, we remain with Jesus.
As we continued studying further down the passage, Annie shared her insight about what it means to glorify God and to show we are His disciples when we bear fruit, “Eitan told us that each pomegranate that make it to the market has a stamp that it is from Eitan’s farm. Each needs to have the right color, right shape, and right weight. When people look at this beautiful fruit, it brings glory to the farm.”
Olivia also wanted to share her insight on what it means when Jesus said that you did not choose me, but I chose you, “I can understand that because we choose which branch gets cut off and which branch lives. Every branch that is on that tree is because we chose them. The reason that we left the branch is so that it can…”
“…go and bear fruit!” we completed Olivia’s sentence together.
Our family worship had never been so lively with each one fighting for the chance to share there insights on the passage and hearing the ‘ahhh’s and ‘ohhh’s as we understand so personally what Jesus’ parable was all about.
We shall not forget that special Shabbat Saturday where we truly tasted the full meaning of the Vine and the Branches passage and enjoyed the most tasty Moroccan stew made by Assi with beans, eggs, and explosion of spices.
Sadly, our time at the farm came to end and the next day, at 8AM, Eitan was to bring us to the bus stop. It was difficult to say goodbye after experiencing such unique fellowship of people. Assi, Raphael, and Steve stopped their work midway and walked from the field to see us off. We also got a gift of 2 liters of the best tasting pomegranate juice to bring for our next leg. We managed to pile our large backpacks and squeeze six people into Eitan’s mini car. However, Raphael, afraid to show his emotion, didn’t see us off as Eitan drove us to the bus stop.
On the first day when Eitan picked us up at the bus station and drove us to this farm that now has a special place in our heart, he explained that 10 years before, all that we now see were just sand. Then water was found 300 meters (or 100 stories) deep under the sand. Then took 3-4 more years to cultivate the sand into soil. Now more than 30 different crops are being cultivated by the 30 families who live together in the Be’er Mika Moshav.
I asked Eitan, whose Cohen family name can be traced generations after generations for more than 2000 years to the special High Priest lineage that oversees the Temple of Jerusalem, “How are you able to have the courage and the ability to do this seemingly impossible feat of creating this oasis in the middle of nothing.”
“Community,” Eitan replied. “We have 30 families who came together to make this happen. We couldn’t have done this by ourselves.”
Similarly, we saw Jewish volunteers from Israel and around the world, each with their unique personality and calling, came together as a community to contribute to this miracle in the desert that is surrounded by constant gun fires and bombings. Some came for few days. Some for few weeks or months, like Raphael. Some, like Assi, have come for years.
The Bible in Isaiah 41:17-28 prophesied: “As the God of Israel, I will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.” (Isaiah 41:17-18)
As adopted sons and daughters of Abraham, we were privileged to also help to fulfill the prophesy at the Negev Desert, even if surrounded by sounds of gun fires.
We came in knowing nothing. We left, full of awe, inspiration, and anticipation of what is to come.