It was the last thing Morah Yehudit taught Josh in Chumash class when the school year ended in June. Bikurim. After the Israelites conquered the land, the farmers were to take their first ripened fruit to the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, and present it to the Kohen. It was a beautiful symbol of how the Jewish people should try to dedicate everything they have to the service of God.
Josh wanted to find a way to show his teacher how much her class meant to him. So he came up with a plan. He would grow something over the summer. Corn? Tomatoes? Peppers? Then he would present his teacher with his first crop as a gift when he saw her in September. What better way was there to show how he had incorporated into his life what she taught him?
After consulting with his mother, who completely supported his idea, he settled on tomatoes. But not just any tomatoes. He was going to grow the big, beautiful beefsteak variety for which New Jersey was famous. He went to Napolitano’s Nursery in Bergenfield, purchased Ramapo tomato seedlings and went to work.
First Josh cleared an area in the backyard, around three feet squared. He pulled up all the weeds and loosened the soil with a hoe. He laid down some top soil, sprinkled on some rather pungent fertilizer, then fenced it off with chicken wire. He had read that the local animals love tomatoes, so he wasn’t taking any chances.
His mother helped him plant the seedlings, 10 inches apart as the guy in the nursery instructed. After they were in, Josh watered them and then went inside to try to get the dirt out from under his fingernails, as his mother adamantly insisted.
Each day he watered his tomato plants before he left for camp. A little fertilizer every week, and an occasional weeding, but otherwise they were on autopilot. After four weeks he could see the small tomatoes starting to appear like buds on the plant. Slowly they grew, until, they disappeared.
That’s right. After weeks of toil, his precious tomatoes were vanishing before his eyes. Everyone in the family agreed that it had to be an animal. Josh’s sister Michal was certain it was the local squirrels. His father thought it was the deer who occasionally passed through the neighborhood. But Josh’s mother had her own thoughts. And one day in August, some time after noon, she confirmed her suspicions.
When Josh got off the bus from camp, his mother handed him her iPhone. And there on the screen clear as day was a picture of an animal up on two legs holding a small tomato. Josh’s mother stood there triumphant, like a cameraman from the show COPS nailing a perpetrator mid-crime.
“What is it?” Josh asked.
“It’s a woodchuck.”
“You know, a woodchuck. Some people call it a whistlepig, but I believe in New Jersey most people call it a groundhog.”
“Cool,” Josh said. “I didn’t know we had groundhogs in our neighborhood.”
“Yes,” Josh’s mom said, “we do. There’s a whole family of them living under our back deck. They’ve been there since last spring.”
“And why didn’t you tell us?”
“Because I was worried your father would call Animal Busters to trap them and take them away, and they’re so gosh-darned cute.”
“That’s nice Mom, but they’re eating all my tomatoes!”
“Well, we’ll have to think of something.”
They strengthened the fence. They put up a plastic owl statue in the tomato garden, but still the groundhogs ate the young tomatoes. They bought a cutout fox silhouette and posted it in the backyard but still the groundhogs kept coming. And yet they resisted calling Animal Busters.
Josh had never actually seen any of the groundhog family members. Sometimes he wondered if his mother had made them up. Occasionally Josh would sit on the backyard deck at night, guarding his tomatoes and watching for Gertrude and Gary (what they named the groundhog couple), but they never made an appearance. Yet the tomatoes kept vanishing.
As August began to wane, it looked as though one tomato was going to survive the rodent onslaught. It was growing higher on the stalk, and Josh thought maybe Gertrude and Gary couldn’t reach it. For whatever reason, one perfect tomato remained at the end of the summer. Josh picked it on a late August day. His plan was to let it finish ripening in the house for a week before he presented it to Morah Yehudit on the first day of school. After all the toil of growing the tomatoes, Josh thought he could finally understand the point of Bikurim, the first fruit. You work hard for a whole season growing your crop, and you feel you’ve really accomplished something, but in the end you must remember that God is the source of your success. He couldn’t wait to give his teacher the tomato.
As he rounded the front of the house to bring his prize to the kitchen, he held the perfect, round, reddish-green tomato out before him. It was just then that Gertrude made her presence known. She was standing in the driveway, just three feet from where Josh stood with his produce. Josh was so stunned that the tomato flew from his hands. By the time he retrieved it from the driveway, Gertrude was gone.
And so, on the first day of school, Josh came to his classroom, and in honor of Bikurim, sanctifying the first fruit, he presented Morah Yehudit with perfectly delicious tomato sauce.
By Larry Stiefel