Fields of Gold: Shavuot Yizkor 5779
The song came into our lives 26 years ago, in May of 1993. It was written by Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, who said the song was inspired by the view from his 16th century manor house in rural southwest England. “Our house is surrounded by barley fields,” he wrote. “In the summer it's fascinating to watch the wind moving over the shimmering surface, like waves on an ocean of gold.”
Today we heard the version sung by Eva Cassidy, whose acoustic guitar and “silken soprano voice” [NY Times Aug.12, 2002] convey a haunting blend of yearning and nostalgia. The song asks us to remember a time “when we walked in fields of gold” – and we know that it’s not just a phrase about the view from Sting’s back window. It’s about looking backward at the landscape of a blessed life; how love shines in the memory and stirs our heart; how we hold on to a perfect moment from long ago captured in amber – clear and radiant in the mind’s eye, but forever out of reach.
Like sunlight on a calm summer day, such memories bathe us in warmth and peace. They remind us how it felt to be singled-out and cherished, safe in the arms of someone we loved. Memory returns you to yourself -- younger and stronger, more beautiful than you ever realized at the time. It gives you back a beloved face; the one whose very presence made you happy, whose eyes embraced and affirmed you. Remember how it felt to be together. If you have ever truly loved, you have walked in fields of gold.
The sunlit mood of the song evokes the festival we celebrate today, for Shavuot comes at the cusp of summer, suffused with the golden light of the season. At its center is a landscape rich with grain, for in ancient Israel it marked the time of the wheat harvest, just seven weeks, sheva shavuot, after the barley harvest of Pesach. The biblical book read on Shavuot, the story of Ruth, is anchored in that same landscape. In its pages we find farmers and gleaners working on the land, long days of summer sunshine and rippling fields of barley like waves on an ocean of gold.
The book of Ruth begins with hunger. “Vayehi ra‘av ba’aretz. In the days when the Judges ruled, there was a famine in the land.” The story opens with emptiness and deprivation, barren fields that yield no food, desolation in the land. Its four short chapters chart the search for nourishment and safety and home.
Elimelech, a leading citizen of Bethlehem (beit lechem), a town whose name, ironically, means “house of bread”-- must travel with his family to avoid starvation. He, his wife Naomi, and their two sons leave Judea for the neighboring land of Moab, where they dwell for ten years. Within five verses Naomi’s husband and sons have died, leaving her devastated by grief.
Once hungry for food, now hollowed-out by loss, Naomi feels empty and barren and old. She tries to push away her two loving daughters-in-law, telling them she has nothing left to give them. But Ruth, memorably, will not allow herself to be pushed away. “Wherever you go, I will go,” she says. She cannot give Naomi back her precious husband and sons; she can only give herself. And so she does, without hesitation, making a solemn vow that she will stay with Naomi and care for her as long as she lives.
The story unfolds as Ruth’s promise is fulfilled in wondrous ways. It is a book replete with images of nourishment and the sharing of food -- characters who feed one another in every possible way; who fill up the emptiness wrought by poverty, suffering, loneliness and loss. The two widows return to Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest. Ruth goes to glean in the field of Boaz, whose name means “in him is strength.” Boaz, noticing the tired, thirsty young woman, learns that she is a foreigner, vulnerable and bereft. He offers her a drink of water, then bread and wine, then a full measure of roasted grain to eat -- so much that Ruth cannot finish it, and brings food home to share with Naomi. Boaz asks his workers to leave extra sheaves for Ruth and to let her glean in safety throughout the season.
Naomi, nourished by her daughter-in-law’s care, begins to re-engage with life, and decides that it is time for her to nourish Ruth. She says, “Now I will seek a home for you.” She instructs the young woman to go to Boaz by night and lie down near him on the threshing floor. Then Boaz, famously, shows the true strength that is in him. He does not abuse his power or lay a hand on Ruth; instead he offers her his blessing, promises to help her and pours barley into her outstretched shawl, symbolically offering her sustenance and protection, as well as the promise of his seed.
The story ends on a pinnacle of fulfillment -- with a wedding and the birth of a child. Ruth brings new life into the world, and Naomi, empty no more, feels again the joy of embracing a baby in whom her life will go on. The women around her celebrate, saying, “This child shall be to you a meshiv nefesh, a restorer of life” [Ruth 4:15]. The harvest is in -- golden fields of grain to nourish the body; kindness, generosity and care that heal a broken heart.
The Book of Ruth offers us a wonderful world -- sunlit, bathed in warmth, suffused with hope. But there’s another story and a second young woman we remember today. Eva Cassidy, whose haunting rendition of “Fields of Gold” has been heard by millions, was born in 1963 in Washington, DC. As a little girl she showed talent in music; her father taught her to play guitar, and by age 11 she was singing and playing in a local band. Though she was shy on stage, she spent her teens and 20s performing in the Washington DC area.
But recognition didn’t come easily. Even in her hometown, she was, as one writer put it, “sadly under-noticed.” The Eva Cassidy Band “typically performed mid-week in half-empty bars and clubs, and when Eva picked up a solo engagement here and there, it would be at a struggling storefront restaurant more often than a club where anybody had come to listen. After repeated attempts to secure a recording contract had failed, Eva scraped together the money to record a live album, using her small savings, a cash advance on her credit card, and a gift of a thousand dollars from her aunt” [http://evacassidy.org/fields-of-gold/]. She eventually recorded two albums, released to little response, and managed to serve as the opening act for Al Green and the Neville Brothers.
Then, in 1993, Eva had a malignant mole removed from her back. Three years later, in July 1996, she felt a persistent ache in her hip. X-rays showed a fracture; further tests revealed that cancer had spread to her bones and her lungs. She pursued aggressive treatment, but her health rapidly failed. In September she performed for the last time at the Bayou, a music club in Georgetown, closing her set with one of her favorite songs, “What a Wonderful World.” On November 2, she died of melanoma at her family home, at the age of 33.
Few people had heard of Eva Cassidy at the time of her death; only in the following years did she become a worldwide sensation, celebrated for her extraordinary voice and range of expression.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
[Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”]
Robert Frost delivers a melancholy truth. Youth and strength and beauty pass with the years; beloved people pass from our life, often too soon; perfection cannot hold and nothing gold can stay. But the voice of Eva Cassidy, still alive in our ears, evokes more than the piercing sadness of her short life. It tells us that beautiful gifts endure when the giver is gone; that the heart once nourished by love is forever enriched; that love’s highest tribute is not grief but gratitude.
So we count ourselves blessed for moments that shine in our memory; and we cherish the days when we walked in fields of gold. On this festival of harvest, we give thanks for all that sustains us: for beloved faces that live in the mind’s eye and warm arms that hold us here and now; for the goodness we remember and the kindness that surrounds us still.
In the days still left, may our pain be eased; may our hearts be healed; may our eyes be opened to the life that is ours to live.
Zeh ha-yom asah Adonai. This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it [Ps.118:24]. For as long as love endures, it’s a wonderful world.