The Jewish National Fund should have gone out on a limb. Last week would have afforded the JNF yet another excellent opportunity to promote trees. For it was last Tuesday, the Talmud tells us, that a special name was conferred upon the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av. Although still very much in the midst of summer, our rabbinic sages calculated that the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av was the specific date when the heat from the unforgiving sun over Israel, finally begins to dissipate. On that date, our sages declared that no ax may be swung at a tree for the purpose of providing kindling wood for the sacrifices of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Our sages referred to that day as Yom Tavar Magal or the day of the breaking of the scythe or ax.

Although two thousand years have passed since any trees have been felled for the purpose of providing wood for the altar, Yom Tavar Magal ought to live on.

A much overlooked sight for tourists visiting Israel is a monument located in the city of Ramat Gan commemorating ten young Jewish soldiers (the original list, other names were added later) who met their deaths at the end of a British noose. While the English language settles on the word “hanged”, the Hebrew language depicts those who lost their lives as Olei HaGardom or those who went up against the ax. The purpose of employing such phraseology, is that in the eyes of Zionism, the mode of execution employed by the British mattered little, if any. From the Zionist point of view, there was but one difference between the “civilized” British executioners of the twentieth century and the savage Roman executioners who murdered Jews in ancient times. We have no record as to the ages of the Jewish victims murdered by the ancient Romans. We do know however that without exception, that those who went up against the ax of the British were all in their prime of life. Put differently, the ax of the British denied its Jewish victims to benefit from the Tree of Life.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was not the first to caution Jews against despair when he reminded us that the entire world is a narrow bridge and that we must never give in to fear. Two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan expressed a similar sentiment when they handed down the following adage for posterity: Even if a sharpened sword is resting on the neck of person’s neck, it should never prevent the victim from asking for mercy. The two rabbis then cite the following verse from Job 13:15: “Behold, he is about to kill me, shall I not turn to Him in hope”?

As creative as the Roman were when it came to introducing ancient Israel to architecture and engineering, there was a destructive side to the Romans as well. The ancient Romans had no regard whatsoever for forestation or for human life. Accordingly, they did a hatchet job on both. With no regard for either the flora or the fauna, the ancient Romans indiscriminately set about  clearing swaths of land, so that the enemy could no longer seek safety and find refuge deep in the forests; the Ancient Romans used the lumber for military purposes such as onagers (prototype of a wrecking ball used to knock down walls of fortified cities)  and battering rams,  allowing them to break through doors and gates. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan undoubtedly heard and perhaps even witnessed Romans – with no qualms whatsoever – swinging their axes into the necks of Jews. And yet, they adjured our people not to give up hope. Neither Rabbi would ever have claimed to speak words of prophecy. Yet, during any given year, the number of Israelis visiting Italy is amazing; the number of Italians visiting Israel and planting trees is awesome.

Our rabbinic sages were quick to notice the similarity between  shalosh (three) and shalish (military commander). Because of this, they ascribed great strength to trees, a product of the third day of creation. Yet, when iron was created, these great towers of strength began to tremble. They foresaw impending doom, should it ever happen that iron be sharpened into an ax. “Let not your heart be troubled”, said iron to the trees reassuringly. “As long as none of your wood provides us with a handle, no harm will come your way.”

Yom Tavar Magal continues to convey important teachings. It serves to remind us of young Jews who were denied eating from the Tree of Life as they went up against the British sword.  It recalls the optimism of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan who were able to see not only the forest and the trees, but the continuation of vibrant Jewish living as well. It cautions us against placing ourselves in harm’s way. Most of all, it reminds us that there are specific times for an ax to meet a tree. May those times contribute to a better world.