OF FORESTS GROVES AND GARDENS

With so much emphasis on trees each year during the Hebrew month of Shvat, it is as though we can’t see the forest – or the garden, or the grove, for the trees. Perhaps Jewish Arbor Day would take on greater and richer meaning and deliver a more poignant message if we looked at the greater picture rather than focus solely on trees.

Ya’ar is the Hebrew word for the forest; Vald is the Yiddish equivalent. Hence, family names such as Greenwald (Green Forest) or Waldman (Forester). One would do well to speculate, that it was a forest and not a garden in which Adam and Eve were planted and from which they were soon expelled. Size aside, a garden connotes control, while a forest does not. That’s why Smokey the Bear warned us about the latter (Only you can prevent forest fires) but was seemingly mute about the former. It was precisely because the first residence of the first couple was under Divine control (as opposed to serpentine control) that it is referred to as the Garden of Eden and not the Forest of Eden. Fret not! Despite the garden garnering primary position, in no way is the ya’ar or forest overlooked. If anything, it is ya’ar and not garden that receives a plum position in our prayers. During a typical week, as we welcome in Shabbat, we include the 96th Psalm, where we are reminded that the time will come (with the arrival of Moshiach) when “all the trees of the forest will sing joyously.” For then, even the intractable forest will fall into line, as it praises HaShem.

Among the first Israeli songs I was to learn upon arriving for the first time in Israel as a teenager, was Hurshat Ha’Eucalyptus or the Eucalyptus Grove. It was written by the renowned Israeli musician, songwriter and recording artist Naomi Shemer. A mere 4 years before her legendary Jerusalem of Gold, Naomi recorded Hurshat Ha’Eucalyptus, where she recounts the Eucalyptus grove, the bridge, the boat and the scent of salt upon the waters of her childhood in Kvutzat Kinneret. For me, the song Hurshat Ha’Eucalyptus or the Eucalyptus Grove evokes an Israel, where groves of trees, planted in seemingly unyielding soil, defy the odds of nature and proceed to tame and beauty a once wily land. For me, it is the tree, particularly the Eucalyptus tree, that served as a role model for the halutzim or pioneers of our Jewish homeland who defied the odds time and time again in a sand-strewn Israel, evoking simpler times where determination and hope were plentiful. Whether it was Eucalyptus, or Grapefruit, Hursha – grove will always be the Israel I want to and need to remember. 

Gan Eden or the Garden of Eden was the first garden ever known to humans. It must not go unnoticed that there is scant mention made of other gardens throughout the Tana’ch or 24 books of the bible. Among them, is one mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah. We read about that garden every Yom Kippur morning, in the Haftorah assigned to that day. “Then HaShem …will satiate your soul in times of drought …and you will be like a well-watered garden…”. Ever sensitive that the garden was a place that our biblically versed people wistfully looked back upon, the Prophet provides hope for our people by depicting a Gan Raveh or well-watered garden to look forward to and believe in. Put differently, our existence is framed by two lush gardens, Gan Eden and Gan Raveh.

As one who savors singing about the almond tree, as one who is careful when it comes to chewing on carob, I ask of you to permit me to plant the following Tu B’Shvat concept in your hearts. In addition to paying homage to the fruits and trees, perhaps it is also time to fawn over the forests, regard the grandeur of the groves, and become a guardian of the gardens.

SIT- IN

An etymologist I’m not. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the term “sit-in” dates back close to six decades. It was at a lunch counter in early 1960 at a Woolworths in Greensboro North Carolina where four African American college students remained seated despite the fact that they were refused service. Unbeknownst to those four college students, the very first sit-in involved the descendants of Abraham. It first took place thousands of years ago and continues until this very day. Unlike the sit-in of the four college students, our sit-in not in any way connected to race. Independent of the fact that it was mandated in the Torah, our sit -in seeks to address three inequalities.

The very first inequality is that of physical security. Unlike other people, neither hurricanes nor other acts of G-d serve as stark reminders for us that our houses offer absolutely nothing when it comes to physical security. For longer than we care to remember, Jewish houses have been blown down through the huffs and puffs of anti-Semitism. Stories abound of those who managed to survive Der  Fuhrer’s inferno, having the chutzpah to return to the house where they once lived. The Policja (Polish for Police) were at the scene lest the Zydzi (Jews) caused the occupants any trouble. For us, the Sukkah serves as a reminder that the sticks and stones of our houses will offer as much physical protection as the schach covering.

The second inequality is that we – and that means all of us – have yet to properly understand the divine word. “So that your generations will know that in Sukkot, I seated the Children of Israel when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,” explains the Torah (Leviticus 23:43). Absolutely no information exists that our ancestors who left Egypt dwelled in any structure other than tents! Sukkot is a geographic location. Sukkot was the first stop for our ancestors after they had miraculously crossed the sea after leaving Egypt. It would therefore make far more sense to understand that we are required by the Torah to locate a place once known as Sukkot and vacation there for seven days from the 15th of Tishrei until the 22nd of Tishrei! It may very well be that our dwelling in the Sukkah is a statement on our parts showing that the very same  rabbinic sages who were so truly divinely inspired and so unbelievably brilliant in interpreting the Torah, nevertheless had no way of foreseeing the travels and travails of their people. It’s one thing to dwell in a roofless hut in Sachse on Sukkot; it’s quite another thing to dwell in a roofless hut in Saskatoon on Sukkot.

The third inequality is a protest. With Yom Kippur mere days behind us, one would expect that the efficacy of the Day of Atonement to be fresh in our minds as well in HaShem’s heart. If we have been successful in having all of our sins expunged, then our relationship with our Maker ought to duplicate that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Just as they had free reign of pretty much every tree that grew from the ground, so too should be the case with us. The prerequisite of schach (that which grows from the ground but has been detached from the ground) ought to take on a powerful new understanding. By having a Sukkah sit-in, we are in effect demanding the same accommodation afforded to Adam and Eve! If those who are sin-free deserve paradisaical surroundings, then surely the Sukkah with its faux Garden of Eden covering serves the purpose.

Hopefully the Sukkah sit-n will grow in number over the years. Hopefully, the Sukkah sit – in will grow in understanding as well. Let it be a statement on our parts against the supposed physical security of our house, against the fact that our ancestors never dwelt in booths during their forty-year odyssey in the wilderness, against the fact that we fail to realize that dwelling in the Sukkah is our just dessert in that we are Adam and Eve redux.