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.

CAN’T SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

It’s carob time again! Come Tu B’Shvat, congregants, Hebrew School students and those who attend Jewish Day Schools prepare themselves perennially to hear all about their “raisin” d’etre.

Perhaps it’s time to branch out, and leave the almonds, figs, and dates alone and look to the trees for a different source of nourishment. Perhaps its time for the trees to whet our appetite for everyday living.

It was the French philosopher, mystic and political activist Simone Weil who taught us: “Whoever is uprooted himself, uproots others; whoever is rooted himself doesn’t uproot others.” Have you ever wondered why with but one exception throughout our  history, we Jews do not seek to persuade non-Jews to see the light and embrace Judaism? Can it be that that our religious leaders have been so well rooted in the religion they represent, that it never occurs to them to try to get those of a different faith to see the light? Conversely, have you ever wondered why over the ages, Church leadership, particularly in Europe, went to such great lengths to get Jews to abandon and forsake Old Israel and embrace Christianity? Were they really that concerned in saving Jewish souls or perhaps subconsciously, they themselves were anything but firmly rooted in their own faith?

In my talk this past Shabbat, I spoke about how I “played hooky” the previous Monday morning  and traveled to Hunt County with Sue Kretchman. Our mission was to visit a nonagenarian who, as a teenager in Germany, was part of the Kinder Transport. Truth be told, my ego got the better part of me, as we set out. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t repress feelings of self-righteousness. After all, I reasoned, how many other Dallas rabbis would go out on a limb and  visit someone they had never met, who had no connection whatsoever to their synagogue? On the way back from a most delightful, eye-opening, unforgettable visit,  I realized that it was not I who went out on a limb, but the countless, remarkable, selfless strangers first in Holland and then in England who went out on a limb for Jewish children escaping Nazis. These strangers were part of a godly group who dared to refuse to succumb to the Machiavellian machinations  of the Third Reich. Amidst the many trees at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem, where the Six Million are immortalized, there is the Avenue of the Righteous, a walkway where tribute and honor are bestowed upon those who saved Jewish lives. Given the many trees, I cannot help but feel that that section of Yad Vashem ought to be referred to as “Our undying gratitude to those who went out on a limb.”

If there was one thing in common shared by our prophets in the Tana’ch, it was their inability to see the greater picture. Moshe (yes, Moses is considered a prophet) saw a burning bush. Amos HaNavi or the prophet Amos saw a plumb line. Yirmiyahu HaNavi or the prophet Jeremiah saw the staff of an almond tree. None of them could see the mission that they were about to be sent on. Being able to see the bigger picture is a rare gift among humans. All too often, one small item catches the human eye, blinding that person to the bigger picture.  Adam and Eve were so focused  on the one tree that was off limits to them, that they lost sight of the lush forest full of trees bearing luscious fruits that were theirs for the taking.

As one who spends hundreds of dollars each year planting trees in Israel, I have every reason to believe that in addition to trees and fruit, the message of Tu B’Shvat ought to go far deeper. Aside from indulging in figs and prunes as well as all other fruit associated with Israel, in addition to planting trees in Israel, I ask that you see Tu B’Shvat as a harbinger of codes to live by. As we are asked to focus on trees, I ask that you bear in mind that those who are firmly rooted will not uproot others and that those who are uprooted will try to uproot others. I ask that you recall how indebted we ought to be to those who went out on limb for us. Above all, I ask that you never forget the price that is paid, when one can’t see the forest for the trees.

A meaningful Tu B’Shvat to all!