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Communal Growth and Planting Fruit-Bearing Trees

Ever since the Jewish return to Zion in recent times, Tu Bi-Shvat, the new year for trees, has become a holiday for celebrating Eretz Yisrael and its fruit, especially by planting trees.

Fruit trees constitute a component of man’s diet, but the phenomenon of tree growth, and especially that of fruit-bearing trees, is a metaphor for man’s good works. Man is constantly being examined: is he a fruit-bearing tree or is he a tree that provides no fruit and exists only for itself (leaving aside what it contributes through the release of oxygen and through nitrogen fixation).

Planting fruit trees also symbolizes and models the individual’s motivation to give of himself to others without any expectation of repayment. This is especially true of trees that will bear fruit for future generations.

Planting fruit trees is one of the first mitzvot that God commanded the people of Israel upon their entry into Eretz Yisrael and emergence as a nation:

When you come into the land and plant all manner of trees for food, you shall count its fruit as forbidden (orlah). For three years it shall be orlah to you; it shall not be eaten. (Vayikra 19:23)

          According to the Midrash, this verse does not merely command us to observe orlah, but in fact to plant immediately upon our arrival in Eretz Yisrael:

“When you come into the land” – God said to Israel: “Though you will find it filled with all manner of good, do not say, ‘let us settle and not plant,’ rather, take care to plant,” as it says: “and plant all manner of trees for food.” Just as you entered and found what others had planted, you too plant for your children; no one should say, “I am old and will be dead tomorrow. Why should I toil on behalf of others?” King Shlomo stated: “He made everything beautiful in its time; He has also put the world [ha-olam] in their heart” (Kohelet 3:11). This is written as “the hidden [ha-alam].” Why? If God had not hidden the day of death from man, no man would build or plant, for they would say “tomorrow I will die. Why should I toil on behalf of others?” For this reason, God hid death from the heart of man, so that man would build and plant. If he merits it, they will be his. If not, they will be for others… Therefore, man should not desist from planting. Rather, just as he found, he should continue to plan, even when old. God, as it were, said to Israel: “Learn from me – ‘and God planted a garden in the east of Eden’ (Bereishit 2:8). (Midrash Tanchuma, Kedoshim §8)

The commandment to plant trees upon entering Eretz Yisrael has two levels: the physical – showing concern for the settlement of Eretz Yisrael – and the spiritual/moral – educating toward mutual responsibility within the community. After all, why would one take the trouble to plant a tree if he has no personal need for it? Does it not stem solely from a moral obligation generated by the benefit he gets from the trees planted for him by others?

          This teaches us that the Torah wants to shape a growth-oriented and nurturing communal model. To that end, an underlying sense of mutual responsibility must be engendered within each individual. Everyone must understand that within a community, like with fruit trees, the individual does not live for himself. Today he enjoys the trees that others planted for him, and others will enjoy trees in the future only if an individual plants them now. Only with this type of awareness can a community be nurtured, and only thus will individuals manage to break the ego’s restrictive boundaries and provide an answer to the self-directed question: “Why should I toil on behalf of others?” The communal sensibility that shapes the obligation to plant for others stems from care and compassion for others and for the community, due to the value of the collective and the community, and not because of the personal benefit he stands to gain from it.

          The Torah also sets a very high standard for an individual, whose contributions to the community result from his adherence to God’s attribute of not acting out of His needs, but on behalf of others, like when planting the Garden of Eden: God, as it were, said to Israel: “Learn from me – ‘and God planted a garden in the east of Eden.’”

          This applies to the carob tree especially, as it only yields fruit after seventy years. One who plants a carob knows that he will not enjoy its fruits; he plants it solely out of his responsibility and concern for future generations – not as one who enters from outside, but as one who is part of the community, as is told about Choni the Circle-maker:

One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” He then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me, so too I plant these for my children. (Ta’anit 23a)

          Rav Kook formulated a saying about the month of Shvat in the same spirit:

The urge to plant trees stems from the desire to benefit future generations, as displayed most prominently by the carob tree.[1]

Yet the carob tree has another communal context: the spiritual contribution that the individual is supposed to make to his community and the collective that he is a part of. Rav Kook explained that specifically the carob tree was suited to be the staple food and primary sustenance of R. Shimon b. Yochai (Rashbi) and his son as they delved into the esoteric dimension of the Torah in their cave:

For this reason, their sustenance was specifically miraculous, and from a carob tree, whose planting in the world is characteristically the result of a stable idea of love for the collective, in the most moral way, as an obligation of enlightened integrity to plant so that there are the next generations: “as my forefathers planted these for me.” He is therefore closer to the sublime rationality of those great ones who multiply the highest good of the generations and the eras through their sublime and holy vision.[2]

Why were they provided with a carob tree specifically? Why not a fig tree or date palm?

Rashbi and his son, who secluded themselves in a cave to study and to engage in esoteric wisdom, were not interested in disconnecting from their community and creating their own individual world. They isolated themselves precisely because of their concern about the world’s existence, the general situation, and generations that would arise after the Destruction and Exile. In their seclusion, they strove to achieve dizzying spiritual heights and reveal the Torah’s secrets. From these heights, they hoped to have a spiritual impact on the community, the general population, and the whole world. Through their meditations, they could chart a course and impart the tools that would enable meeting future challenges, the travails of the long future exile. Their path would infuse a generation that underwent destruction with new hope. For that reason, the appropriate physical nourishment for them was the carob, which represents working for and within the collective.

The seclusion of Rashbi and his son in the cave gave the world the esoteric dimension of the Torah, whose principles are developed in the Zohar:

“The enlightened shall understand…” (Daniel 12:10). For them it states: “The enlightened shall shine like the brilliance (zohar) of the firmament” (ibid. 3). Through this work of yours, the book of Zohar, from the radiance of the supernal awe… since Israel will taste from the tree of life, which is this book of Zohar, they will thereby be mercifully extracted from the exile, thus fulfilling “God alone shall lead them, and there is no foreign god with Him” (Devarim 32:12). (Zohar III 124b)

          We learn from Rashbi and his son in the cave that man’s actions in this world must stem from concern with the public, but taking a long view and not the short-term view. We see from R. Kook that their nourishment from a carob tree is apropos of the long-term vision expressed in their spiritual endeavors. This type of vision guarantees that their efforts will bear fruit and their hard work will not be for naught.

          Perhaps R. Kook’s explanation can shed light on what the Sages say of R. Chanina:

Every day, a heavenly voice goes forth and states: “The entire world is nourished on behalf of my son; and my son Chanina is content with one measure of carobs per week.” (Chulin 86a)

          The entire world is nourished in the merit of R. Chanina, whose own nourishment consisted of carob – the minimalist diet of a saint who is content with the minimum, who is focused on spiritual matters and not attracted to materialism. Yet in light of R. Kook’s idea we can say that the nourishment that fueled R. Chanina’s spiritual endeavors is the same carob that symbolizes farsightedness and concern for the public. A broad view like this one sustains and gives direction to the entire world. It yields fruit that the whole world can enjoy.

          On the new year for trees, we must remind ourselves of our collective and communal responsibility, yeshiva students included, to plant spiritual trees with strong roots that will bear fruit in the future – not just for ourselves, but for the collective and the community. We will all enjoy their fruits.

[1] "Meged Yerachim”, Shvat 5674. See also, at greater length, Ein Ayah on Shabbat, p. 204 ff., and in R. Klachheim’s explanation of Meged Yerachim for Shvat.

[2] Ein Ayah, Shabbat p. 204.

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