Me and the tree

February 6, 2017 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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A Tu BiSh’vat feature by Rabbi Raymond Apple.
ME & THE TREE

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Tu BiSh’vat, the New Year for Trees, is a relatively late arrival on the Jewish scene. The festival derived from the rabbis, not from the Bible.

It was observed in Sh’vat because this was the changeover time for tithing fruit trees, but it could have been fixed in Tishri, when the Creator planted trees.

The first reference to the festival is in the Mishnah Rosh HaShanah, which says the new year for trees was 15 Sh’vat according to Bet Hillel, and 1 Sh’vat according to Bet Shammai. The sects were divided on how to separate the products of one year and those of the next.

Maybe Bet Shammai reflected the inhabitants of the valleys where the weather was warmer and the produce ripened earlier than in hilly regions whose people wanted a later date.

Trees play a central role in Tanach. They are even described as “the Lord’s trees” (Psalm 104:16). At other times they are a symbol of man (Deut. 20:19) since they stand straight, have a backbone, arms and legs and a head of hair.

For pagans, trees are deities, as against Judaism where it is not the tree that is worshipped, but its Maker. Even rationalists become emotional about trees.

Jewish mysticism places importance on the tree of life and its sefirot which stand for wisdom, lovingkindness, splendour, eternity and kingship.

Trees inspire many ethical analogies. They give shelter: humans have a duty to protect each other. Trees give fruit: humans should fructify and enrich their society. Trees give dignity and beauty, values which should adorn human character. Trees look up to heaven: so should we. Their roots are firm: man should seek stability.

No wonder one rabbi said, “He who sees trees in blossom should say a benediction” (B’rachot 43b).

What a tragedy that today there are people who cannot give thanks to the Creator for His wondrous world but spread callousness, hatred, fanaticism, arson and destruction.

The ethics of trees include the halachic principle of bal tash’chit, which bans destroying people or things. “Is the tree a man that you should attack it?” asks the Torah (Deut. 20:19).

Did any other people institute a New Year for Trees to celebrate God’s gift of Creation, His watchful eye over His world, and His command that its denizens should support and preserve it?

Jews always observed the New Year for Trees even when – as in many parts of Europe – they had so little contact with nature, so little opportunity to maintain a green belt. They took it for granted that the whole of Creation, physical and moral, spiritual as well as intellectual, had a high place in God’s thinking and was the jewel in His creative crown.

Since then, the ancient reverence for Nature has come alive again in modern Israel. In Israel we make a special effort to plant trees, a sign of our commitment to the future. Like Choni the Circle Drawer in rabbinic times, we know that the trees planted today will bring pleasure and benefit to the people of the future.

Nature matters, but man matters more. The world is made for man, not man for the world.

Nature is given to man to enjoy and utilise (Gen. 1:28). God told Adam, “See how lovely and praiseworthy are My works: all are there for your sake” (Midrash to Kohelet 7:13). He also warned, “Take care not to spoil or destroy My world”. Samson Raphael Hirsch says, “If you destroy, you lose your right to the things around you and you sin against Me” (comment to Deut. 20:20).

There are at least six principles about man and nature:

* Man and Nature should normally work in partnership, but –
* If man’s greed or apathy imperil Nature, Nature must be protected.
* Conversely, if Nature threatens man, man must be protected.
* If Nature wreaks a tsunami, man must battle its ferocity, but –
* If man and Nature are at loggerheads, man’s rights prevail.
* Reasonable human need has priority over Nature.

None of this must be left to mere theory, irrelevant to our own real concerns and limited to distant questions such as whether to cut down rain forests in South America.

A letter in the paper Hamodia once argued that the ecologists must not be allowed to oppose cell-phone towers on the Adirondack Northway on the grounds that the towers would spoil the landscape, since they would prevent fatal accidents by improving communications in time of emergency.

I have a personal reason for concern with this issue and its implications.

I was involved in an episode in which a set of ethnic and religious groups asked me to speak for them and put their case to the State authorities. The problem arose out of a situation at Rookwood Cemetery in suburban Sydney. Rookwood covers a vast area, with sections for many communities. Jewish and other burials have been taking place there for over a hundred years.

At the end of the 20th century large tracts of land were still available for use, since not all the cemetery space had yet been utilised. Now the environmentalists stepped in and opposed the use of hitherto undeveloped areas en reserved for future burials on the basis that digging up the land for burials might threaten significant species of trees and other vegetation.

As spokesman for a religious/ethnic coalition, I said that legitimate human need should come first, and that Nature was made for man, not man for Nature. I said that normally the needs of Nature are those of man, but when the two clash, human need must prevail. I said that – whatever happened to the trees – the dead cannot be left lying in the street.

The battle of words was bitterly fought. Maybe we would have done better to have started creating facts and begun “spot clearing” much earlier. In the end the burial-rights campaign was left with only about 50% of the original area.

EVEN THE THORNS & NETTLES

Tu Bish’vat reminds us that the trees are amongst the most majestic of God’s creations.

Jewish teaching waxed poetic about the beauty and grace of the tree. It used trees as a symbol of goodness as well as beauty, comparing the righteous person to “a tree planted by streams of water, which brings forth its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3).

The Torah was likened to a tree: “It is a tree of life to them that uphold it” (Prov. 3:13).

The menorah looked like a tree with its trunk and its branches. Ancient synagogues had trees around them, as may be inferred from a statement by Philo of Alexandria who reports that persecutors tried to hurt the Jews by cutting down the trees near their synagogues.

But surely not every tree is handsome, majestic or a source of fruit, shade, poetry or joy. The great philanthropist and champion of his people, Sir Moses Montefiore, learned this on a visit to Russia.

Alarmed by the anti-Jewish decrees issued by the Czarist authorities, Sir Moses braved the difficult travelling conditions of the late 19th century and visited Russia to try to plead personally with the Czar.

It is said that the Czar received Sir Moses cordially and they walked through the palace grounds together. The Czar showed Montefiore all the plants, flowers and trees and said he had planted seventy types of flowers, representing the seventy nations of the world.

Montefiore naturally asked which flower represented the Jews and the Holy Land. The Czar did not reply directly but told his servants to give Montefiore some thorns and nettles.

Montefiore preserved his dignity and said respectfully, “Your Majesty, I understand your message. These thorns and nettles do seem to symbolise the tragedy of nearly 2000 years of Jewish history. But thorns and nettles have a characteristic which is sometimes forgotten, that anyone touching them is punished…”

Whether the story is really true we cannot be certain. But the fact is that those who sought to hurt the Jewish people ended up being hurt themselves. So many empires tried to annihilate the Jews but they themselves were eventually annihilated.

It took time, but it always happened that the mills of God, in Longfellow’s words, ground exceeding small.

This fate should be a warning to the perpetrators of the current strain of antisemitism. We do not wish anyone ill, but attempting to injure Judaism and the Jewish people never succeeded in the long run in the past, and it will not succeed now.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. 

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