BESHALACH TU BISHVAT 5773
Today is Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees. This means it’s the beginning of spring. But it sure doesn’t feel like spring yet. That’s because it’s the beginning of spring in Israel. It’s the time to plant trees in Israel.
Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai—famous Talmudic sage—once taught (Avot DeRabbi Natan 31): “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you the Messiah has arrived, 1st plant the sapling and then go out to greet the Messiah.” Well, that’s surprising. It’s even counterintuitive. As we’ve learned in my class this fall on the End of Days, we Jews must pray and even yearn for the coming of the Messiah—for a world free of war, strife, anger and contention. One would think that if the Messiah were actually here, we would all run as fast as we could to greet him.
There were Chassidic masters, who when they married off their children, would put on the wedding invitation that, “The wedding will be in Jerusalem on such and such a date. But, if for some reason the Messiah had not yet come, then it would be in such and such a hall in their community.” Other Chassidic masters, before going to bed, would place packed suitcases at the front door to be ready to burst outside should the Messiah appear in the middle of the night.
It is this messianic hope that has sustained us in darkest times of persecution and despair. Yet, here comes this ancient teaching to say that if someone proclaims the Messiah’s long-awaited arrival, and we happen to be planting a tree, we should plant 1st and greet later. It could be that this statement came out of frustration from all the false Messiahs we have endured over the centuries. The most famous—no, he was not from Nazareth—actually was given his title by the 1st century Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiba—one of the most brilliant teachers our people has ever produced. Rabbi Akiva called Shimon Bar Kozibah, Bar Kochba, “Son of a Star.” Akiva believed that Bar Kochba would raise and army in revolt and throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Unfortunately, he and his forces were crushed. Rabbi Akiba, for all his brilliance, was wrong.
The next most famous false Messiah from my perspective was Shabbatai Zevi. He came on the scene at the end of the 17th century at a time of great hardship and oppression for the Jewish people. Hundreds of thousands of Jews followed him with great hope and anticipation. In the end when he went to the Turkish Sultan to get permission for the Jews to come to Israel, he was force to convert to Islam on the threat of death—leaving his followers devastated.
So our Tradition teaches: Plant the tree 1st; don’t get caught up in the emotion of the moment. Don’t be swayed by some leader’s charisma. We further the goal of redemption by planting trees, not by running out to greet the latest messianic fad—even if it comes in the guise of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may he rest in peace!
The Zohar—the great Kabbalistic commentary on the Torah—teaches that just as we were enslaved for 210 years in Egypt at the creation of the Jewish people, the T’chiyat haMeytim, The Resurrection of the Dead, where life will be blissful to make up for the oppression in Egypt, will come in stages over 210 years at the end of time. And since the Zohar also teaches that the world as we know it will exist for 6,000 years, the Messiah—who has to come before the Resurrection of the Dead—must come before 6,000 minus 210 years, or before 5790, which is 2030. Yes we’re very close to the coming of the messiah according to this calculation—only 17 years! Nevertheless, we’ll plant a tree 1st—we’ll continue to do what we can to perfect the world now. We are not redeemed yet. We have not yet achieved peace or justice. We have not yet built a perfect society to prepare the way. We have not yet planted enough trees.
What would represent the opposite of preparing for the messianic time? Probably the uprooting of trees, vandalizing them or not tending to them so that they die. In Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer (34) it teaches that: “When a healthy tree is cut down, its groan is heard from one end of the universe to the other.” And the Talmud (Psachim 50b) teaches: “One who cuts down healthy trees, shall see no blessing in his lifetime.” And in reference to how trees feed us, give us oxygen, shade us and give us material to build our homes, the Midrash (Sifri, Dvarim 20:19) declares: “The life force of a person emanates from the tree.”
The land of Israel, as you know, was raped of its trees as they were cut down over the centuries by its occupiers and not replanted. The chalutzim pioneers of the early 20th century worked tirelessly to drain the swamps caused by the lack of trees and replant the trees. Your dollars contributed to the JNF over the years—especially for Tu Bishvat—has planted forest after forest from the north to the south of Israel. That’s one reason why fires set by terrorists in Israeli forests are so tragic. These trees are an expression of our love for the land and for Gd who gave us the land. In a sense, as we have learned, they are our life force.
The trees planted in Israel express the hopefulness of the Jew, the stubborn defiance of logic, the undying faith in defiance of icy reality that just as the tree appears lifeless, dead and unable to weather the winter frost, yet, when spring comes, the impossible becomes matter of fact, so will the life of the Jew—although frozen and ice-bound—blossom forth once again.
William Saffire in his book about Nixon, Before the Fall, tells of a meeting in the board room of the Federal Reserve attended by the WASP establishment. A debate took place between Federal Reserve Board chairman Arthur Burns and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Herbert Stein—both Jewish—but neither particularly active or observant. Burns argues against Stein that a lower inflation rate was possible and he illustrated his point with a favorite anecdote:
In 1958 when he was economic advisor to Eisenhower, he had met Ben Gurion and asked him whether he listened to the advise of Israeli economists. Ben Gurion replied, “Never! They only tell me what is impossible—and then I have to go out and do the impossible.”
“But Arthur,” Stein said in the silence that followed, “in this case we're dealing with Gentiles.”
After a split second’s delayed take, says Saffire, the assembled Waspish bankers simultaneously broke into a roaring laughter.
So plant a tree in Israel in honor of Tu B’Shevat. It’s really easy. Just go to http://www.jnf.org/ href="http://www.jnf.org/">www.jnf.org and click on “Plant a Tree.” It’s not expensive—just $18. It’s an act of Messianic hope. It’s an act that declares our belief that in the end, things will work out. We believe that Israel will find peace in the end. And so do the Israelis. This week’s election in Israel with the emergence of TV celebrity Yair Lapid’s centrist Yeysh Atid, “There is a Future” party with 19 votes in the Kenest, is a strong indication that Israelis really want peace.
And if someone tells you not to bother planting trees, that your actions don’t matter, don’t listen. If someone tells you that the end is already here, whether it’s war or peace, don’t stop what you’re doing—plant the tree anyway. Maybe the Messiah’s coming is real close and its fruit will be picked in a generation that will not ever suffer hatred or bloodshed again. V’cheyn yehi ratzon, “May this be Gd’s will.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis