Sermon for Shabbat B’Shallach

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 29 January 2024

In his book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama the historian describes how in his Golders Green cheder they would collect sixpences in order to buy leaves which they glued onto a card with a picture of a tree. When they had a certain number of leaves, they had collected enough to buy a tree in Israel. I remember doing the same thing in my cheder, and at the same time as Schama; later on we were contemporaries in Habonim. (Landscape and Memory, Harpers, London 1995, pp.5-6)

I knew we were collecting for trees but had no real sense of why trees should have been important in Israel. Like Schama, I remember this collecting reached a frenzy as we approached Tu Bishvat, which fell this week last Thursday.

2000 years ago in ancient Palestine there were 4 New Years: the 1st of Tishri, our Rosh Hashanah; the 1st of Nisan, the new year for Kings – the point from which the length of their reign would be measured; and two tax years – one for tithing of cattle; the other, the New Year for Trees, the15th of Shvat, Tu Bishvat, the point from which tithes for fruit trees would be calculated (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

Trees and forests conjure up some quite opposing images. On the one hand, forests are often seen as the primal birthplaces of nations. Open woodland suggests something pastoral, calm, peaceful, idyllic. The greenwood is a place where people can be free, find refuge, be secure from oppression, like ‘Robin Hood and his merrie men.’

On the other hand, forests are often dark, full of closely-packed trees, suggesting foreboding, lurking danger. Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretl wouldn’t feel quite the same if they didn’t take place deep in the middle of a dark forest. Unsavoury things lie concealed there.

Jonathan Meades, architecture writer, did some BBC2 documentaries on remnants of buildings from the Fascist era of the 1930s. He ended the one on Nazi buildings by standing at the edge of a wood and saying, “a German railway track entering a forest will forever mean mass murder.” (Jerrybuilding, BC2, 31 October 1994)

Trees are a powerful metaphor. We use it to describe the succession of generations; we talk of a ‘family tree,’ of ‘branches’ of the family. People research their ‘roots’ and so on.

God’s first command to humans is p’ru u’r’vu ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ (Genesis 1:28) It is to make room for somebody other than you, for generations as yet unborn. Planting is similarly an act of commitment to the future, a kindred activity to procreation. So we talk of children as ‘the fruit of our loins,’ of projects coming to ‘fruition,’ ‘bearing fruit.’ Indeed, in Hebrew the words p’ru “be fruitful” and p’ri “fruit” are from the same root letters.

The Torah takes the analogy even further. The Biblical rule was that when you planted fruit trees, you couldn’t eat their fruit in the first three years. This might be good agricultural practice, giving trees a chance to reach maturity. But the Torah isn’t meant to be a manual for farmers. Significantly, though interestingly, the fruit of those first three years was called ‘areyl,’ which means ‘uncircumcised.’

A strange word to use in this context! But if nothing else it reinforces that link between trees and procreation –circumcision is, of course, done on the organ of procreation.

In the Garden of Eden, two trees played a central role. The first couple disrupted the harmony between Creator and created by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Henceforth, nature and human beings would live in painful discord, out of kilter with each other.

One commentator suggests that eating fruit on Tu Bishvat is a sort of symbolic act of reparation, of repentance for having eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Then – eating fruit was an act of rebellion against a command; on Tu Bishvat it becomes an act of compliance with a command. Then – it was eaten out of greed and desire; now it’s eaten as a mitzvah, a celebration.

Everybody knows that the fruit Adam and Eve ate was an apple ….. except that the Torah doesn’t actually say what fruit it was. However, when the Torah was translated into Latin, it ‘evil’ was rendered as ‘malum,’ but ‘malum’ can also mean ‘apple.’ Henceforth Christian art tended to depict the fruit as an apple.

Jewish commentators and midrash speculate about what the fruit might have been. Most of them look to the fig-leaves with which Adam and Eve made clothes to cover themselves. Not as Christian art saw them, as a diplomatic covering of the naughty bits. For they were naked before eating the fruit, we read, but they felt no shame. (Gen 3:1) Only after eating it did they become aware of their nakedness and fashioned fig leaves into covering (Gen 3: 7) Nakedness can be sexual, obviously. Yet if any of us were to be made suddenly aware of our nakedness in public, our predominant feeling would be one of vulnerability not sexuality. The fig leaves with which they covered themselves suggest that the fruit they ate was a fig. Paradoxically, that with which you did wrong becomes the way in which you ‘atone for,’ cover up for that wrongdoing.

But what about that other tree in the Garden: the eits chayyim, the Tree of Life? It was God’s apparent anxiety that they might also eat from that tree and live forever which led to their expulsion from the Garden. (Gen 3: 22)

And yet, for over two millennia we have been eating from that tree and in a way living forever. We sang about it just before we elevated the scroll: eytz chayyim hi la-machazikim bah “it is a tree of life to all who grasp it.” It’s a verse from the book of Proverbs (3:18) except that what’s being called ‘a tree of life’ there is not the Torah but ‘wisdom.’

So at some point in the past, eits chayyim as ‘wisdom’ became eits chayyim as Torah. So that now eits chayyim refers to the scroll.

Just think about the blessing that Otto, all our aliyot, said this morning; it’s the one said after being called up. Baruch atah Adonai… v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu “Blessed are You… who has planted eternal life within us.” A tree of life indeed, for when we read it a few moments ago, we were doing what Jews have done this morning in every time and place for over 2000 years. We relate our identity, our life, our practice to what is contained on that roll of animal parchment. A rather unique tree – a rather unique fruit! A tree from which we’ve been plucking fruit for over two millennia.

In ancient times, Tu Bishvat was simply the equivalent of our 6th April – the beginning of a tax year. It was way down the league table of Jewish festivals. Zionism gave it new meaning at the beginning of the 20th Century: Simon Schama, Colin Eimer, thousands of Jewish kids glueing little leaves to trees, JNF collecting boxes, named forests in Israel, Israeli schoolkids going out and planting saplings on Tu Bishvat, that almost mystical aura that planting trees assumed in Israel.

But more recently, Tu Bishvat metamorphosed again – into a festival speaking to us of our responsibilities for the natural world. We can no longer ignore the fact that, as far as this planet is concerned, we are nothing more than leaseholders, caretakers. The command to Adam and Eve in the Garden was to “work it and look after it.” Midrash explained that by having God say: “Look after it, because if you don’t, there will be nothing left for those who come after you.” Sadly, Civilisation has been very good at working it – not so good at looking after it.

And even that is no longer enough. Looking after it might be no more than enlightened self-interest: maybe, we think, all will be OK as long as we just exploit it a bit more sensibly.

25 years ago Rabbi John Rayner published a booklet called “Principles of Jewish Ethics.” Item 110 he called ‘Respect for nature’:

“Deep ecology,” he wrote, “involves abandoning thinking of nature as existing solely for the benefit of humanity and recognising that other species no doubt have a purpose in the Divine scheme which we may or may not fully understand and that we must respect their right to exist…… In our relationship with our natural environment,” he concludes, “there should be a certain humility and reverence.” (Principles of Jewish Ethics, 1998)

‘Humility’ is derived from the word ‘humus,’ ‘the ground.’ To be humble is not to be self-effacing, but to be grounded, to have a realistic sense of how we fit into the world around us.

There is clearly a physical repair job to be done – reducing carbon emissions and the like – but that will only be effective if there’s also a spiritual repair job, a reorienting of priorities and values. In John Rayner’s words in ‘humility and reverence’ coming to a deeper and fuller understanding of who we are and how we fit into this world that we are privileged to inhabit and enjoy.