Planting for the Future

Parashat Kedoshim teaching us to preserve our natural resources.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

From our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we enjoy a glorious view of Riverside Park below and the Hudson River beyond. Overnight, it seems, the trees have once again donned a glorious green canopy of leaves. Gone is the drab garb of winter. Life has surged back with irrepressible vigor and astonishing beauty. Each year I marvel at the swiftness of the scenic change.

It is not for nothing that the Book of Proverbs speaks of wisdom (3:13-18) and the Rabbis later of the Torah as a Tree of Life for those who cling to it. Personal experience at tests that there is no more affecting symbolfor continuity and renewal in all of nature!

Similarly, when the Psalmist looks for a metaphor for pure piety, he compares the person devoted to the teachings of God to "a tree planted beside streams of water, that yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives" (1:3). The menorah in the Tabernacle and Temple is most likely a tree-like appurtenance that becomes emblematic for Judaism in the Greco-Roman world, adorning many a synagogue floor and private sarcophagus and, especially, the Arch of Titus in Rome.

Planting Trees

Planting trees is among the topics taken up by our incredibly rich parashah this week. We are instructed: "When you enter the land and plant any tree for food you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit -- that its yield to you may be increased: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:23-25).

I still remember vividly planting grape vines in Hanaton, the Conservative kibbutz in the Lower Galilee, some years back. As we carefully placed each shoot in the soil and watered it, we spoke excitedly about the laws of orlah, that is the prohibition to derive benefit from any crops in the first four years. The Talmud limits the regulation to trees and vines grown in the land of Israel. What ripens in the fourth year is treated as a thanksgiving offering of first fruits to God.

What interests me, however, for the moment is what the midrash did with this passage. In the Torah the stress is on the forbidden fruit. In the midrash, the focus shifts to the obligation to plant trees. Indeed, there is no specific commandment in the Torah to cover the land with trees a la the Jewish National Fund. But that is the lesson which the midrash extracts from the sequence of events mentioned in the Torah: God has cared forus lovingly in the wilderness, providing us with food and water, shielding us beneath clouds and guiding us by a pillar of smoke. Once we enter the land, however, we are on our own. Each one must take a hoe and plant. Our period of incubation is at an end. To cross the Jordan is to take on responsibility. Hence the Torah is understood to say: "When you enter the land you must plant trees for food."

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.