Coming up this Monday is a special day on the Jewish calendar, Tu B’Shevat. The 15th day of the month of Sh’vat is the Jewish celebration of trees. Originally, this was the date set for keeping track of biblical agricultural laws regarding the harvest of fruit trees. Tu B’Shevat also represents the importance of planting trees in Israel and through that act the spiritual connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and in our day to the State of Israel as well.
Since Tu B’Shevat is a time to think about the importance and symbolism of trees, I am reminded of a favorite Jewish text about the power of planting seeds. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, 23a, we read a fantastical story about the first century BCE sage, Honi.
One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to him: That man himself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants. Ḥoni sat and ate bread. Sleep overcame him and he slept. A cliff formed around him, and he disappeared from sight and slept for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw a certain man gathering carobs from that tree. Ḥoni said to him: Are you the one who planted this tree? The man said to him: I am his son’s son.
The fun part of the story is Honi magically sleeping for seventy years – like in a fairy tale. But the story has a meaningful message too. The planter of the tree knew that he would not eat its fruit. He planted the tree to benefit his descendants, just as his ancestors had done for him. Even though he would not see the impact of his caring act, planting the tree connected him across generations. And in our story, Honi bears witness to the literal fruit born seventy years later, in the hands of the planter’s grandson.
As Jewish communal leaders we plant many seeds. We start initiatives, build coalitions, and try to make our community and the world better. Often our work has a long-term horizon, with aspirations for cultural or communal change that could take generations. Will we see the day when our Jewish community is fully inclusive of all types of people, regardless of ability, gender, or race? When all of our Jewish institutions are full and strong? When Jews no longer face the hatred of antisemitism? We hope so but know that is more likely that these struggles will continue beyond our time. So, we our work to help people in need and build vibrant Jewish community is like that tree planter in Honi’s story – we are planting seeds for a better future.
At Federation we live by the famous teaching from of Rabbi Tarfun from the Mishna, Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2, 16: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. This Tu B’Shevat, let us be inspired by the intergenerational power symbolized by planting trees to be like the planter who Honi met, and continue our work to leave world better for our children and grandchildren.