By Rabbi Joshua Weinberg
“And when you come into the Land, and have planted all manner of food bearing trees… (Lev. 19:23) The Holy one Blessed be he said to the people Israel: Even though you have found [the land] full of plenty, you shall not say: We shall sit and not plant, rather proceed with caution in your planting… For as you have entered and found the fruits of others’ labor, you so shall plant for your children. (Midrash Tanhuma)
If you’re like me, then you may remember that pivotal moment of Jewish education when you received your very own Jewish National Fund (JNF) certificate for a tree planted in Israel. Whether it was for a birth, birthday, bar/bat mitzvah, or in memory of a loved one, a tree was planted in Israel to mark the occasion. The message was clear: with every passing milestone we want to connect Jews to the Land of Israel and to the Zionist enterprise. All of us who were the fortunate recipients of such trees knew in the recesses of our mind that somewhere in that strip of land, in some forest, was our tree, our little piece of Israel. As the certificates read, the JNF wished us the following:
“We wish you the fortune of seeing it grow with much pleasure and ease.”
Of course, such trees were planted through the JNF – probably the major Zionist organization of all time. It is also the most powerful single organized entity to have shaped the modern Israeli landscape. Over the course of the last century, JNF has planted over 240 million trees throughout Israel, and is known for blanketing the countryside, hilltops, and valleys with its trademark imported pine trees.
For so many Diaspora Jews, planting a tree in Israel was an easy and tangible way to forge a connection with the greatest project of the 20th century, namely, the creation and building of the Jewish State. Prior to that, in the 17th century the mystics of Tzfat instituted a Tu BiSh’vat seder, an attempt to ritualize the holiday with the clear aspiration to provide Diaspora Jews with a way to connect to the changing seasons and natural life cycle of Israel.
Today, the landscapes of Israel are rich with the grown trees planted by so many. On this Tu BiSh’vat we should continue to plant and to build the Zionist enterprise, and in addition to her landscape, each of us must now do our part for Israel’s soul.
As we move towards Tu BiSh’vat in the coming week, let us reimagine what it might be like to supplement our tree planting with the planting of a seed that will help nourish Israel’s soul.
There are many seeds, like there are many different kinds of trees. In the book of Deuteronomy (20:19) we are told “A person is a tree of the field” through which we can understand that we should treat trees like people, especially in times of war as the context of the passage refers. What would it mean for us this Tu BiSh’vat to invest in planting a person instead of a tree? It could be done through a renewed effort to send a friend or loved one to Israel, or to plant a seed in a kehila (community) in Israel that would eventually blossom into a beautiful “forest” of people. This year, as we celebrate the new year of the trees, let us examine our individual connection to Israel and do our part in planting a seed in the soul of the Jewish state.
Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).