This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Renewable Resource*

Even in a land like Canada that is blessed with abundant, and apparently limitless, forests, we have come to appreciate what a precious commodity a tree can be. The Torah commanded that even in time of war, it is forbidden to destroy a fruit-tree in order to build bulwarks against a besieged city.

The rabbis of the Talmud projected some of their own concerns for forestation back to the heroes of the Bible.

For example, in setting out the construction procedures for the Tabernacle, the Torah stipulates that much of the structure had to be fashioned from wooden boards. The midrashic sages considered it quite surprising that so much lumber should have been available in the wastes of Sinai. They therefore inferred that the wood supply had been prepared far in advance, even before the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt.

The credit for such foresight was assigned to the patriarch Jacob. When Jacob embarked on his journey to join Joseph in Egypt, his prophetic vision and ancestral faith made him confident that his children would one day be redeemed from their exile, and that they would be commanded to build a sanctuary in which to worship the Almighty.

Knowing how scarce timber is in the desert, Jacob took care to have his sons plant trees right away, so that they would be available centuries later when the need arose.

The rabbis found confirmation for this story in the wording of Exodus 25:15, where God commands "you shall make the boards for the tabernacle of acacia wood standing." The apparently redundant word "standing" was understood as an allusion to the fact that the trees from which the boards were cut had been standing there in advance.

Some midrashic traditions extolled the miraculous nature of these trees. For example, they applied to them the words of the Psalmist "then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice," implying that they burst into song when they were built into the tabernacle.

It should be noted that not all the rabbis took such an ecologically sensitive view of the origins the tabernacle trees. An alternative midrashic tradition links the story to a different episode in Jacob's life, an unexpected detour that the patriarch made on his route to join Joseph in Egypt.

According to the Torah, Jacob first stopped off in Beersheba to offer sacrifices and to commune with his Creator. Rav Nahman claimed that Jacob also took advantage of the opportunity to cut down the tamarisk trees that Grandpa Abraham had planted there years before. It was these trees that Jacob set aside to be used for the tabernacle.

At any rate, these traditions make the point that if trees are to be perceived as a renewable resource, we must view the matter over a broad time-span, since the growth of a tree is likely to last several lifetimes. Unfortunately, not all people are capable of seeing beyond the immediate present.

An object lesson in the virtues of investing in future generations may be found in the story of the miracle-worker Honi ha-Me'aggel.

Honi was once walking along the road when he encountered a man who was planting a carob tree. This struck Honi as an absurdly futile act. It takes a carob seventy years to mature, and the planter would not live to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

Upon hearing Honi's low opinion of his efforts, the man replied simply "I found a world containing a carob tree. Just as my ancestors planted trees for my benefit, so shall I plant trees for the benefit of my descendants."

The tale goes on to describe how Honi sat down to eat his lunch, lay down to nap, and dozed off...for seventy years.

When he finally awoke, he saw before him a man gathering fruit from a full-grown carob tree. Eventually, it was established that Honi was conversing with the grandson of the person who had originally planted the tree.

Though Honi's experience had evidently instilled in him an appreciation of how important it is to provide for the needs of future generations, his own end was a tragic one.

The brave new world in which he now found himself had no place for what it saw as a delusional old man who claimed to be the legendary Honi Ha-Me'aggel. Thrown into depression, he prayed for a quick death, and his wish was mercifully granted.

The sad case of Honi Ha-Me'aggel contains a large dose of poetic justice. Because his horizons were too limited to recognize his responsibilities to posterity, he was doomed to live in a bleak and inhospitable future.

Honi's tragic flaw was symbolized by his failure to appreciate the importance of planting a simple carob tree.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, January 24 2002, p. 10.