Monday, February 9, 2015

Buying a Tree in Israel

At sundown on Tuesday, February 3rd 2015, Tu B'Shevat began. This was the first Jewish festival of this calendar year, but it falls on the 15th (tu) of the eleventh Jewish month, Shevat. It is also a new year of its own, The New Year for Trees. 

In Leviticus 19:23-25, God commanded the children of Israel by saying:

When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the LordBut in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you: I am the Lord your God.

To keep from having to remember each tree's birthday, the Jewish people have one day set aside (Tu B'Shevat) when all trees age one year. Like any new year, it is a time of celebration and reflection on the previous year.

Fruit and Trees 

Two of the most common ways to observe Tu B'Shevat are eating fruit and planting trees. I chose to celebrate by eating the Seven Species which were abundant in the Promised Land: figs, dates, pomegranates, grapes, olives, wheat, and barley. 

My Tu B'Shevat Meal
That night I went to the grocery store and stocked up. I bought dates, pomegranate seeds, raisins, olives, and blueberry fig bars . I already had Multigrain Cheerios which contain wheat and barley, so I was able to make myself a small plate to eat with a sandwich for dinner. Dates were a new experience for me, and I was a little nervous because they do not appear too appetizing. I was pleasantly surprised to find them basically a larger, sweeter version of raisins (with pits). 

Certificate from Jewish National Fund
I also paid $18 for a tree to be planted in Israel through the Jewish National Fund's website ( We do not have the room to plant a new tree on our property, and I do not know the first thing about planting trees! I thought this was an appropriate alternative. They sent me a certificate to commemorate the occasion. 

Being a Tree

It is also customary to spend time on Tu B'Shevat reflecting on the image of man as a tree. In Deuteronomy 20:19 the people of Israel are commanded to not needlessly destroy fruit trees even during times of war. Trees are then compared to men in battle in verse 20. The verse is stated as a rhetorical question in most English translations, but as Akiva Wolff states " the majority of [Jewish] commentators interpret the words 'ki haadam etz ha-sadeh' not as a rhetorical question but as a statement stressing the relationship or similarity between trees and humans (147)." This is the verse that all of the Jewish websites (see "Helpful Websites" below) pointed me to when I began researching Tu B'Shevat. In this verse humans are compared to a fruit-bearing tree and later Jewish prophets and writers have taken advantage of and expounded upon this image.

In the first Psalm the Psalmist uses the image of a prosperous fruit tree planted near a water source to describe people whose "delight is in the law of the Lord" and who meditate on his law at all times (1:2). These people are contrasted with the wicked who "are like chaff that the wind drives away" (1:4). When we have our focus on the will of God and His commands, we are steady and prosperous.

The Jewish people see the root of the human tree as our faith. As the roots of a tree give it sustenance, "the bulk of our spiritual sustenance derives from its roots, from our faith in and commitment to our Creator" (Rebee, par 8). The roots are what keep a tree alive even in the harshest of environments. If the roots remain alive and healthy, little can destroy a tree except for chopping it down and cutting it off from its roots.

Humans are specifically described as fruit-bearing trees. Just as its fruit helps a tree spread its seeds, so our fruit will help us spread the seeds of our faith. Seeds by themselves are not very interesting, but "with their attractive packaging, they have no shortage of customers who, after consuming the external fruit, deposit the seeds in those diverse and distant places where the tree wants to plant its seeds" (Rebee, par 12). 

Date Palm Before Harvest

Spreading the Seed of God's Word

Jesus was well aware of this image of spreading the seeds of one's faith. He takes draws on this familiar image in His parable of the sower recounted in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. The seed in this parable represents the word of God. We are to act as the sower spreading the the good news of God's word throughout the world. 

The leaders of the temple of Jerusalem during Jesus's life had let their fruit die so that their seed was not being spread effectively. Jesus shows his displeasure with their actions in Mark 11. In the week before His death, Jesus stayed in the town of Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As Jesus travels into the city for the second time that week, He sees a fig tree that was not bearing any fruit. He cursed this tree by saying "'May no one ever eat fruit from you again" (11:14). Jesus then enters Jerusalem and goes to the temple where He "began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple" (11:15). The leaders of the temple had allowed it to become a place of profit instead of a place of prayer. He destroys their fruitless pursuits as He destroyed the fig tree. 

As Gentiles, we have been grafted into the tree of Israel, through Christ. As some of the children of Israel were cut away for their unbelief, our belief allows us to grafted into this tree. We should, however, keep the warning of Mark 11 in our minds. As Paul pointed out "if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps He will not spare" us (Romans 11:21). We should then strive to cultivate in our lives the fruits which attract people to the Word of God so that our seed might be spread. These are fruits are succinctly listed in Galatians 5 and are commonly known as the "Fruits of the Spirit." They are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (v. 22-23).    

So as I looked back at my life this past year, I looked for evidence of these fruits in my life. I have been in a difficult place this year, but as Jeff Manion pointed out at the end of The Land Between "the place we most want to escape [can] produce the fruit we most desperately crave" (193). Did I respond to my children with love and patience when they frustrated me? Did I choose joy, patience, and self-control when all of my interviews amounted to nothing? Was I kind, gentle, and generous with the students I see everyday? Was I faithful to God's will even when it wasn't what I wanted? I hope that the answer to these questions was more often yes than no. I pray God's will help me to have more yeses in the year to come.


Helpful Websites

Cited Material 

Manion, Jeff. The Land Between: Finding God in the Difficult Transitions. Grand Rapids:        Zondervan, 2010. 193. Print. 

Rebee, Lubavitcher. "The Human Tree." Chabad.ORG. Ed. Yanki Tauber. N.p., Jan. 2006.      Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Wolff, Akiva. "A Closer Examination of Deuteronomy 20:19– 20." Jewish Bible 
   Quarterly 39.3 (2011): 143+. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

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