Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat K'doshim 5757
May 10, 1997 3 Iyar 5757
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
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 attests that there is no more affecting symbol for 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 is among the topics taken up by our incredibly rich parasha this week. We are instructed: "When you enter the land and plant any tree for food your 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 grapevines 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 for us 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."
A stretch for humans comes naturally to animals. We prefer dependence. The midrash comments on the verse in Job: "Who has given understanding to the cock (38:36)?" which is also the text for the first of the daily blessings in the morning service. Wisdom is encoded into nature by God. Taking the word sekhvias hen rather than cock, the midrash describes a common barnyard scene. The hen gathers her tiny chicks under her wings, warms them and leads them around. But once they are grown, let one try to return and the hen will peck at his head, saying go dig for your own food.
To achieve its expanded reading of the text, midrash turns legislation into narrative. Not only does the conquest of Canaan require of us to work the land, it also imposes on us the obligations to steward it responsibly. We are expected to preserve its life-sustaining resources undepleted for our children. We found the land covered with trees planted by others when we entered it, says the midrash, and that is how we are supposed to hand it on. No one is ever to say I am too old to worry about the welfare of the next generation.
And then the midrash recounts that the Roman emperor Hadrian once passed through Palestine on his way to war in the east, where he happened upon an elderly Jew planting fig trees. The sight of such altruism prompted the emperor to ask the man his motives. "My lord, the king," said the man, "I trouble myself to plant because if I merit it, I myself shall eat of the fruits of my labor. And if not, then my children will."
Three years later, Hadrian returned to that self-same spot in Palestine to be greeted by the elderly farmer with a basket full of fresh figs. He reminded the emperor of their previous conversation and gave him the figs. Awed by the man's lack of self-centeredness, Hadrian returned his basket full of Roman gold coins.
The midrash reiterates its lesson: Let no one ever cease from planting. Fields filled with trees greeted us at birth, and we should add to their number even in old age. For God has already taught us by example that personal gain is too narrow a base for human behavior, as it is written, "The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east (Genesis 2:8)," surely done for human benefit, without any thought of self.
So in the midst of a parasha that teaches us how to relate to family, fellow human (both native and foreign) and God, the midrash adds yet a fourth dimension: our treatment of the habitat in which we live. The midrash resonates with an environmental ethic reinforced by language. In rabbinic Hebrew the word "shoots," netiot(from the root "to plant") takes on a metaphoric meaning of "children." The convergence of meanings helps us move beyond our selves, or better to see ourselves in that which lies beyond us. For all our wisdom and consciousness, humans are not endowed with much of a capacity to see ahead. The long term consequences of our actions rarely enter into the calculations behind our choices. Thus the overlapping meanings of netiot, the subtle nuances of language, throw up a gentle reminder to think of our children as we go about assaulting and subordinating the natural world for our own immediate and exclusive gratification.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,Ismar Schorsch