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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Tu Bishvat

Tree Planting - the Redemption Revealed

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said, “If while holding a sapling in your hand you are told that the Messiah is about to arrive, first plant the sapling and then go out to receive the Messiah.” Settling the land complements the advent of the Messiah.
5340
Dedicated to the memory of
Asher Ben Haim
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1. Striking Roots on Tu BiShvat
2. Tree-planting and the Messiah
3. The Feet of Him Who Brings Good News

Striking Roots on Tu BiShvat
In the recent generations of Israel's rebirth, Tu BiShvat has come to constitute a new tiding, representing tree-planting in the Land of Israel. Here are a couple of lines written in 5644 (1884) by a member of the Yesod HaMaalah settlement, Rabbi Elazar Fischel Solomon, to his father-in-law:

"Last week we planted [trees] in the community garden. We planted more than five hundred trees - seven hundred citron trees and a hundred pomegranate trees. That is what we planted last week. This week, God willing, we shall plant another five hundred or more olive trees and hundreds of fig trees, etc."

He continues, explaining that he sees this as a kind of mission, "for man is the tree of the field" (Deuteronomy 20:19):

"The first thing we undertook was planting, for God has commanded us to begin with planting, for He Himself did such, as it is written, 'And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden'" (Genesis 2:8).

This letter is dated 22 Shvat, and "it was last week" - i.e., Tu BiShvat (15 Shvat) - that they planted the trees. This being so, the act of planting was for them like striking roots anew in the soil of Israel, as we say in our prayers when we ask God to "plant us within our borders."

Tree-planting and the Messiah
Let us add to this the words of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, whose image signifies the transition from homeland to exile. This sage instituted a number of ordinances, which we know as "the Ordinances of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai," aimed at preserving the memory of Zion in the minds of the nation of Israel even while it find itself on foreign soil.

It was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who, at the time of the destruction of the Temple, requested that the Romans give him "Yavneh and its sages" in order to preserve the oral tradition for generations to come. And, behold, the classic work Avot DeRabbi Natan presents us with the following picture of the return of the Jewish people to Israel at the end of the exile:

"He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] used to say, 'If while holding a sapling in your hand you are told that the Messiah is about to arrive, first plant the sapling and then go out to receive the Messiah'" (ch. 31).

In this short statement, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai presents us with a problem which will arise in the future, at the close of the exile, when the Jewish people are awakened to nation resurgence. When "holding a sapling in your hand" (i.e., in the midst of this resurgence) a serious question will present itself to us: behold, the Messiah, he who illuminates the world, is about to arrive; why are we busying ourselves with the mundane task of working the soil, redeeming the land, trivial physical endeavors?

The spontaneous response to such news might be to toss the sapling aside, thus demonstrating disparagement for worldly endeavors which appear insignificant in light of the Messiah's presence. However, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai teaches us that we must "first plant the sapling and then go out to receive the Messiah." Planting trees and settling the land of Israel do not run counter to the arrival of the Messiah. To the contrary, they complement this vision and prepare the path for his coming.

The Feet of Him Who Brings Good News
The flourishing of fruit trees upon Israel's holy soil causes the renewed flourishing of Messianic faith and sounds the tiding of redemption. The words of the prophet, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news" (Isaiah 52:7) refer to the revealed redemption, when the hills of Israel will give forth their fruit. The eyes of the Jewish people have looked to these hills for two thousand years, hoping to see the land's soil revitalized and God's nation established thereupon.

Do not discard the sapling - plant it, build the nation in its land. This is an integral part of the redemption, the purpose of which is "to plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say to Zion, You are my people" (ibid. 51:16). As the redemption "plants the heavens" so does it lay the "foundations of the earth." The feet of him who brings good news upon the hills of Zion are the basis of all of the great unveiling's which stand to come from above and to rest upon the sturdy foundation of the physical world.

This allows us to better understand the approach of those great Torah scholars who took steps to renew the settlement of the land of Israel at the very inception of the redemption. They understood Zion in its plain and literal sense, entering its threshold and paving the way for the redemption of the nation. All of them leveled the path and removed the stones which stood in the way of the nation's redemption.

Hence the Midrash says that "in the future, a divine voice will cry out from the tops of the hills, saying, 'Whoever acted with God may come to receive his reward'" (Tanchuma, Emor 7). Note that the call regarding reward is heard from "the tops of the hills," where "the feet of him who brings good news" can be found, and where the hills of Israel give forth their fruit.

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Some of the translated biblical verses and talmudic sources in the above article may be taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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