January 17 is Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees. Though its origins are ancient, the occasion has had a makeover in many communities as a fruit festival. Looked at more broadly, it invites appreciation of trees and greenery in Israel and everywhere.
Jews who lived in the Old World often encountered constant gloom, never seeing green trees or even the sunlight. That’s something I couldn’t handle. I need to see trees. My personal eyesight test is not “How green is my valley” but “How green is the distance.”
As a student, I lived in London and married a Londoner. Our first rabbinic residence was an apartment in Cleveland Square, Paddington, near Hyde Park. The street surrounded a tree-bordered garden square to which the locals had keys. When our first child was born we could wheel the pram into the garden and sit and enjoy the trees and plants.
With a new synagogal position came one floor of a large house on Fawley Road, West Hampstead, and then a four-story house on Finchley Road. The house shook when the big buses passed; our children played in the back garden, and our son sometimes broke the windows with his ball. We were near Hampstead Heath and Golders Green, with oases that afforded abundant trees and pleasure when the weather was good.
Then we relocated to Sydney, where we had a large apartment on Elizabeth Bay Road. The cantor and his wife lived upstairs.
We walked to the Great Synagogue via Kings Cross, where our children were intrigued by the girls in the shop doorways. The area nestled between harbor bays, and we enjoyed the bayside parks.
Later, we had a tall, narrow house close to Woolloomooloo Bay, where the old wharves were in process of gentrification.
Eventually, we had two small flats knocked into one in a building on the verge of Sydney’s Hyde Park. We ambled through the park most mornings, and some days I met up with the dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral and we discussed the Bible.
On retirement, we had a flat in Bondi just within the eruv and close to the Jewish districts. Here, too, there was a nearby park where I would jog or walk.
Then came Jerusalem, a unique experience, especially in spring when everything is so vibrant. The gray of autumn and winter has gone, the leaves are back, the blossoms are out, the breezes waft their blessing. We feel Mount Sinai smiling and sprouting greenery, joyful as the scene of the revelation.
The Bible says God’s word is ever fresh and green. The righteous flourish as the palm tree; Nature declares the glory of God. In midrash, God shows Adam the Garden of Eden and says, “How lovely and pleasant are My works, all created for your enjoyment.” Whoever sees a tree in blossom should recite a blessing. Rebbe Nahman says that whoever destroys a tree is as if he has murdered a soul.
Rather more prosaic are my memories of childhood. We lived in grandmother’s big old house in a Melbourne suburb, and then a more modern house in Caulfield with a huge backyard where we had a playhouse and chicken coop.
In wartime, our school marched up the road to Caulfield Park to rehearse what to do if Japanese bombing came. While we marched we sang, “I had a good job for 25 bob [shillings] but I socked the manager under the gob and I left, left, left, right, left....”
That park was the scene of my only sporting triumph. Reluctant cricketer that I was, I was more interested in my book than the game, but I suddenly dropped the book, caught the ball and decided the score!
Fast-forward 40 years and I, now an august Sydney rabbi, was in Melbourne on vacation and gave a TV interview in this same park about my plans for Christmas!
One of the few pieces of biblical sarcasm warns against harming the trees in time of war. It says, “What have the trees ever done to you that you want to hurt them?” What the trees have done for us to is to provide fruit, shade, support, wood and so much else.
By enabling Jews everywhere to plant trees in Israel, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund has shown true genius.
Trees and gardens come in every culture. The New Testament has its Gethsemane; the Greeks had the grove of Academe. The rabbis’ Kerem B’Yavne (Vineyard of Yavne) was a meeting of scholars who sat in semicircular rows like trees. The Talmud speaks of the pardess (orchard) of esoteric experience. The Sanhedrin had gardens where the judges walked up and down.
Many cultures liken gatherings for study to gardens, using the term “academy,” which derives from a Greek hero, Akademos. When Helen was kidnapped by Theseus, her brothers threatened to destroy Athens. Akademos found the girl and saved the city. Plato’s college met under a grove of trees on his land, hence the name Academy.
As a student, I used to take my books to a park to lie under the trees and review for my exams. These days I am pensive, and I regret that I didn’t spend more time outdoors, despite the warning of Pirkei Avot that whoever looks at the trees and not his books is putting his soul at risk.
JERUSALEM, WHERE I now live, is said by the sages to hold nine-tenths of the world’s beauty. We old people amble along the parkways and breathe deeply. My wife urges me to power-walk, but I prefer to stroll.
Our home is close to Gazelle Valley; we rarely see gazelles, but jump when the cyclists ring their bicycle bells because they think the promenade belongs to them and we are intruding.
Like most Jerusalemites we live in an apartment, not a house. Our garden is a mirpeset (a balcony); my wife looks after it.
When the weather is nice we sit on the mirpeset and look out at the tree-clad hills. What a spiritual experience it is to see and luxuriate in God’s world.
The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.