Gardening: Green pastures

We are used to the reassurance of lying down in "green pastures," which is how the King James translation renders deshe in verse 2.

pasture 88 (photo credit: )
pasture 88
(photo credit: )
'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in blossoms that come from the richness of the world-to-come." This interpretative version of the 23rd Psalm is based on Midrash Tehilim, which was compiled in the Land of Israel more than 1,300 years ago. (See The Midrash on Psalms, xxiii, 6, Yale University Press, William Braude translation). We are used to the reassurance of lying down in "green pastures," which is how the King James translation renders deshe in verse 2. Yet, according to the Midrash, green pastures are an inadequate metaphor for the goodness God provides for us, whether in this world or the next. As Rashi points out in his commentary to Genesis, the appearance of deshe on the third day of creation included much more than meadows or pastures. Deshe, in fact, consisted of every sort of flora, excepting trees, that covered the land. If you want to think of deshe as grass, that's fine, but you could just as well consider it a diverse collection of lush and fragrant plants. Immediately after the psalmist proclaims that, since God is his shepherd, he lacks for nothing, deshe is mentioned. It makes sense, then, that deshe is more than pastureland. If an ordinary shepherd provides grass for his flock of sheep, would not God bring to human beings, the pinnacle of creation, something more? Yet the experience of lacking nothing has little, if anything, to do with physical reality. It is, instead, a pervasive awareness of God's protective presence in this world. Several commentators, including Rashi, are of the opinion that David, the author of this psalm, could not have been talking about a pasture in any case. According to them, the setting of the 23rd Psalm was not a grassy meadow but a forest to which David fled when he was running away from Saul. David found refuge in the Haret Forest, so-called because the ground beneath its trees was as dry as a piece of pottery or heres, which is cognate with haret. It was this dry forest which was miraculously transformed into a lush refuge redolent of the world to come. There is also a Mount Haret, incidentally, which is part of the expanse west of Jerusalem that has been proposed for large-scale municipal development. Whether the 23rd Psalm is talking about a pasture or a forest may not really be that important since, in a moment of grave danger while being hunted as a fugitive, David confidently proclaims that he lacks nothing. He ends the psalm not by lamenting Saul's pursuit of him, but by taking satisfaction that "only goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life." For someone imbued with faith, things may be the opposite of what they seem. While an ordinary person, being chased by a king, would feel mortally endangered, David somehow stays unruffled and feels secure. If it was a forest to which David fled, it probably consisted primarily of the Palestine oak (Quercus coccifera calliprinos), the dominant native forest species in the Land of Israel. It is a subspecies of the kermes oak, which gets its name from a scale insect (Kermes ilicis), called tola'at hashani in the Torah, that lives on its foliage. Until recently, the dye made from this insect was thought to be crimson (the English equivalent of kermes) or scarlet in color. A few years ago, however, Zohar Amar of Bar-Ilan University, utilizing ancient dye extraction techniques, proved that the dye extracted from the Israeli oak scale insect is actually orange in color. Josephus had said the dye resembled the color of fire, and this has been mistakenly interpreted as red instead of orange. The Palestine oak is evergreen and reaches a stature commensurate with available growing conditions. In poor soils, it does not grow to more than one meter tall. Typically, though, it reaches a height of around five meters and, occasionally, exceeds 10 meters in height. Its canopy is round and its leaves are spiny. It is a striking ornamental tree and grows slowly so that it is appropriate for balcony planters, patio containers and small garden spaces. It can take full sun or partial shade. Acorns of Palestine oak ripen during their second year on the tree. In order to germinate acorns, it is essential that they not be allowed to dry out. Either plant them in the fall or early winter immediately after picking or, if picked later, store them in the refrigerator in moist sand or peat moss for spring planting. They require at least four weeks of moist stratification (cold exposure), whether in the ground or the refrigerator, to germinate. Rabbi Aharon Levine, in his Hadrash VehaIyun, links Tu Bishvat and Purim by reminding us that the former comes 30 days before the latter. Since we are enjoined to study the laws of each holiday 30 days before it arrives, we can derive the meaning of Purim by learning about Tu Bishvat. What we learn is that the most powerful forces in the world are unseen. Tu Bishvat is the new year of the trees. It may seem strange to celebrate the renewal of trees when they do not yet show visible signs of life, yet now is when their life-giving sap begins to flow. Tzadikim, who are compared to trees, are also known for their humility and do great things although we may not know their names. Similarly, when we read the Megilla on Purim, we notice that God's name is not mentioned even once, even though He is clearly behind the remarkable sequence of events that take place.