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    Celebrating trees and gardens in honor of Tu BiSh’vat season

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 27 January 2021.

    This week the Jewish calendar marks the New Year for trees, Tu BiSh’vat.

    Beginning with the Mishnah in Rosh HaShanah, the occasion has been turned by many communities into a fruit festival. Understood more broadly, it invites appreciation of trees and greenery in Israel and everywhere.

    Some places never see green trees or even sunlight for long stretches of time. I couldn’t handle that. Wherever I have lived, I needed to see trees. My personal eyesight test is how green is the distance.

    As a student, I lived in London and married a Londoner. We had a comfortable flat in Cleveland Square, near London’s Hyde Park. It faced a well-kept tree-bordered garden square to which residents of the surrounding area had keys. We could wheel the baby’s pram in the garden and sit and enjoy the fresh air.

    With a new synagogue position came one floor of a large house in Fawley Road, West Hampstead, and then a four-story house in 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 green oases that afforded trees and pleasure when the weather was good.

    In Sydney, we had a large apartment in Elizabeth Bay Road. The cantor and his wife lived upstairs. The area nestled between harbour bays and we enjoyed the bayside parks. Later we had a tall narrow house close to Woolloomooloo Bay and saw the wharves becoming gentrified.

    Eventually we had two small flats knocked into one in an apartment block on the verge of Sydney’s Hyde Park. We walked through the park most mornings, even on Yom Kippur. Some days I met up with the Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral and we discussed the Bible.

    Upon retirement, we had a flat in Bondi just within the eruv (Shabbat boundary) and close to the Jewish districts. Here, too, there was a nearby park where I would jog or we would walk.

    Then came Jerusalem, a unique experience, especially in spring, when (as Song of Songs says) everything is so vibrant. The gray of autumn and winter have gone, the leaves are back, the blossoms are out, and 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, and Nature declares the glory of God. In the Midrash, God shows Adam the Garden of Eden and says, “See how lovely and pleasant are My works, all created for your enjoyment.” Whoever sees a tree in blossom should recite a blessing. The Breslover Rebbe says that whoever destroys a tree, it is as if he has murdered a soul.

    Rather more prosaic are my memories of childhood.

    We lived in my grandmother’s big old house in a Melbourne suburb, and then a more modern house in Caulfield with a huge back yard where we had a playhouse and chicken coop. During World War II, our school marched up the road to Caulfield Park to rehearse what to do if Japanese bombers came and we had to take shelter.

    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, I left, I 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 some decades and I, now an august Sydney rabbi, was in Melbourne on vacation and gave a TV interview in this very 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 is to provide fruit, shade, support, wood and so much more. By enabling Jews everywhere to plant trees in Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund has shown true genius.

    Trees and gardens come in every literary tradition. The New Testament has its Gethsemane; the Greeks had the grove of Academe. The rabbis’ Kerem B’Yavneh (Vineyard of Yavneh), was a meeting of scholars who sat in semicircular rows like trees. The Talmud speaks of the pardes (orchard) that represents esoteric experience. The Sanhedrin had gardens where the judges walked up and down discussing their cases.

    Many cultures liken gatherings for study to gardens, using the term “grove” and “academy,” which derives from a Greek hero named Akademos or Academos. The story is that when Helen was kidnapped by Theseus, her brothers threatened to destroy the city of Athens. Akademos found the girl and saved the city. His land was preserved with its grove of trees in the place where Plato’s college met, hence the name “Academy.”

    As a student, I used to take my books to a park (in London it was Hyde Park) to lie under the trees and review for exams. These days I am nostalgic and regret that I didn’t spend more time outdoors, despite the warning of Pirkei Avot that whoever is tempted to look at the trees and not his books might be 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 think the Tayelet Haas Promenade belongs to them. Despite the cyclists, the children around us run and play.

    Like most Jerusalemites, we live in an apartment, not a house. Our garden is a balcony, though it is my wife who looks after it. When the weather is nice, we sit on the mirpeset and look out at the tree-clad hills. It’s a spiritual experience to see God’s world.

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