The Tree of Hope

…Plant vineyards and eat the food they produce.

— Jeremiah 29:5

This Shabbat is called the Sabbath of Consolation. After the three week period of mourning that intensified in its last nine days, we finally feel the grief lifting. It’s made me wonder about consolation generally and what constitutes consolation for people. What comforts people after suffering or disappointment? For some it’s friends. For some it’s food. For some it’s travel. For some it’s charity. Some people find comfort in religion; others in art. For Victor Hugo, it was reading, “It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life.” For Jews, it’s trees.

Trees have always been a sign of regeneration, of growth after decimation. Plant a tree, and the world feels better because the possibility of growth represents hope. We were born into a garden, and as its stewards were charged with the task of tending the garden. At the same time, the garden provided nourishment and beauty: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food...” (Genesis 2:9) Trees then and now represent that which is sturdy and reliable, aesthetically pleasing and materially satisfying. We are not allowed, Deuteronomy reminds us, to cut down a fruit tree in a time of war. The tree gives, and we receive, as we read later in Proverbs of the Torah, “It is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed [3:18].

A fan of Shel Silverstein, I personally never liked the book The Giving Tree and failed to understand why so many people bought it as a gift of the heart. It is a tree story where giving goes to such an extreme that the tree fails to teach what constitutes a relationship of meaning. The tree enables. Jewish trees give but as early as Genesis, we are told to care for them and be caretakers of the garden. They grow because we enable that growth. Their growth is supposed to mirror ours: “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” [Psalms 1:3] Hope itself is tied into the image of the tree: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” [Proverbs 13:12]

Each part of the tree is a metaphor for human development: the roots, the trunk, the leaves, the fruit, the shade. We are to be all these things. And we are to be them most when life is at its lowest. Jeremiah in exile reminds us to build houses and marry off children and plant, as the quote above suggests. That investment invites us to nurture something that takes time to grow but provides rich dividends. Job sees the role model of the tree as something that will continue even when we think there’s no possibility left: “At least there is hope for a tree. If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant” (14:7-9).

This regenerative power led to the worship of trees. They were regarded in the ancient world as magical. Botanist Nogah Hareuveni, in his book Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, observes that: “Human awe at the seemingly immortal “Tree of Life” seen all around in field and forest brought numerous tribes and nations to worship trees, attributing to them supernatural powers.” Jews do not ascribe supernatural powers to trees but natural powers to them. In times of sadness, the idea of gardening creates seeds of hope. For this reason, during the nine days of mourning the Temples' destruction, we are forbidden to plant. Perhaps, we should end this period by planting a tree, signaling that the tree of life continues to grow.

We plant trees in Israel to mark special occasions. It’s the gift that keeps giving. It communicates that something good is on its way. Be patient. Watch it grow. Find consolation in a future you planted. There lies hope.

Shabbat Shalom

The Modern-Day Prophet

In wrath, remember mercy
— Habakuk 3:2

Who are today’s prophets? Some argue for public intellectuals who examine trends and are unafraid to speak their minds. According to Paul Simon, the prophets are graffiti artists: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.” For Yoko Ono, true artists are prophets. Joseph Addision believed it was the jester. Binny Lau, a contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar, believes that journalists today “take on the role of moral and social critics,” but adds that “more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.” In his book, Jeremiah: The Fate of the Prophet, Lau draws our attention to the word “jeremiad” that comes from the ethos of this prophet’s task: a work that mourns society and its imminent downfall. No wonder prophets were so unpopular.

Lau makes many important observations in his book about what a prophet does that have ramifications for us today. As we have entered the mourning period of the Three Weeks, when portions of Jeremiah’s writings - like his eponymous book and the book of Lamentations - are regularly read and studied, it seems an apt time to think about the nature of prophecy and who fulfills that role in today’s society. Lau writes that even though a prophet’s job is to chastise his people, it must always be criticism that emerges from deep love. “Even when the harshest reproach is called for, the prophet must consider himself a divine emissary whose role is to help redeem the people, not stand aloof and condemn.”

David Ben Gurion, on the occasion of his 84th birthday called Jeremiah the greatest prophet who arose before the destruction of Jerusalem. He was also, according to Ben Gurion, “the most despised, downtrodden, and daring.” And yet, despite all of this, the first Israeli prime minister believed that what made him an enduring model of Jewish leadership was his abiding affection for the Israelites: “Jeremiah loved his people and had faith in its posterity - and his faith has proven true until this very day.

Prophets very often put their very lives on the line when balancing truth and love. Jeremiah almost lost his life more than once. This career is not for the faint-hearted. In an obscure story recorded both in the book of Kings and then again in Chronicles, a group of 400 prophets were brought before King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah to consult on whether the two should join forces and wage war. The prophets all spoke in unison with the same pandering message. Jehoshaphat then asked if there was any other prophet who had not yet been invited to offer an opinion. There was one: Micaiah. Ahab couldn’t stand the man. He was always a contrarian, saying evil rather than good. Nevertheless, he was brought before the two for his judgment. At first, he echoed the diplomatic words of his colleagues but when pressed, Micaiah shared the bad news ahead.

Not surprisingly, a courtier in the room approached the prophet and slapped the him in the face. Ahab ordered Michaiah to be taken to the ruler of his city with the following instructions: “Put this man in prison, and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.” (See I Kings 22 for the entire story). The kings were determined to go out to war. But the prophet got the last word, “If you ever return safely...” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people.”

That famous expression, “Mark my words,” the ancient version of “I told you so,” rings in our ears. The prophet is a verbal marksman, targeting with precision what he must say and to whom. The anger of the prophet is reflected in the anger of God, a different kind of anger than the one we usually associate with humans. Heschel has this to say about the kind of anger we see reflected in prophetic literature: “The anger of the Lord is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional...Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear.” This kind of anger is a tool of reformation, in Heschel's words, “anger includes a call to return and to be saved. The call of anger is a call to cancel anger.” If the prophets teach us anything about how to live today, let it be this: to use anger constructively to bring ourselves and others to a path of greater goodness. “In wrath, remember mercy.”

Who do you think are today’s prophets and what do their business cards say? Drop me a line and let me know.

Shabbat Shalom


Frailty, Thy Name is Woman

When Hamlet denounced his mother for her quick re-marriage, he made a sweeping statement about 50% of the population: “Frailty thy name is woman.” He considered his mother weak-willed and spineless, but for Hamlet this is apparently a condition of all women.  That women were regarded as pitiable and vulnerable was also an important literary conceit for the biblical prophet Jeremiah, prophet of doom and exile. For him frailty is more about compassion than about fickleness.

It was Jeremiah who saw the destruction of the first Temple and shared his torments in the anguished and lyrical five chapters of The Book of Lamentations. If it is hard to imagine such a task, picture someone the afternoon of 9/11, trying to describe the wreckage before him as an act of witness to those who would never see it. Today, our beautiful Jerusalem is once again filled with people and embellished in splendor. As the Sages once said, “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world. Nine were given to Jerusalem.” But we no longer have a centralized place to pray as a community, a place to unburden ourselves and seek atonement or share our deepest spiritual yearnings and longings. What we do have is a first-hand recollection. Each year, we honor Jeremiah’s memory and the way that he tried to personalize this event and its scars.

Throughout the book, Jeremiah uses images of frail and disconsolate women to help readers after his death imagine what it was like to see Jerusalem and its holy Temple in ruins. With the coming approach of Tisha B’Av - the ninth day of Av – when we recite this dirge as a community, we will do a close reading of the first chapter of Lamentations to see how Jeremiah evokes pathos through the image of a fallen woman.

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress [1:1-3].

Jerusalem is a widow lying in empty streets that were once full, mourning the full life that was once hers. Jerusalem is a queen whose crown has toppled and whose authority has been overturned. Jerusalem is not only a powerless royal; she is now a slave to others who once held her in high regard. Her royalty is gone. Jerusalem is humiliated. She has no friends. She has no rest. Like a woman facing her tormentors, she runs without direction, led into narrow straights that prevent escape.

The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish. Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe [1:4-5]

Even the streets of Jerusalem grieve. They, too, were once full of spiritual pilgrims, ascending to Jerusalem to gain atonement, to offer thanksgiving, to celebrate the holidays in the presence of community. Now there is no one at her once bustling gates. There is no cause for celebration or feasting. The Temple’s employees – its priests – have nothing to do but sigh. Jerusalem is both a young maiden mourning for a future she will never have and a mother whose children have been violently snatched from her. She will wait in desperation for her children to return from exile. In the ashes of her destroyed city, she realizes they may never return.

All the splendor has departed from the Daughter of Zion. Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer. In the days of her affliction and wandering Jerusalem remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old…Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her [1: 6-9].

Like an old, wrinkled woman in front of a mirror, Zion sees that her splendor is gone – that her enemies made a grab for her treasures and left her in rags. But she has brought much of this upon herself. Like a woman who stains her garments with her own blood, she sits undignified in her filth, not thinking about the consequences of her actions until she can no longer run away from them.

This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. My children are destitute because the enemy has prevailed. Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her. The Lord has decreed for Jacob that his neighbors become his foes; Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them [1:16-17].

Enemies mock her. They, too, see her filth and comment on her loss of pride in the world. In pain, she realizes that she has no one. She raises her hands for help and solace, but no one lifts her up. She is left simply to weep alone. Frailty, thy name is woman.

Shabbat Shalom