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.