Planting Seeds for the Future
One day when he was walking along the road, Honi the Circle-Maker, a 1st century BCE Rabbi-Prophet figure, came upon an old man planting a carob tree. Probably knowing that carob trees take many years to produce fruit, Honi cynically asked this man if he believed he would live long enough to enjoy the benefits of his labor. The Talmud (Taanit 23a) records the old man’s response: “Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.”
This well-known Tu Bishvat story emphasizes an important environmental message of this holiday. Because our ancestors left us a planet with trees and resources, we must continue to plant seeds and care for the earth to ensure prosperity for future generations. Despite the popularity of this story, those who tell it often leave out the ending. When we read the entire tale, I believe this turns into a story about the dangers of demanding instant gratification.
The Talmud continues Honi’s story by describing how a deep sleep overtook Honi after his encounter with the carob tree planter. When he awakes, he sees the old man’s grandson harvesting fruit from the carob tree, so Honi concludes that he must have slept for seventy years. Honi returns home and asks if his son is still alive, but only his grandson remains. Honi says, “I am Honi the Circle-Maker,” but no one believes him. He also tries convincing the Rabbis in the study hall of his identity, to no avail. The lonely and despairing Honi prays for mercy and passes away. Even though the same Rabbis who refused to recognize him in the study hall continue to quote his teachings, Honi woke up to a future in which he was out-of-touch and out-of-place.
Unlike the old man who we met at the beginning of the story, Honi failed to accept his role as a seed-planter for future generations. His desire for instant gratification prevented him from doing the work necessary to lay a foundation for the future.
Improving the world is a process. It will not happen all at once. Therefore, when Honi’s long nap produces his need for instant gratification, he cannot handle the results because he refused to undertake the work that would have prepared him to face a new future.
On this Tu Bishvat, we cannot afford to make the same mistakes as Honi with regards to saving the environment and engaging seriously in efforts to resolve the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sometimes I dream that I could fall asleep for seventy years and wake up to a solved conflict. It would certainly save me and us all from the challenging work we must do now. But, we do not have this luxury, as the sad ending to Honi’s life reminds us that we should embrace the role we have as seed-planters for the future. We know that achieving a peaceful two-state solution will not happen overnight. Therefore, we must accept that there will be no instant gratification when it comes to a final resolution of the peace process. However, like the old-man who plants a carob tree so his descendants might enjoy its fruit, we can take steps now that will create the conditions necessary to facilitate a peaceful two-state solution between the Israeli and Palestinian people. We can do this through advocacy in the United States by supporting the proposed “Two-State Solution Act,” which prescribes actions that the United States can take to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict. We can push back on settlement expansion in the West Bank which serves to further entrench an occupation that harms both Palestinians and Israelis. We can support an American foreign policy that prioritizes actions to improve people’s lives instead of using military force.
I know that the actions I listed above will not bring about instant peace, but that does not mean I don’t yearn for the days when a Jewish and a Palestinian state can exist side by side. Therefore, I can empathize with Honi’s desire to have everything all at once. In the moments when I feel frustrated by a lack of instant gratification, I remember the hero of this Tu Bishvat story: the anonymous carob planter who knew he would never enjoy the fruit of his labor, but decided to plant anyway.
Andy Weissfeld is a 4th year Rabbinical Student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City. Andy grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, but also calls Bethesda, Maryland a second home. He attended the University of Maryland where he majored in Jewish Studies and Sociology. He comes from the world of Jewish education, having spent many years working for synagogues, USY, and Ramah. Currently, Andy serves as a Rabbinical School climate organizing fellow for Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. He also interns at a synagogue in South Jersey. Andy developed a passion for Israel while studying there on the Nativ gap year program after high school, and more recently with his Rabbinical school classmates from 2019-2020. He encountered J Street in college, when he attended a policy conference, where J Street’s commitment to vibrant and respectful debate deeply resonated with him. Andy is a J Street Seminary Student Fellow.