Day Six: 22 Tammuz
With God in the Garden
When we imagine being with God in the garden, our imaginations turn to the Garden of Eden, the ultimate garden. God planted the garden as a food source for animals and humans before the creation of humankind. No doubt, it was also a place of beauty and mystery, a place where Adam tried to hide from God but where God’s Presence swept through the trees and found him. We, too, see God in nature, just as Adam did.
Adam and Eve were placed in the garden as its stewards “to work it and look after it” (Genesis 2:15). They were there to observe its changes and thereby appreciate the relationship between nature and the divine, and they were to cultivate it. Adam, from the Hebrew “adama,” earth, was created as a mixture of the breath of God and the dust of the earth. Human beings, from their ancient and sacred beginnings, were to be custodians of the land that birthed them and sustained them.
This mythic, primordial universe is evoked in a curious rule. According to Jewish law, we are not allowed to plant fruit trees during the nine days before Tisha B’Av. Why?
Fruit trees occupy a special place in biblical literature. Those who plant fruit trees in the land of Israel must wait a full three years before enjoying the fruit, and must mark the maturation of the tree by bringing its first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem in the fourth year. The patience demanded of the planter has long-term rewards. Trees that invest energy in growing roots rather than developing fruit will have a deeper root system – a critical requisite for the tree’s viability in the hot, dry climate of the Middle East. We can imagine the joy that those first pomegranates, grapes and figs must have brought to the ones who planted them. The act of sacrifice brings with it profound gratitude, and imbues the simple act of planting with sanctity.
Trees and their fruit are a vital source of food and nutrition, especially in a country beset by famine, as we learn from the account of Abraham’s earliest days on the land. Making sure that these trees have their highest yield is a small but significant insurance policy against the ravages of drought and hunger. Protecting fruit trees is the focus of another Deuteronomic law, which demands that fruit trees not be destroyed during war. Trees were often chopped down on the battlefield, since enemies could hide behind them; a field cleared of trees made human targets more visible and vulnerable. But fruit trees were not to become another tool in the human war machine since they are a food source. It takes a long time for a fruit tree to reach its full maturity and a short time to destroy it; the Torah demands that we take this into consideration, even when it comes to our adversaries.
A famous Talmudic passage in Tractate Ta’anit describes an old man planting a tree, one that in his lifetime, he will never see in full bloom. He defends his action on the grounds that he is planting for those who come after him, an act of foresight. It is that foresight that Deuteronomy is protecting.
Fighting is temporal. Wars end. We may unfortunately have to defend ourselves against enemies, but that should not deprive our opponents of their food source, especially when wars end. A field whose fruit trees have been cut down because of war cannot provide sustenance and survival for its inhabitants in the future.
Because fruit trees are a source of happiness, and elemental to a life lived off the land, we are forbidden to experience the pure joy of planting them during the Three Weeks. In a haftara cited earlier (Jeremiah 2:4–28, 3:4), Jeremiah uses a metaphor of planting that opens up a world of botanical delight and terror. “I planted you with noble vines, all with choicest seed; alas, I find you changed into a base, an alien vine!” (2:21). The image of God as a gardener, gently placing a choice seed among very special plants, is a tender, loving image. The vine is a hardy plant that ascends and spreads itself. Thus, in Psalms 128:3, the happy man is described as having a wife who is “like a fruitful vine within your house.” In Micah 4:4, the vine is again the symbol of the happy homesteader: “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree.” God as biblical gardener is an image that appears in Exodus 15:17, in the Song of the Sea, where God promises to plant the Israelites on His own mountain, protected from any danger. It is also used in Psalms as a powerful image of resettlement:
You plucked up a vine from Egypt; you expelled nations and planted it. You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered by its shade, mighty cedars by its boughs. Its branches reached the sea, its shoots to the river. (Psalms 80:9–12)
Here, the once-small vine takes root, overpowering mountains and the tall, majestic cedar tree. Its branches, like rivers on a map, extend to the sea.
Jeremiah’s vine is not as stable as a cedar nor as thick as its trunk. The Israelites-as-vine image is one of historical resonance. Thin and spidery branches that reach out far beyond their root system are an apt description for Jews throughout their history in the Diaspora. Even as a small minority their influence was far-reaching.
In this reading, the vine that is Israel was planted with the greatest of care. But as it grew, it became a gardener’s nightmare. It became a base and alien vine among other noble plantings. Not only did it morph into something unrecognizable to the planter, it also imperiled other plants nearby. Vigilant gardeners spot such plants and uproot them so that the damage they cause will not have permanent consequences. Weeds that grow quickly can squeeze out other shoots. Someone once defined weeds as anything you don’t want in your garden. Even beautiful flowers can become weeds if they don’t allow their neighboring plants to grow and flourish.
But God blessed Israel with power: “To uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Although the verse begins with uprooting, it ends with building and planting – the enduring element of Israel-as-gardener.
A vine is generally a fast-growing plant that can spread its beauty far and wide. But it can also choke other life around it and become the base, alien plant that Jeremiah describes. We are challenged to plant with care and to watch over that which we plant so that our vines provide comfort and shade but avoid being destructive, insinuating themselves into every crevice and choking other life.
In the utopian garden that is the Land of Israel, Jeremiah promised a repentant Israel the admiration of its neighbors: “In sincerity, justice and righteousness, nations shall bless themselves by you and praise themselves by you.” When the nation of Israel lives by its covenant with God, it will become a show garden; it will be lauded by those around it. It will be a place of beauty and pride.
Kavana for the Day
From Ecclesiastes to Death of a Salesman, planting a garden has always been an act of hope. Remember those early biology experiments we did in school where we planted a seed in a Styrofoam cup and waited impatiently for the seed to grow? There was a thrill when the fragile green shoot pushed through the dirt. Every bloom and blossom can communicate this thrill to the gardener who sees in each development the progress and renewal of life. Consequently, in addition to the prohibition of planting fruit trees for food, it is also forbidden to plant trees for shade or fragrance during the last nine days of the Three Week period. And yet, to communicate hope and redemption, think about planting a tree right after the Three Weeks – a “Jewish” tree that becomes your symbol of hope in the future.