Thursday, April 28, 2016

Planting Trees for Future Generations

A few weeks ago one of the directors of Michigan BBYO (B'nai Brith Youth Organization) contacted me. She explained that as part of an upcoming retreat, the Jewish teens in BBYO were interested in planting trees near their BBYO Bittker Retreat Center and then dedicating each tree in a ceremony. She had heard that I used to lead such activities for Camp Tamarack in Ortonville, Michigan and asked if I would share my resources. Of course, I sent her my files from several years of these tree planting ceremonies and told her how meaningful they were. 

A week later I was asked to contribute a piece for "The People & The Book" section of the Jerusalem Report magazine that drew inspiration from the Torah portion Kedoshim. Knowing that mitzvot (commandments) for planting trees are given in this parashah, I began writing about my own tree planting experiences, discussing those ceremonies at Camp Tamarack. What follows is my contribution to the Jerusalem Report:

Trees for Grandchildren

The joy of planting for future generations

If I had to guess the first time I ever planted a tree, it was likely as a young preschool child on the playground behind Adat Shalom synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I don’t really recall planting that tree, but I know that it was an annual tradition for the little five-year-olds at the shul’s nursery school in the early 1980s.

The next time I was supposed to plant a tree was at a tree planting ceremony outside of Jerusalem during a teen tour following my graduation from high school. However, rather than actually planting trees, we instead donated money for trees to be planted on our behalf the following year since that year was a shmita year, meaning the soil of Israel was being left fallow in a seven-year cycle.

It wouldn’t be until a quarter century after my initial “tree planting” experience in nursery school that I would find myself getting my hands dirty to plant a sapling. I gathered my three children and together we planted a tree in the Biblical landscape reserve of Neot Kedumim on the final day of a family mission to Israel. Each member of our small delegation stood next to their sapling and explained for whom they dedicated the tree.

Everyone else named a deceased relative, but I quoted the Talmudic story of the sage Choni Hama’agel, who asked a man why he was planting a carob tree, since he would not live to eat its fruit. The answer was, “Just as my ancestors planted for me, I plant this tree for my descendants.” I then looked at my children, repeated the sentence, and announced that I was dedicating the tree I had just planted to their children, my future grandchildren.

Jewish children plant trees at Tamarack Camps in Ortonville, Michigan

I thought about that moment of planting trees with my children when I began my first summer serving as the rabbi-in-residence of a large Jewish summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan, several years ago. One of my projects that summer was to coordinate tree-planting ceremonies on the large acreage of the camp for hundreds of campers. The camp had dedicated several programs to learning about the environment and making a positive change in our world through Tikkun Olam.

I had only previously planted trees twice in my life and certainly did not possess a “green thumb.” Nevertheless, I had the maintenance crew train me in the proper way to plant a pine sapling, selected the appropriate tools for planting, and set out to develop a curriculum to teach about the importance of planting trees for the future.

As the campers gathered in the field, I began by telling them the story of Choni and the carob tree. The campers understood that the tiny trees they were planting that summer would grow and their future generations would appreciate them. I then shared the quote from the Torah portion, Kedoshim, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit – that its yield to you may be increased.”

Jewish Tree Planting Ceremony at Tamarack Camps in Ortonville, Michigan
My son plants a tree at Camp Tamarack in 2009

I asked the campers why God imposed so many rules when it came to planting fruit trees. The campers explained that rules were necessary to ensure the trees were treated with respect and allowed to grow. We talked about the importance of protecting trees during battle, not wasting their resources and how necessary trees are for humanity to survive, providing us with oxygen, shelter, furniture, paper, food for us and our animals, medicines, rubber, syrup, shade, habitat for animals and firewood used for warmth.

Jewish Tree Planting Ceremony at Tamarack Camps in Ortonville, Michigan
Jewish teens plant trees at Tamarack Camps in Ortonville, Michigan

We were all grateful to God for allowing us to have the opportunity to plant for future generations. In planting new trees, we were committing ourselves as partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. At the end of the session, the campers and staff formed a circle and took turns sharing for whom they planted their tree – in honor or in memory of friends and family. This activity became very emotional for some groups as the campers took it very seriously.

Finally, we concluded by reciting the shehechiyanu blessing together, as it was the first day of life for the trees that had just been planted. And it would be many more years until our grandchildren would come and enjoy the trees we planted for them.

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