Planting the Seeds of Redemption

by Rabbi Shua Brick, Jewish Studies Teacher 

As we head into the summer months, and we are considering what to do with this extra time, could I recommend some gardening? Gardening is considered so important, that out tradition tells us gardening supersedes the literal Messiah:

If you have a sapling in your hand and someone tells you that Messiah has arrived, go and plant the sapling and afterward go and greet him (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 31). 

The seed of this idea is planted in this week’s Torah portion, in a rather unexpected place. Amongst the list of curses that will befall the Jewish people if they do not follow His ways, God warns, “I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it.” (Lev. 26:32).  In context, it seems to describe that our expulsion from the land of Israel will be so devastating that even its conquerors will be appalled by its continued unfortunate state. 

However, the most ancient collection of rabbinic commentary on Leviticus, the Sifra (Bechukotai 6:5), asserts that this is actually not a curse but a blessing. Nachmanidies articulates it as an everlasting agreement between the Jewish people and their homeland. It will refuse to be inhabitable to anyone but the Jewish people. And so, latent in that desolation is actually a promise, that the land will wait to flourish until our return. 

That redemption coincides with agricultural success is depicted in Ezekiel 36:8 when he imagines that God will command: “You, O mountains of Israel, yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near.” This is the source quoted by Rabbi Abba to support his claim that “there is no greater manifestation of redemption” than fertile land in Israel. (Sanhedrin 98a) 

A common prophetic motif is to depict idyllic times as when everyone will be able to lie under their “own fig tree and grapevine,” made more popular recently by its usage in Hamilton when George Washington sings about his dreams of a peaceful future. Micah established that peace and planting go together when he foretold:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war. Instead, every family shall sit under its own vine and fig tree with no one to disturb them. (Micah 4:3-4.)

Fruit trees symbolize redemption, partly as land flourishing is essential and wonderful, but it also represents a committed symbiotic relationship between humans and our earth. With this in mind, it should no longer be surprising that we are instructed to keep planting instead of greeting Messiah, as they are two aspects of the same thing – a peaceful and beautiful future. So if you have time this summer, try some planting and invest in a brighter future.