I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to teach emuna, plant a tree.

Emuna is usually defined as “belief” but I prefer the definition given by Rabbi Y.G. Bechofer:

“. . . the extent to which our perspective on the Creation emerges from a conscious awareness of the wondrous, infinite wisdom of its Creator…”

Speaking to a journalist on Maple Syrup Sunday this past March, a certain maple sugar farmer said (and I’m paraphrasing here):  “There is a lot of new technology out there to maximize the amount of sap taken from a tree, as well as new machinery to increase the sap-to-syrup yields, often at great financial cost.  But ultimately, there’s only so much we can control.   It’s really up to the weather.  If it won’t cooperate, all the technology in the world is not going to help.  So we pray.”

It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but I’m pretty sure atheist farmers must be few and far between, too. Although their lives seem ruled by weather, farmers don’t “believe” in Nature.  Even though agriculture is more and more about technology, farmers sure do lots of beseeching to G-d.

But just as there is nothing haphazard about emuna, one cannot be careless about tree-planting if one wants results.  So they maximize their hishtadlus (expending utmost effort in pursuit of a goal).

No autumn in Maine is complete without a visit to a Pick-Your-Own apple orchard.  Brainwashed by romantic notions, I decided that the 1/2 acre bare spot in front of our house, which we had to clear of tall hardwoods in order to maximize sunlight for our solar panels, would be the perfect spot for an apple orchard (full-grown apple trees are not as tall as the hardwoods we cut down, and won’t put shade on the solar panels).  Soon after I had this notion, I noticed an announcement in our local paper about a free lecture on “How to Plant an Orchard.”   Divine Providence at work!

I’m usually not a fearful person, but on that particular night of the lecture, temperatures were well below zero, and I was frankly nervous about driving back home alone on dark, isolated snowy mountain roads with no cellphone reception, in case of car trouble (you never know!).  Fortunately, my husband was kind enough to drive me the 30 miles into town so I could attend.

We drove to Crosby Kennett Middle School in Conway, NH, where a lecturer and agronomist from the University of New Hampshire Extension dispensed a wealth of information to an audience of 60 warmly-dressed farmer wannabes.  We learned not only which fruits grow best in our area (apples), but  which of the 2500 varieties (!) thrive.  Not only (in most cases) must one grow more than one variety of apple for cross-pollination, the different apple varieties must blossom at the same time so that cross-pollination can take place, which means you can’t plant an apple variety that is harvested in mid-October with an apple variety that is harvested in September if you want to get fruit.  And the blossoms must be the same color, because once bees pollinate a certain color of flower, they will only pollinate that color.  So if they start out pollinating a white flower, they won’t bother with a pink one further down the row (who knew?).

I also learned that all apple tree varieties are grafted onto a root stock (trunk base).  When you order an apple tree from a specialized nursery, you not only order the variety of apple you desire, but you order what type of root stock you want.  There are three basic types of root stock:  regular, semi-dwarf, and dwarf; there are several varieties within each type of root stock.  Dwarf trees are good for a patio garden, because they don’t take up much space, but they don’t produce many apples, either.  The regular-sized apple trees produce a lot of apples, but because the trees grow up to 25′ high, that makes the apples hard to reach and more difficult to harvest; because the trees take up more space you have to have fewer trees.  A semi-dwarf tree has a high yield and grows 15′ high and seems to be a happy medium.  It is the size used by most commercial apple orchards today.

Even knowing I was going to order semi-dwarf trees, I had to decide which varieties of apples to order.  Each type of apple is suited to specific climatic and environmental conditions.  Fortunately the lecturer was able to recommend not only the best variety of root stock and apple types; he referred us to several reputable growers where we could order our apple trees.

I ordered 6 trees of my all-time favorite apple variety, Honeycrisp, which was developed by the University of Minnesota (and part of the cost included a $2 royalty fee to U of M).  I ordered one Macoun apple tree (a favorite Maine variety) as well as one disease-resistant variety called Crimson Crisp (it also had a royalty fee) for cross-pollination.

I needed to order the trees months before the actual delivery date.  This is because the nursery custom-grafted each and every tree to order, and nurtured them until they were ready for shipment and planting in the Spring.  The problem was that Spring was slow to come to Maine this year.  Alan from Cummins Nursery in upstate New York communicated via email and phone, trying to determine when to send the trees.  Although he had sent out most of his tree orders all across the country, including coastal Maine, our little pocket in the White Mountains appeared to be a micro-climate unto itself.  We had snow on the ground long after other areas saw bare ground, and even when the snow melted, the deep ground frost meant I couldn’t dig a hole or properly prepare the field which would hold the trees.  The corner of the orchard has a seasonal stream, which flooded the field.  While apples enjoy lots of water, I didn’t want the roots to drown, either.  Nor did I want the sitting water to be a mosquito breeding ground.  An excavator was needed to slightly alter the course of the stream, and better level the slope of the field to improve drainage.  Unfortunately Andre, our excavating guy from Bethel, Maine,  couldn’t come because the roads were posted (see a previous blog entry, “Forget Spring,” to read about this phenomenon).  But Alan from Cummins Nursery warned that if we waited too much longer and the apple trees developed buds and leaves, the apple trees would no longer be in prime planting condition.

Miraculously, this week it warmed up dramatically, baruch HaShem!  With clear blue skies and lots of sunshine, temperatures were in the high 60s for much of the week, and night temperatures remained above freezing.  My husband dug an experimental hole in the field, digging to see how far down in the earth the frost line extended.  After digging 2 feet deep and finding no frost, I realized it was now safe to plant my trees.  I emailed Alan the news and he replied, “Great! I’m sending out the trees today and you’ll have them in 2 days.”

Yikes!  Our excavating contractor still couldn’t come with heavy equipment, but he said he could put a small Bobcat excavator on a trailer and move some dirt around and dig a few holes.  I raced into town and bought 4 bags of “Potting Soil for Trees and Shrubs,” as well as fence posts and galvanized wire so I could keep out apple-loving deer, moose and bears.  I bought some wire mesh to partially bury around the trees to discourage rabbits, mice and voles from chomping the roots and bark.  I had my long-suffering husband dig some holes as markers in the root-infested and rocky ground.  Hoping that the blackflies and mosquitoes would not be too vicious when I would be planting, I was ready to accept delivery of my apple trees, and put my emuna into high gear.

When they learned of my plans to grow apples, two people from my home town commented, “Well, I guess this means you’re in Maine for the long haul.”

It will take 4 – 6 years from the time of planting to harvest my first bushel of apples, not only because of the trees’ immaturity, but because of the mitzvah of orla, which, fittingly (more Divine Providence!), was mentioned in last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim.   Orla is the prohibition of eating the fruit that grows in the first three years after a tree has been planted.  

I found the following profound words of Torah by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman of Toronto at the torah.org website.  It fits so beautifully that I am quoting his dvar Torah in full:

“When you shall come to the Land, and you will plant any food-bearing tree, you shall withhold its fruits; for three years they shall be forbidden to you, they shall not be eaten. (19:23)

The mitzvah to refrain from partaking from the produce of a fruit-bearing tree for its first three years is called orlah. The fruits of the fourth year may only be eaten in Yerushalayim, and from the fifth year on, we may eat and enjoy its fruits without any further restrictions (after separating tithes etc.).

In its discussion of the mitzvah of orlah, the Midrash tells the following story:

The Roman Caesar Adrayanus was once walking through the pathways of T’verya (Tiberias). He noticed a very old man who was preparing his orchard to plant fig trees. “Old man,” he said, “just because you got up in the morning doesn’t mean you’ll live through the day! [Why bother planting trees at such an advanced age when you’ll never live to see their fruits?!]” “I got up in the morning, and I will lay down at night – and whatever the Almighty has planned for me He will do,” he said.

“Tell me,” the Caesar asked, “how old are you?” “I am one hundred years old,” he said. “One hundred – and you think you’ll still live to eat these fruits?!” “If I merit, I will live to eat them. And if not, then just like my ancestors planted trees for me, so too will my trees provide for my children.” “Promise me,” he said, “that if you live to eat from these fruits, you will let me know.”

Eventually, the trees bore fruit. The old man decided he would do as the Caesar had told him. He prepared a basket of figs, and took it to the palace. When the guards asked him what he was doing there, he told them his story, and they let him in to see the Caesar. “Who are you?” asked the Caesar, “and why have you brought me these figs?” “I am the old man you met in the streets of Tiberias – my trees bore fruit, and here they are!” “Take his basket of figs,” said the Caesar, “and replace them with golden coins.” “Why do you give such honour to a Jew?” his servants asked. “The Almighty has given him honour – should I not show him respect?”

The old man went home and told people his story – how the Caesar filled his basket with gold. Hearing this, his neighbour’s wife had an idea. “The Caesar likes figs,” she said to her husband. “He trades them for gold coins! Take a basket of figs, and go to the palace.” He did so. When he reached the palace, the guards asked him what he wanted. “I heard the Caesar trades figs for gold coins, so I have brought him a basket of fine figs.” “One moment,” they said. They went and told the Caesar about his guest. “Tell him to stand by the gate with his basket,” the Caesar said, “and let every man who passes through the gate take a fig and throw it in his face!”

When he returned home, his wife asked him what happened. “Thanks for all the honour you have brought me!” he said. “It’s your own fault,” she said. “You should have brought him esrogim – or perhaps the figs you brought were not ripe.” (Vayikra Rabbah 25:5; Yalkut Shimoni 615)

A fascinating story, but how does it help us to understand the prohibition to eat the fruits of the first three years? And why does the Midrash bother to include the humorous incident with the neighbour?

What was it about the old man that so intrigued Adrayanus? Why was he so surprised that an elderly man should spend his time planting trees?

“Many men dream of finishing the entire Talmud (Shas) in one evening,” R’ Yisrael Salanter zt”l is said to have once quipped, “and to get a good night’s sleep too!”

Today perhaps more than ever, we tend to focus our efforts and energies on things that have the potential to bring us swift results and immediate gratification. Western society and its “time-saving” innovations have left us acutely impatient and intolerant of even the slightest delays. Overnight shipping, once an expensive extravagance, is now the norm. We want what we want – and we want it now!

Adrayanus was amazed that someone at such an advanced age would actually have the patience to invest his time and effort in planting something, although he was unlikely to ever see the fruits of his labour. As a Caesar, he was likely accustomed to having the life’s pleasures at his avail for the mere snap of a finger. The message of the old man – a message often borne by the elderly who have lived long enough to know good things come to those who wait – was that there is great value to be found in patiently awaiting the products of one’s labour, even when they don’t seem forthcoming.

Perhaps, too, this is one of the messages of the mitzvah of orlah. Wouldn’t it be great to plant a seed, have a tree sprout overnight (perhaps for a premium one could acquire intraday seedlings!), and wake up the next morning ready to enjoy its fruits, without ever having to weed, water, or prune? Think about this: Suppose they were to tell a farmer that his crop must be uprooted because a highway is being routed through his property. Who would agonize over it more, the farmer who worked for many years to build-up his crop, or the “overnight farmer” whose seedlings sprout faster than you can say “Johnny Appleseed?”

Easy come, easy go. What we achieve with ease has little lasting value to us. If someone worked for weeks to knit a sweater or to weave a carpet, would he throw it out just like that? People have hanging around their homes hand-knit sweaters and blankets from their Bubbies that they just can’t bear to throw away, even though they’re thread-bare and worn. Why? Is it the cost of the wool? We easily discard items of far greater monetary value. It’s because in our hearts we know the love, care, and effort that went into to creating them.

The mitzvah of orlah acts against our impulsive nature and our need to see instant results from our efforts. You will plant a tree, and you will wait three full years before you are allowed any kind of pleasure from its fruits.

Of course our need for immediate results and instantaneous gratification is not restricted to material things. In our avodas Hashem and our character development, we also tend to get easily frustrated when things don’t proceed as quickly as we’d like. We tend to flock towards segulos, and often use them as substitutes for earnest long-term effort. “You want a segulah to remember what you study?” an elderly chassid renowned for his diligence and long hours in the beis ha-midrash once asked, “maybe try putting in more hours. If that doesn’t work, you can always try putting your Gemara under your pillow and sleeping on top of it!”

The neighbour’s wife in the story is convinced that fruit-baskets can be traded for gold coins just like that. There’s nothing more to it. She fails to realize that there’s more to the old man’s fruits than meets the eye. It’s not the fruits in the basket that so impressed the Caesar – it’s how they got there. Even after their “efforts” are met with scorn, she remains unconvinced. “You should have brought a different fruit… ” – maybe a different segulah would have worked…

We can’t turn back the clocks. Mass-production and disposable goods are here to stay. Our task is to make sure the need for immediate gratification that so pervades our world doesn’t invade our efforts in Torah, tefilah, and mitzvah performance, and chinuch ha-banim (education). Remember: What comes easily is parted with easily. The more of ourselves we invest in Torah, the more we value it, and the more dear it becomes.”

Wherever I have lived, I have planted trees, with no idea of whether I would be around to enjoy the literal fruits of my labor.  When we lived in Eretz Yisrael, I planted grapes, almond, cherry, fig, pomegranate, and olive trees; in my home town I planted weeping cherry, ornamental plum and pear, Norway maple, birch, and gingko, and now, in Maine, apple trees.

I have no idea if I’m in Maine “for the long haul.”  Perhaps I will not be around to enjoy my apples.

I don’t mind.  I can be sure that someone else, sometime in the future, will.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by miriam f on May 6, 2011 at 12:28 am

    this was a consummate blog entry, g. It stands alone with content and inspiration that we can all be elevated from. It took much thought and caring on your part to articulate all that went into the “simple” act of planting some trees; and to show us the very beautiful far-reaching vision that, yes, every tree planted on G-d’s earth has a part in. m.


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