Monday, July 16, 2012

The Trees of Life

TREESI think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
Joyce Kilmer

But I prefer this one:

I think that I shall never see
a billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all.
Ogden Nash

Israel is the only country in the world that had more trees by the end of the 20th century than it had at the start. While Europe and the United States have both established programs of reforestation, much of their programs are based on the Israeli model. Israel is the only country where the deserts are actually shrinking because of programs put in place over 100 years ago.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established in Basel at the fifth Zionist Congress of 1901 to redeem the Land. The JNF [known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL), which would literally be translated the Fund for the Existence of Israel) was established with the aim of buying land in the Land of Israel (what was then known as Southern Syria), which was then under Ottoman rule. Many of the landowners were absentee, i.e., they didn’t live on the land, but rather were tucked comfortably away in Damascus, Beirut, or Constantinople. They charged exorbitant prices for swamps, deserts, and rocky hillsides.

For 400 years, from1513–1917, during the entire time the Ottomans ruled the area, the Land was devastated due to a policy of taxing landowners according to the amount of trees they had on their land. Naturally, these the landowners would order that all trees be cut down, so as to cut down on their taxes. It mattered little to them that the people who did live on the land depended on agriculture to survive, and this policy of deforestation crippled any kind of economic advance. In addition, the tradition of the Bedouin to graze their animals on land until all greenery was gone and then move on to the next area laid waste the indigenous flora of the region. 

Pushkes through the ages

The JNF raised money to buy lands by distributing ‘blue boxes’ throughout the diaspora. Few Jewish homes in America or Europe did not have a small ‘pushke’ where stray pennies, nickels, and dimes were saved away for the JNF man. In this way the Jewish nation as a whole contributed to the redemption of the Land. By World War Two, there were over a million blue boxes distributed across the world.

The results were immediate. In 1904, the JNF bought its first tracts of land, near the Sea of Galilee, and by independence in 1948, the JNF had bought 54% of all Jewish-held land. The rest had been purchased privately or by other organizations.

Because the land was bought by the pennies and pfennigs of Diaspora Jews, the JNF policy was to rent the land, not to sell. The Land didn’t belong to the JNF but to all those who had contributed from their hard got earnings.

Over the years, the JNF established programs of redeeming the land it had bought, planting trees, building reservoirs, drying swamps.

In the first 50 years since of its existence, the JNF planted 260 million trees. That is about 18.5 trees per Jew in the world today. Anyone who has ever visited Israel has the seen JNF forests that were planted the width and breadth of the country.

Yatir Forest

Environmentalism is a late 20th century fashion. Today, it’s known that trees reduce the amount of toxins in the air (created, for example, by car emissions), produce oxygen, store CO2 (the cause of the ever popular global warming) and provide a habitat for mammals, birds, insects, and other life forms – all essential to man’s existence.
But in the early 1900s, none of these issues were critical. There were far less CO2 emission, plenty of oxygen, and nobody really cared if some bug became extinct. Unlike today’s reforestation programs in America, Europe, and Africa, conservation in the Holy Land was not the objective.

Land reclamation was the objective; to reclaim holy Land that had been destroyed by the conqueror and to rebuild a home for the Jewish people in their ancient land. Little by little, acre by acre, tree by tree, river by river, the Jewish people bought the Land so that no one could ever say that it wasn’t theirs. Trees were planted to hold the soil down and to dry the swamps, so that crops could be planted to provide food, shade, and homes could be built for the Jewish people returning to their Land.

Planting trees in Israel is not just a politically correct form of conservation. It is a holy task. We plant trees when people die, thus keeping alive their memory in the Jewish Land. Trees are planted to celebrate special occasions – a birth, a bat or bar mitzvah, a wedding or anniversary, even being drafted into the army – because planting a tree in the Holy Land is a mitzvah – a holy deed – and a blessing is received by the person in whose merit the tree was planted.

There is a midrash – a story – that Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai (a rabbinic leader during Roman times before and during the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) taught that if a person is planting a tree and another comes rushing to him saying “come quickly the Messiah is here”, the person is required to first finish planting the tree and then rise to greet the Messiah. If we find that the Messiah hasn’t actually come – that the call was a false alarm – nothing will hasten the coming of the Messiah faster than planting trees in Israel. And if the Messiah really has arrived, we will still need to plant trees in Israel.

May He come speedily in our time.

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