There is a very famous story in the Talmud about Honi and the carob tree. Honi, in his old age, is seen planting a carob tree by someone and is asked why he would do such a thing when it is unlikely he will live long enough to see the tree bear fruit. Honi’s answer is that our ancestors before us planted trees so that we would have their fruit, “why shouldn’t I do the same for the generations to come?” It’s a wonderful little answer that leads us to the tradition of planting something annual during the holiday of Tu B’shevat. As you will see from the story below, the Talmud also reuses ideas and tells similar sounding stories in different ways. In this one, the passerby is the Emperor Hadrian, and the lesson is bigger than just planting for future generations.
One day, the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, was passing though the green hills of the Galilee near Tiberias. On his journey he spotted an old man, his back bent under the strain, digging a trench on a terrace where he was going to plant fig trees.
“Old man”, called the Emperor, “If you hadn’t wasted the years of your youth, you wouldn’t have to work so hard now.”
“Not true”, replied the old man. “I didn’t waste away my younger years nor do I waste them away now. I do what I have to do and let God do the rest”.
“How old are you, old man?” asked Hadrian. “I am one hundred,” was the reply.
Hadrian look up at the wrinkled and sweaty face and wondered out loud, “Do you really expect to see the fruits of your labor?”
“Why not”, rejoined the man. “Even if I don’t, didn’t our fathers plant before us knowing that only we would enjoy the fruits?
Hadrian was pleased with the answer and requested of the old farmer, “If you ever live to see the harvest, let me know,” and with that the Emperor’s retinue continued their journey.
Years passed and the trees nurtured by the old man began to bear fruit. They grew and the old man yet lived. One year, in the middle of the harvest season, he picked a small basket of the largest and most beautiful figs. He packed them carefully and proceeded on his donkey to Jerusalem. The old man waited outside the Emperor’s gate and requested to be allowed in. The gate keeper derisively laughed at the thought of Hadrian inviting this old Jew to the palace. Hadrian, however, heard the laughter, looked out his window, and saw the old man at the gate. He remembered his invitation, and marveled at the man’s persistence. He immediately gave an order for the old farmer to be brought to him. The Emperor showed the man full respect and ordered his basket to be emptied and refilled with gold.
His advisors stood astonished. “Why should the Emperor honor such a person?,” they asked. The Emperor stood with the old man at his side. “I only honor whom God has honored. Look at his age, look at his persistence, use him as an example.” With that he sent the old man back to his village with his treasure. Needless to say, upon his return he was received in wonder and was taken around the village telling and retelling his story.
One of his rapt listeners was a jealous and bitter woman who upon hearing the story thought to herself, “Hmm… The Emperor surely must like figs. If he has given such riches to the silly old farmer for a small basket what would he give for a whole sack?” She quickly ran home and berated her husband. “Quick, don’t waste time, get a sack and fill it up with figs, for I have it on the best authority that the Emperor will pay well for them.”
The poor man filled up his largest sack put it on his donkey and began a long and arduous journey to Jerusalem. After many days he reached the palace, totally exhausted and in a sour mood. The man approached the gate keeper and demanded entrance to the Emperor. “I need to see Hadrian for I have brought him a most precious present, a sack full of figs. Just like the old man in our village.” The gate keeper, not wanting to cause another incident, duly reported the story to the Emperor, who laughed at the man’s impertinence. “He demands a reward, does he? Let him remain at the gate and every passerby must take a fig and throw it in his face. That is all he deserves for his demands.”
As the poor man stood at the gate, his face pelted by figs, the object of total ridicule, he began to wish not for gold but for the sack to be empty, thinking of each time he had pushed in another fig to fill it up even more. But, like everything else in life, this pain too came to an end and the man, in total humiliation, began the long trek home.
When he finally returned home his wife asked him what happened. “Well, where is it? How much did you get? What luck did you have?”
The poor man, his patience at an end, burst out, “I have had great and greater luck. The great luck was that the figs were ripe, the greater luck was that we sent figs and not peaches!”
Tu B’shevat is a wonderful, happy, little holiday where we celebrate nature and all that it provides us. We eat fruits and nuts that grow in Israel, marvel at the beauty around us, and thank God for creating this world and sustaining us in it. Our Tu B’shevat Seder, is on January 18th this year. I truly hope you all will be able to join us.
Happy “secular” New Year to everyone.
And a Happy Tu B’shevat, the New Year for Trees.