The second of this week's Torah portions — Kedoshim — begins with one of the most familiar phrases (and difficult tasks) of Jewish learning: "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy." The verse serves as an indication that the entirety of this portion will be concerned with one question: What does it mean to be holy?
What follows is a litany of ethical, ritual, moral and spiritual mitzvot all geared toward bringing the individual and the community into a state of holiness.
One aspect of this is the concept that God has, as it were, laid down the paths to holiness via God's own actions. What does it mean to be holy? It means to walk in God's footsteps.
One particularly interesting mitzvah indicated in the portion is that of the prohibition against eating the fruit produced by a tree in its first three years: "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 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: I, the Lord, am your God."
At first, it is difficult to see how this mitzvah is connected to holiness. And yet, we read in the account of the Garden of Eden: "And from the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad."
The imitation of God striving toward holiness comes in the planting of a tree. Just as God was concerned with trees from the beginning of creation, we plant them for food, enjoyment and to derive benefit from them.
Packed With Meaning
On the purely literal level, this week marks the secular observance of Arbor Day, the last Friday in April as celebrated in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This celebration was first proclaimed in 1874. Our own Jewish Arbor Day, Tu B'Shevat, precedes this American holiday by thousands of years. As the weather warms and the earth softens, we have a chance to reconnect our hands with the earth, and to participate in the planting of trees in the community.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling with teenagers throughout the Land of Israel. Everywhere we turned, we saw the trees of the Land — from the Upper Galil, where we gazed at the early figs yet in formation, to the Judean hills, where we ate carob pods dropped off of massive, ancient trees.
Eucalyptus and cedar, pine, olive and cypress — a connection to the holiness of the land is inextricably linked to the trees of Israel. As the Jewish National Fund was eager to tell us, Israel is one of just a few countries in the world that counts more trees today than a century ago.
On a deeper level, we realize that trees have always served as a metaphor. From those trees initially placed in the Garden of Eden, to the Torah we revere as a "Tree of Life," this symbol is packed with meaning. Why then, the prohibition against enjoying the fruits of the tree in its first three years? Certainly, the earliest fruits of a tree are not its best product — and would not be an acceptable offering to God. Similarly, the earliest conclusions drawn from study are often the ones we benefit from least. The "fruits" gained after several seasons, when the tree has had time to mature and develop, will grow sweeter with each passing year.
Whether we are planting literal saplings or working in the orchard of study, may we all be blessed to eat of the sweet fruits of our labor. May we appropriately bring them as an offering to God, and may we be patient enough to wait until those fruits are ready.
Rabbi Craig Axler is a religious leader of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.