Rabbi Yossi Column

The Kaiser was right!

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany had long shunned meeting with the handsome, black and long-bearded man with those burning eyes whom he derisively named: “King of the Jews”. But Theodor Herzl, the visionary of modern Zionism, did not give up on his hope to see the emperor and plea with Germany to intervene with her traditional ally, the Ottoman Empire that has long ruled the land of Israel, and request the latter to allow more Jewish pioneers to reach her shores and green up her wilderness. If not in Europe then in Eretz Yisrael herself thought Herzl and he hurried to Mikve Yisrael, the first of the only two (Jewish) oases (the other one being Motsa) that challenged the otherwise barren land from the Mediterranean to Jerusalem. Indeed, that is where the Kaiser’s entourage would stop to refresh itself from the wreaking heat on the Royal’s visit to Jerusalem in 1898. To be sure the emperor, mounted on a horse, spotted the distinctively-looking Herzl among his many greeters in that green settlement en route to Jerusalem. The sweaty emperor immediately complained of the heat and doubted in his terse words to Herzl whether the dry land could become hospitable and a home to the Jews that Herzl claimed were dreaming of coming and settle there, if permitted by the Ottoman Turks. “Yes, this land needs trees and greenery everywhere, not only here” said the monarch. “And it will belong to the people that will shade and cover it with trees.” 

Today more than a century after this short exchange between the Kaisar and Herzl Israel – one half of which is desert with minimal precipitations – is the only country in the world with more trees in its land than a mere century ago. And this is thanks to the more than 240 million trees that were planted in her soil by the Jewish National Fund alone, a figure that qualifies her for this world record. Mark Twain in his Innocent Abroad, a book he wrote in the late 1860’s after his visit to the Holy Land, laments that only one tree was visible along-line the whole circumference of the Sea of Galilee; to be sure, this grim reality has long been reversed and some. The land of Israel, or for that matter any other land that awaits its reclamation – could only be salvaged by trees, physically and spiritually, even as the Torah has been traditionally dubbed Etz Ha-im, or a tree of life.  Indeed, it was Abraham who planted a tree, a tamarisk, even in the desert soil of Beersheba and it is to the shade of “the tree” that Abraham invites his (divine) guests to sit under and enjoy his (generous) home hospitality. And it is with the planting of a tree for each identified and recognized righteous gentile that Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has chosen to remember unto eternity those who at the risk of their own life went on to save Jews from the Nazi inferno of the Shoah.

On this Tu Bishvat (Wednesday, January 31), the Jewish arbor day or the new year for trees, we too can become planters of trees in the soil of Israel by visiting https://www.jnf.org and/or www.neot-kedumim.org.il and as such be able to partake of the first Mitzvah given to our people upon entering the Promised Land — planting trees! 

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