Judaism is all about questions. It is at the core of our culture that it is the question, not the answer, that is the linchpin for learning and growth.
Answers are, by comparison, often quite easy. Indeed, it is the question that shines a light on the questioner, and the way they think. There is no question (or poll) that is value neutral – the question sets the scene.
So, too, for studying the Torah. Consider the following:
When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden [uncircumcised]. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit. In this way your harvest will be increased. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:23)
There are many questions one could ask about this section. An academic bible scholar might try to find similar laws in other ancient texts, and thereby link them. Experts in Jewish Law immediately dive into the particulars of precisely how one follows this law: how is the tree’s age measured? Is “planting” measured by when a tree is in a pot, or in the ground? What if it is grown hydroponically? etc. Indeed, just as, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, so, too, the tools we have lead us to entirely different solutions.
I am actually quite a practical fellow. To me, every question comes down to some variation on, “why should it matter to me now?” I am in favor of education for its own sake, for training the mind. But in learning the Torah, I am not interested in studying ancient peoples, or in any agricultural consequences of not harvesting a young tree’s fruit. Instead, I am interested in the relevance of the law to my daily life. Or, more accurately, in what I can take from the text in order to help me make better decisions in the future.
I work with the presupposition that the Torah is self-explanatory – that every law can be explained without reference to any external document or data. Once we stipulate that this is the tool in our hand, then we can see how it ties together with a Torah worldview.
So my question on what to do with fruit-bearing trees is: “Why?” Or more completely: “Using the Torah itself, how can we explain the purpose of this commandment and its relation to our lives?”
Once we have asked the question, the answers start suggesting themselves. The basic commandment centers around three periods of time: the first three (uncircumcised) years, the fourth holy year, and the period going on from there of normal harvest.
So where else in the Torah can we find this pattern? Several intriguing answers present themselves.
The first one is the binding of Isaac. Avraham and Isaac undertake a three day journey to the mountain, a period of preparation and anticipation. The fourth day is the Binding itself, the offering of Isaac. And from that point on, Isaac is an adult, and the baton is passed from father to son.
The second is the history of the Children of Israel in Egypt. We spend three hundred years (alternatively, three generations) there (corresponding to the “threes” in the dreams of the Butler and Baker). During that period, the people reproduce and grow, but are essentially feral. The period corresponding to the fourth year of the tree represents the forty years wandering in the desert. During that period we were disconnected from the world, “holy to G-d.” It was a period of open miracles, of open intercession in the workings of the natural world. And then, having reached maturity, we resume “normal” life in the Land of Israel, a life without an openly supernatural reliance on G-d’s bounty. In this understanding, it is the Jewish people themselves who are the fruit of the tree, and it is G-d who gets the satisfaction of the harvest.
The third is the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The Children of Israel have a period of three days of anticipation, a period in which they are to focus on the upcoming event, and in which marital intimacy is forbidden (as if we were uncircumcised). At the end of that period is the giving of the Torah. Moshe is on the mountain for forty days – which is the connection to “four”. And what happens then? G-d says, “Return to your tents.” (Dev. 5:27). At that point, marital life resumes, along with the opportunity to be fruitful and multiply.
All share some beautiful parallels with the commandment regarding the trees. The first period, of three, is inherently preparatory, in anticipation of the holiness to come. It is difficult and often frightening, and we have to hold back, and be patient.
The second period, of the four, is a period of intensity, of nearness to G-d, of “an offering of praise to the LORD”. Isaac, and the people in the wilderness and at Sinai, touch the fire of the spiritual world.
Importantly, both of these two first periods disconnect us from the natural world. By refraining from intimacy at Sinai, or eating the fruit of the tree, or living from the land in the wilderness, or even Isaac’s natural self-preservation instinct, we reject our animalistic instincts and urges.
But even the holy state is not meant to be the ideal – we are not meant to be in G-d’s shadow forever! We are meant to live in the world, to be mature and responsible for ourselves and the world around us. The ideal is where we are right now, a state in which we can independently grow as individuals and as a nation.
And what does this have to do with our lives today? How does a commandment regarding trees (and connections to other events in the Torah) touch us?
I would suggest that it is meaningful to consciously understand that, in the words of Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to be born, and a time to die.” Our lives are not meant to achieve all things at once, and there are cycles in life that are not only often unavoidable, but are, in fact, times to be understood for what they are – times to be savored. We do not go from zero to sixty instantaneously. Instead, if we appreciate that there is a buildup period, and then a period of holiness followed by enjoying the fruits of our trees and our lives, then we can be blessed.
In the end, we reconnect with nature, but we do so with a spiritual state of mind. Instead of starting with the physical world, we begin by connecting with the spiritual world. Only after we have touched the divine, after we have tasted the closeness of a connection with G-d, do we enjoy the fruits of the world. And at that point we are blessed in turn, so “that your harvest will be increased.”