Human beings have always looked to the natural world for guidance, finding symbolic meaning in the rhythm of the tides, the patterns of the stars, and the cycles of the sun and moon. An example can be seen in the Biblical story of Noah. In a heartbreaking episode of human history, God judges humanity as intrinsically and obscenely evil, regretting his very creation. He sends a disaster to destroy the world and all of its inhabitants, saving only Noah, his family and a pair of each species of animal to repopulate the planet. After forty days of rain, 150 days of flooding, and roughly a year of unimaginable cabin fever, Noah sends a dove from the ark to see if the water has receded.
“And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.” (Genesis 8:11).
The olive branch became a symbol of hope, representing God’s peace with man and beast and man’s optimism and commitment to future generations. The olive tree has continued to develop as a national symbol for the Jewish people throughout history. Biblical verses name olives as one of the seven fruits of the Land of Israel, and the olive oil in the story of Chanukah represents the miracle of Jewish survival. Thousands of years later, the official emblem of the State of Israel is a menorah flanked by olive branches, weaving these stories together into a narrative that celebrates peace, while focusing on Jewish national sovereignty. The law of “Forest Ordinance” (1936) explicitly forbids cutting down olive trees in Israel, and it remains a criminal offense today, warranting fines and even jail time.
Unfortunately, this fierce connection to the olive tree has become violent in our modern political climate. It is a symbol of ownership, conquest and competition, as Palestinians and Israelis alike plant olive trees to stake their national claim to this land. Settler extremists routinely burn and uproot olive trees planted by their Palestinian neighbors, attempting to wipe out their livelihood along with their narrative of roots. Palestinian extremists even destroy their own olive trees and blame the settlers in order to gain media attention around the world.
My husband, a farmer in the settlement of Tekoa, experiences a deep connection when working the land, regardless of the challenges of farming on the edge of the Judean Desert. Throughout this winter’s unnatural snowstorm that left thousands without power, heat and light, he worried of his plants’ ability to survive the extreme weather conditions. He watched helplessly as the biggest vegetables, pocked by hail, froze and thawed daily with the rise and fall in temperatures. He saw the beautiful white flowers ripped off by the wind, leaving behind bare, unprotected branches, and he prayed for the future of the smallest plants and the seeds just sown.
But as the weather died down, he witnessed an inspiring renewal; new branches grew out above damaged ones, fresh flowers blossomed, and finally, delicious, strong vegetables emerged. Weeks later, now picking his first crop, he marvels at the resilience of nature and its ability to overcome challenges.
With the holiday of Tu B’shvat, the new year for the trees, quickly approaching, our nation is preparing to celebrate our connection to this beautiful land. Dried fruits are on sale in all of the supermarkets, the JNF is planting trees in every forest, and children are whistling the songs of the early pioneers.
With the lengthening of the days and the promise of spring on the horizon, this is our opportunity to learn from nature, rather than distort her miracles to suit our political needs.When the world becomes a cold, dark place, it is our challenge to sprout another branch, be hopeful and envision new solutions.
When Noah saw the olive branch and descended from the ark, he stepped into a destroyed and lonely world, the fate of mankind resting on his shoulders. His immediate response was to plant, yet instead of beginning the arduous task of building a better future, he grew a vineyard and drank away his sorrows and responsibilities. And quite frankly, I can’t say I blame him.
The path ahead is unclear and the pain on each side is enormous. The daily news reports a constant rise in terror attacks and extremism on both sides as Israelis and Palestinians become increasingly jaded, frustrated and pessimistic. Yet we have no choice but to move forward. Amid repetitive and uninspiring peace talks, perhaps now is the time to think outside the box and figure out how and where to plant the seeds that will enable us to enjoy a peaceful and secure shade in this beautiful land we all call home.