Parshat Kedoshim, the second of the two parshiyot we read this Shabbat, is laden with mitzvot, some of them obvious, some less so. One, in particular, on the face of it, seems to be exclusively an agricultural ritual commandment, but in the hands of the rabbinic sages, it becomes a world transforming obligation. The Torah commands us: “And when you come to the land and plant (untatem) any fruit-bearing tree, you shall leave its fruit uncircumcised. Three years it shall be uncircumcised to you, it shall not be eaten. And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be sacred, a jubilation before the Lord. And in the fifth year you may eat of the fruit, that its yield may be increased for you.” (Leviticus 19:23-25) This commandment, know as the laws of Orlah, deals with the laws of nursling fruit trees and is a cornerstone, of Jewish agricultural law with its own tractate in the Mishnah and in the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael.
The following midrash does not focus on the laws of Orlah per say; instead, its emphasis is on a new found obligation found in the first verse – to plant (nun tet ayin) fruit trees. And since nothing is as inspiring as a story, the midrash recounts a (famous) anecdote: “Hadrian, the king (the Roman emperor), accompanied by his soldiers, was on his way to do battle against a rebellious state, when he came across an old man readying himself to plant a fig tree. Hadrian said to the man: ‘You are so old, so why are you bothering yourself to plant this tree for others?’ The old man replied to him: ‘My lord the king, I plant it and perhaps if I merit, I will eat of its fruit, but, if not, my children will eat from it. Hadrian made war for three years and returned. On his return, and after three years, he found the same old man at the very same place tending his tree. What was the old man doing? He was filling baskets with the luscious first fruits of the fig tree that he had planted and he presented a basket laden with to Hadrian. The old man said to the king: ‘My lord the king, accept these from your servant. I am the same old man that you met when you went out to war, and you said to me, you are so old, why do you trouble yourself for others? Behold, God has already merited me with eating the fruit from the tree that I have planted and these figs in this basket are your portion.’ Immediately, Hadrian said to his servants: ‘Take the basket from him and fill it with gold.’ They did as they were told and the old man took the basket filled with gold… [We earn from this story that] a person should not refrain from planting, but rather as one found [the land] filled with fruit trees, so one should go and plant even more trees, even when one gets old. Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Israel, learn from Me (God), that this is so, as it were, for it says [in the Torah]: ‘And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, to the east.’ (Genesis 2:8)” (adapted from Tanhuma Kedoshim 8)
The profound message of this story extends beyond just planting trees for the benefit of future generations. Its intention is to inspire us to think beyond ourselves and our own pleasures and conveniences — to be concerned with what we leave behind us for the well-being of future generations — ecologically, economically, socially — the list goes on. The old man truly had wisdom fit for a king and for us as well.