Plant a tree before the end of the world

Little Josh arrives home from school and grandad wants to know what he’s learned.

“My teacher told me,” Josh proudly explains, “that, in a billion years from now, the Sun will fizzle and die.”

“What did you say?!” Grandad is bolt upright in his armchair. 

“I said,” Josh uses his “big” voice, “that, in a billion years from now, the Sun will fizzle and die.”

Grandad, flops back, relieved. “Oh, I thought you had said in a million years…”

Back in 1970, scientist and Nobel Laureate, Paul Ehrlich declared that “within 10 years,” hundreds of millions of people would starve to death. Denis Hayes, who spearheaded the original Earth Day, also in 1970, warned that: “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation.” 1970 was the year that Life Magazine predicted that “urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution” by 1980.

I’m glad I wasn’t around in 1970.

Then again, doomsayers are alive and kicking (without gas masks, I might add). They warn that we’re still toasting the planet, running out of drinking water, strangling the oceans and on the brink of a nuclear holocaust (the Doomsday Clock now sits on “two minutes to midnight).

Plus, __________ (insert the name of your country here) is definitely going to the dogs. Our food poisons our bodies, while our phones fry our brains.

Or, at least, that’s what the experts would have us believe.

Could they be right? Maybe. Could they be wrong? Possibly.

Jews are notorious worriers, yet Judaism shuns pessimism. Here’s a case in point. One of Judaism’s most central characters is our forefather Jacob. Jacob suffered throughout his life. His evil twin tried to kill him. His crooked father-in-law duped him into marrying the wrong girl, and made him pay for it. His daughter was abducted and raped. He spent two decades in mourning for his favourite son, who he believed had been mauled to death by a wild animal. Yet, Jacob is remembered as a symbol of optimism.

You’ll see this in the story of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary that the Jews erected for G-d at each rest-stop during their desert sojourn.

The Mishkan was made of wood. Tall acacia wood (shittim, in the biblical original).

Now, where do you find acacia wood in the desert?

You don’t.

Two centuries before the Exodus, Jacob had planted acacia trees in Egypt. He had foreseen that the Jews would one day need timber for the Tabernacle, so he prepared an acacia forest in Egypt.

Acacia trees grow fast. And they typically live only 30 years. Jacob’s plantation would have needed a lot of hand-me-down TLC over the 210 years of Egyptian slavery. It may have been more practical for Jacob to have left instructions for his great-grandchildren to plant those trees. He could have suggested that they buy wood from the nomadic traders they would encounter in the wilderness.

Instead, he personally started the project, and inspired his descendants to keep it alive. Jacob’s wasn’t a simple forestation project (I doubt he was concerned about Amazon deforestation and it was long before the JNF). His was a project of hope. He planted trees because G-d had promised that his descendants would one day leave Egypt. When those despairing slaves would see those trees, it would reignite hope that they would one day be free.

Scientists, political gurus and the media seed our minds with gloomy endgame scenarios. Jewish thinking insists that we live with hope. Some believe the world will end in flames. A Jew believes that the world will culminate in light.

We Jews have lived our whole collective life under the clouds of dire forecasts. Pharaoh, Haman, Titus, Torquemada and Stalin, each predicted either a physical or spiritual end to the Jews. We refused to cave, and continued to live in hope. Jews declared Shema Yisroel at the auto da fe and sang Ani Maamin in the gas chambers. We still insist that our story ends with Moshiach and a better world for all.

We re-plant acacias every day.

That’s why we’re still here — and will be all the way till the end.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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