The acacia tree (etz hashita) is the signpost of the desert. Since the most important footpaths are the wadis, (dry stream beds) and the acacia trees grow on the banks of these wadis, an acacia is always a good indication of how to get from one place to another. More importantly, the acacia trees are the centerpiece of the local desert ecosystem. Three of the world’s 160 species of acacia thrive here in the Negev and Sinai, and sit at the local apex of plant life. The ibex (mountain goats) and the gazelles, the two large diurnal mammals, eat the leaves of the acacia tree; desert rodents eat the seed pods, their digestive juices removing the hulls so that the excreted seeds can germinate; and insects feed on the detritus that surrounds the trees. There is an entire species of air-borne plant called the acacia mistletoe (arnug hashita) whose seeds can not grow in the ground, but rather embed in the bark of the acacia and whose beautiful flowers provide the nectar for the Palestine sunbird. In short, a whole host of species rely on this little green island of sustenance in the desert.
In parshat teruma (Exodus 25:5), God instructs Moses to gather acacia wood for the building of the mishkan (tabernacle), the portable temple that the Children of Israel are to carry with them in the desert for 40 years. This choice of raw material is not surprising. In the Arava Desert and in the Sinai itself, acacias are ubiquitous, and it is the only tree that could be a resource for carpentry of any kind. But Rashi, the 11th century French sage, asks of that verse: “Where did they find acacia trees in the desert?” Rashi was a vintner, from France; he never saw a desert and imagined it to be an absolutely empty waste land. To answer his own question, Rashi weaves a legend about Jacob planting trees on his way down to Egypt 400 years earlier, in anticipation of the needs of his descendants.
But Rashi need not have asked the question. Anyone who hikes in the Arava knows that the acacia is the only available wood. It is sobering to consider that this great man, whose life was the Torah, whose world was the flora and fauna of the Land of Israel, the climate and agriculture of the Bible, never saw any of these things. He could not have known that acacias are everywhere in the desert, because he never set foot in the land. While Rashi was a greater scholar than any of us could ever hope to be, we all have one thing he did not, the ability to board an airplane, or a bus, or in my case to take a walk behind my kibbutz, and see the deserts that Moses walked in, the acacia trees that Betzalel ben Uri fashioned into the mishkan, and the sunrises and sunsets that greeted the children of Israel for 40 years.
The fact that the acacia survives here in the Arava is a miracle in and of itself. Our average yearly rainfall is about one inch. Sometimes a year passes without any precipitation at all. The occasional winter flood awakens small annual flowers that bloom for a few weeks and then leave their seeds to wait, often for years, for the next flood. But the acacia stands guard year round on the banks of each wadi, green and upright, like a silent witness to history.
In the middle of Kibbutz Ketura’s experimental orchard is a 900 year-old acacia tree. It was a mere twig peaking above the sand when Rashi was writing his final commentaries. This tree was not here when Moses and the children of Israel camped down the road at the oasis of Yotvata, nor when the Romans built their fortress opposite that oasis. But our acacia was here when the Crusaders hiked down to Coral Island just south of Eilat, and when the Mamelukes came up from Egypt to conquer the land from the Crusaders. During all these years, the old acacia survived the onslaughts of nature, as Rashi’s legend of the acacia survived centuries of Jewish wandering. And now the acacia is, once again, our sign post for hiking through the wadis, our thorny green traffic signal, just as it was for our ancestors wandering in the desert over 3,000 years ago.