The Cedars of Israel

On Sunday, January 14th, we marked 100 days of our Jewish nightmare: 100 days since Oct 7. That same Sunday, 14 members of our Sutton Place Synagogue community embarked on an incredible mission with Jewish National Fund-USA to help Israel and her people in this hour of need. There is a lifetime of stories to tell from this short week, but I am grateful to be able to give you even a small glimpse of what we experienced.

Every Shabbat, we say Tzadik katamar yifrach, k’erez balebanon yisgeh. The Righteous shall flourish like a palm tree; they shall thrive like the Erez.

The original Erez, the strong cedar tree of Lebanon, was the building material of kings like David and Solomon and a high compliment to bestow upon the righteous. Today, I want to talk about the strength of the “Erez” of Israel.

On our first day volunteering, we were placed in the orchards of a moshav called Telamim, about 25 kilometers from Gaza, which was founded by Tunisian Jews. We were to harvest citrus. This may not sound critical, but it is of dire importance. Since Oct 7, 300,000 reservists have been called up, and thousands of foreign workers have returned home, meaning there are very few people to pick the fields. Many Israelis volunteer on farms, but it isn’t enough. The backlog creates major losses for the farmers and potential food shortages, and the trees won’t yield as much in future years if they aren’t picked now.  When we met our farmer, wouldn’t you know his name was Erez! He stood tall like the cedar and told us about his farm and how to pick the fruit. It was muddy and messy but satisfying work, and our group of 3 buses managed to harvest 10 tons of clementines and 3 tons of grapefruit, which we saw loaded onto trucks and headed to market.

The next day, we went to serve at Kibbutz Erez on the border with Gaza. We were so close that we could see the Erez crossing with our naked eyes and well past the security barrier into Gaza. Together with some of the kibbutz’s displaced residents, we rehabilitated their children’s park and play area, planted gardens, repainted play spaces, and mucked an entire field that was planted with grass the next day by two more of our buses. We heard about the heroism of the volunteer security team that, though outnumbered, held off Hamas until reinforcements arrived and sadly but miraculously only lost one member. 

Still, it is all so complicated, and so I will confuse our metaphor by bringing another teaching about the cedar. In the Talmud in the tractate of Ta’anit, we find L’olam yehey adam rach k’caneh v’al yehey kasheh k’erez: “A person should be bending as a reed and not as rigid as the Cedar.” 

I think this moment in Israel needs cedars who can stand tall and firm, but it also calls for the reed’s flexibility. We saw that everywhere we went. People have sprung into action from a place of flexibility. We visited the hostage square, which is organized by the foundation for the families of hostages, it was moving to see the tributes, devastating to meet the families, and terrifying to walk through a replica terror tunnel designed to put visitors in the shoes of the hostages. 

I saw flexibility in proud evacuees striving to keep their communities together. They dream of heading home when it is safe, but in the meantime, have rebuilt their community in a hotel, making do as they can. 

There is so much more to say, about the pain, the heroes, the pride. There is so much to say about the emotions the Israelis expressed: love and appreciation for us coming, concern for American Jews, and what we are experiencing as another front in the war. 

But for now, I will take comfort in our majestic cedars who stand tall on behalf of us all and manage to be as bending as the reed when it is to pick each other up.

About the Author
Rabbi Dave Levy serves as the inaugural director of The Block Center for Jewish Exploration and Education at Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City. He has devoted his career to making Judaism accessible and meaningful for Jewish seekers of all kinds, primarily youth and adolescents. He holds a BA in Political Science from Columbia University and a BA in Talmud from JTS. He received her Rabbinic Ordination from JTS in 2004, where he concurrently received his MA in Midrash.
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