Mordechai Silverstein

The Future Also Belongs to Us

Parshat Kedoshim presents us with a panoply of mitzvot covering all aspects of life, including agricultural law. Among the agricultural laws, most are of a socio-economic nature, attempting to create a safety net for the needy. The laws of Orlah stand out as purely religious and ritual in nature:

And when you come to the land and plant 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 of its fruit shall be sacred, a jubilation to the Lord. And in the fifth year you may eat its fruit, that its yield may be increased for you. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:23-25)

In practice, this law means that for the first three years after planting, one is prohibited to eat any fruit produced by the fruit-tree. When the Temple existed, any fruit produced in the fourth year would be brought to Jerusalem to be eaten in a state of holiness and from the fifth year on, the trees’ owners were free to use the fruit as they saw fit. Some biblical historians speculate that in ancient times there may have been some sort of first-fruits thanksgiving ceremony in Jerusalem celebrating the fruit of the fourth year. The laws of Orlah are one of two agricultural mitzvot which apply both inside and outside of Israel to this day. (Kilayim – the prohibition of mixed species being the other.)

The following midrash, though, focuses on the beginning of the verse, seeing in it an imperative to live and act, thinking beyond one’s own personal needs and those of the generation in which one lives:

When you come into the land and plant. (Lev. 19:23) – The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Even though you find it (the land) full of abundance, you shall not say, ‘There is no need to plant.’ Rather, take care to plant, as it says: ‘and plant any tree for food.’ (Ibid.) Just as you came in and found plantings which others have planted, so, too, you should plant for your children (those after you). A person should not say: ‘Since I am old, how many more years will I live. Why should I toil for others, for tomorrow I shall die?’…

There is a story about the emperor Hadrian; that he was going to war with his troops to fight with a certain country for having rebelled against him. He found an old man, on the way, who was planting fig saplings. Hadrian said to him: ‘You are old, yet you stand, busying yourself, toiling for others?’ The old man replied to him: ‘My lord the king, here I am planting. If I merit, I shall eat of the fruit of my saplings; but if not, my children will eat.’ [Hadrian] spent three years at war, and then returned. After three years, he found the old man in the same place. What did the old man do? He took a basket and filled it with the first fruits of beautiful figs, and drew near to Hadrian. He said to him: ‘My lord the king, accept [these figs] from your servant, for I am the old man whom you found when you were on your way, and you said to me: ‘You are old; why are you troubling yourself toiling for others?’ Behold, the Holy One, blessed be He, has already merited me to eat some fruit from my saplings. And these in my basket are your portion.’ Immediately, Hadrian said to his servants: ‘Take it from him and fill it with gold coins.’ And they did so. The old man took the basket full of gold coins and began to go about his house, boasting in his house to his wife and children. So, he told them the story. (Adapted from Tanhuma Kedoshim 8)

The message of this story is plain to see. It is Jewishly inappropriate to think only of our own narrow concerns without thought and actions for those who come after us. This applies not only to us on a personal level. It also applies to the world’s resources and the state of the world as a whole. It applies to how we live, how our families, our communities, our nations and the world. For all things, we need to keep the future in mind. It took an insightful old man to teach this lesson to a world leader. Hopefully, he will have the same impact on us.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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