South Africa has very rare trees and cactuses, plants of all sorts, ancient, antique, remote and splendid, huge, immense, high, tremendously “pragtig, mooi / wonderful”. Just as we have them in Israel, the ancient times spread from the coast and reached the Middle East. A kind of phlegmatic nonchalance that can listen to the noises of the earth, of the soil, as dust and sand of bushes and small woods are covered with much history that tracks back to the cradle of all civilization. When humans somewhere mutated from fish to apes, (Afrikaans: apies), they turned into some inmates with social life and brains, souls, and language.
There are a lot of trees in South Africa and they developed in small bushes and woods or forests. We have no forests in Israel. We were used as members of the Yiddishkayt/Jewishness of the East to cross and even dwell in immense forests in Russia! I remember that when I crossed Ukraine and Belarus from Kyev to Chernobyl and then to Minsk, whitened trees over miles of damaged areas, trees that got white and “lanky”. As trees as like humans in the Biblical and Talmudic traditions, they looked baldheaded. They are threatened again with fires and nuclear attacks and blows.
Psalm 1:2 underscores the role of trees as the image of the fruitful body and the soul of a human being and a Jew, a believer who trusts in God and in whom God can trust and entrust the beauty of creation. “The man who scans meditates and studies” the Law of the Lord, i.e. the man who is like a cow that ruminates God’s Word and thinks of It, reflects on It, (Hebrew: “yehgeh/יהגה”. It sounds sweet in Afrikaans: “Soos ‘n koei wat herkou…, (zoals een koe, die herkauwt (Dutch))”, which just corresponds to our love for chewing. But most of the trees and plants have thorns down there! Just as we have so many in the Holy Land. In English and Afrikaans, the word for “tree” can be either “bos” or “boom (Germ. Baum)” which is comparable to “bush” and “tree” in the local description of the landscape and nature.
One tree is definitely striking! It is called in English “Buffalo Thorn Tree” and traces back to the Latin “Ziziphus mucronata” which came from the Greek “Ziziphos”. The word is not Indo-European at all, it is rooted in the Semitic languages that haunted old the coasts of the Mediterranean and down through Zanzibar to the South and the Arabs. “Zizûf” exists in Arabic and corresponds to the radical name that primarily might be misunderstood by some Westerners.
Afrikaans has a very special name for the tree: “Wag ‘nbietjiebos – Wag ‘nbietjieboom”. It is very clear and quite amazing. It means: “Wait A Little Bit Tree”. It is full of thorns everywhere; very green with some fruit, and it definitely looks nice and appealing, charming, but it has a lot of thorns. The word “Zizuf” does not exist in Aramaic or in Hebrew and is not mentioned in the Talmud.
On the other hand, the tree is well-known in the Middle East and in particular in the Holy Land and Eretz Israel: we have such a tree with thorns, not exactly the same. But, according to the Christian tradition, the Thorns that were put as a crown on Jesus’ head came from the same “Ziziphus micronata, Buffalo-Thorn Tree” and thus from a “Wag ‘nbiejtiebos” sort of tree. It is evident that the local thorns and those of the Southern African bush tree have been compared and somehow identified as being of very close species. It is amazing in our context.
In 1938, Albert Einstein, questioned the possibility of a Jewish State, was a bit suspicious, and prevented the Jews should carefully handle such a project in order to work together. They are used to working in other countries and various cultures, but not to building up their own “self-identity country”. He then added that, if God willing there would be a very special and unexpected reason for the creation of a Jewish State, i.e. in order to provide the Jews with a sheltered homeland, yes, it would make sense and the dream may come to be true. He said: “Tolerance (patience) and wisdom” which in his mother tongue was “Geduld und Weisheit”.The words are everywhere in Israel. “Todah al hasavlanut/תודה על הסבלנות = thanks for being patient”, “savlanut/סבלנות = patience” is being discussed night and day and at every minute in the country and the area, both by the Hebrew-speakers and the Arabs or any other ethnicity. It is our national “must, duty, plight, obedience, awareness”. Sovlenut/סובלנות means “tolerance” and is a major matter these days.
But the amusing part is that there is a tree, a bush-tree, full of thorns that, in the Christian faith, reminds us that we need to wait with much patience and decency for the Second Coming of Jesus, in glory, just as the Jews expect with much patience the coming of the Messiah Ben David, Son of David as stated in Talmud Sukka 52b. The local Christians say that the same tree was to be found at the Monastery of the Cross and would have been used for the Crown given to Jesus by the Roman soldiers to mock him. Patience: the word is always connected to “suffering, and “pathos”” in Western cultures as it is also in “sevel/סבל” in Hebrew.
The thorns, as our trees or cactuses, have more: they protect against violence and abuse. Once the thorns are removed, the bush trees are soft and mild, tender, just like the famous “sabra, local desert cactus, also the name for the Israeli youths”. Some youths are maybe lost or confused these days, as teens or just-after-teens and post-adolescents can be when they only met with thorns or fences. Patience becomes then a tremendous fight against framing ourselves; the others that did not share such an experience and cannot be patient because as we say in English “I can’t wait” that curiously also can be Afrikaans “Ek kan nie wag nie!”. We do not live in cultures that are fed with history. Short-sighted about our past, even 75 years ago from Auschwitz to Hiroshima. “There are times and delays = “yesh item uzmanim/יש עיתים וזמנים” as stated in Kohelet/the Book of Proverbs.
“When you have suffered just a little bit, I shall reinstall you…” is a keyword that complies with the Talmud thought and makes sense in Jerusalem and the Land. There is a tree, and if the psalmist says we are like trees, we may have to behave like the Ziziphus, i.e. like the Wag ‘nbiejtiebos.
A survivor of the Ghetto of Vilno, the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever journeyed through Africa, describing nature, the landscapes, and the animals. His Poems from Africa (From Elephants By Night/פון אךפאנטן ביי נאכט) express how he felt the true sense of patience and tolerance. Just the way we continue to live.