Tu BiShvat and the Mystical Love of a Land for a People

The story of the regeneration of the Land of Israel – its soil and shrubs, plants and trees, flora and fruits, is one of the greatest stories of human accomplishment. An ecological marvel.

Indeed, two great American gentiles attest to that very fact – Mark Twain and Walter Clay Lowdermilk, a soil conservation expert. In 1867, 11 years before the first modern agricultural settlement in Palestine, Twain visited the Land and was deeply shaken by the great desolation:

“There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of worthless soil, had almost deserted the country. No landscape that exists that is more tiresome to the eye than that which bounds the approaches to Jerusalem…”[1]

About 70 years later, in 1939, Lowdermilk arrived in Palestine searching for soil and climates similar to the California Dust Bowl he was aiming to develop. Nothing prepared him for what he saw. A miracle wrought by the Jewish pioneers of Palestine who had little or no background in agriculture:

“Streams across the coastal plain would choke with erosional debris from the hills to form pestilential marshes infested with dreaded malaria… this state of decadence is not normal… rural Palestine is becoming less and less like Transjordan, Syria and Iraq and more like Denmark, Holland and part of the United States.”[2]

Lowdermilk was so impacted that he and his wife settled in Israel in the 1950s, contributed to the building of Israel’s national water carrier, and a Technion department is named after him. A true lover of Zion.

What would Lowdermilk say today? Israel has done the seemingly impossible – transforming a water-scarce country into an abundant oasis through cloud seeding, desalination, drip irrigation and water recycling; converting the once-barren soil into a lush fruit-yielding area despite the arid climate; changing a treeless country into forest-full landscapes by planting over 250 million trees over the last 120 years…

How can we explain this phenomenal transformation? The answer evidently lies less in the rational, physical realm, and more in the mystical and metaphysical.

The Torah repeatedly refers to the promise of the Land as “an everlasting possession.”[3] How can it be everlasting if we have spent so many long centuries outside it?

Rabbeinu Bechayei,[4] on that verse, answers: “This is a great sign for Israel that from the day they were exiled from it, no other nation has been able to inhabit and settle it, but it remains destroyed and desolate, until her fledglings return.”

There is a reciprocal relationship between the Jewish people and the Land; an inexplicable love affair between a people and a place, unparalleled in the annals of human history. Just as the Jewish people have never forgotten the Land, so somehow and almost mystically has the Land never abandoned its children. It remarkably has remained loyal, never allowing others to cultivate her soil and only coming alive once again with the return of the Jewish people to the Land.

Tu BiShvat is the time to celebrate that ongoing miracle.

I conclude with more Lowdermilk wisdom, written before the establishment of the State: “If we were interested in the regeneration of man, let all the righteous forces on earth support these settlements in Palestine as a wholesome example for the backward Near East, and indeed for all who seek to work out a permanent adjustment of people to their lands.”[5]

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[1] Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1868.

[2] The Promised Land, Lowdermilk, 1944.

[3] Genesis 17:8, as part of the covenant of Brit Mila (circumcision): “I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land of your sojournings, all the Land of Canaan for an everlasting possession and I will be your G-d.”

[4] Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, 1255-1340.

[5] See footnote 2.

***

A version of this article appears in Mizrachi’s HaMizrachi global publication for Tu BiShvat, with tens of thousands of copies distributed in hundreds of communities around the world and online – www.mizrachi.org/hamizrachi/

About the Author
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Chief Executive of the Mizrachi World Movement, a global Religious Zionist movement based in Jerusalem with many active branches around the world. He is an organizational leader, sought after international speaker and author.
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